That, saying—“SMILE, GOD LOVES YOU!”—was on a little green placard that I taped on the air vent above the front window of my old Volkswagen van. It may sound like a trite expression today, but 50 years ago it was one of the most important lifelines from God in my life. 

In the late 1960s I was a desperate soul who had turned to drugs and the illusions of the hippie movement in a search for healing and meaning in life. 

And then I met Jesus. I had a dramatic conversion, putting down drugs and beginning to smile. Because in meeting Jesus, I knew that God loved me. And I could smile, because there was hope in life.

There’s an exciting event coming to Talbot/Biola in the next few weeks that memorializes the events of those times—Ablaze Conference! It’s a celebration of the Jesus People Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time when God’s Spirit moved mightily around the world to bring thousands, if not millions, to Jesus.

I’m especially excited about this event because it brings back a ton of personal memories. 

I returned from fighting in the war in Vietnam in 1969. I had fought with the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade in some fierce battles, and I returned as a broken, lost young man. I quickly became immersed in the drug culture of the hippie movement, and spiraled deeply into a lost soul. 

But a little more than a year after I returned I was surrounded by a whole group of people who had one thing in common—they had been transformed by Jesus. They shared their love from Jesus with me over the course of several months, and early in 1971 I opened my life to Jesus and experienced the same life-transforming love of Jesus. I put down drugs and began to experience healing deep in my heart, and soul, and mind, and memories.

I met a young lady, Lynne, from our group. We started a Bible study for high schoolers. None of the young people were believers, but within a few months most of them had asked Jesus into their lives. We formed a little group of young people who traveled around—all crammed into our old Volkswagen van—and sang at churches and gatherings of new believers like us.

It was a remarkable time in our lives, and later we would come to discover it was a remarkable time in history. It would later be known as the Jesus People Movement. I like to refer to it as the Jesus Freak movement, because many of us had become disillusioned with the hippie movement, and had been so transformed by Jesus and the Spirit of God that we were totally consumed with life with Jesus.

That young lady, Lynne, and I got married about a year later. We celebrate our 50th anniversary this year. The first years of our marriage were difficult, because I still carried so much baggage from my old life. And we were primarily around other Jesus freaks, with not many mature believers who could help us. But Jesus was faithful, and he has been at the foundation of our lives and at the center of our marriage and family for these last wonderful 50 years.

As we think back on the past fifty years since our time in the Jesus Movement and the transforming power of the Spirit that we have experienced and seen at work, a few things stand out.

1. Our Desperation was Jesus’s Opportunity

We were all at desperate places in our lives. The idealism of the 1960’s had turned out to be bankrupt. But in our desperation Jesus reached out to bring healing and hope for a new life. Several of the people in our little group had even tried to commit suicide—such was the desperation that we experienced. But our desperation was Jesus’s opportunity to bring healing and hope as we responded to the good news of the gospel.

2. A True Life with Jesus is All or Nothing 

I remember at one point as I was hearing the gospel message that I told myself that if this message of Jesus was really true, then it was all or nothing. I didn’t need religion, I needed reality. So, if I asked Jesus into my life, it was all or nothing. And that approach toward life—whether in our marriage, or my personal walk with Jesus, or in my teaching, or whatever—is the way that life with Jesus carries the most meaning.

3. Momentary Excitement requires Lifelong Transformation 

During those days of my deepest downward spiral I was heavily into acid rock groups. I had over 500 acid rock albums of singers and groups like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues, and on and on. 

Then came the tragic deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. All at 27 years old. If these rock stars—to me heroes—could die so tragically, what was the hope for my desperation?

But one of the wonderful sidelights of the Jesus People Movement was the surfacing of Christian rock bands like Love Song, Petra, Larry Norman, Keith Green, Mustard Seed Faith, and many more. It was an exciting time with these musicians speaking into our lives and declaring the transformation that Jesus offered and they had experienced. They didn’t try to be stars or heroes, they simply sang and played about Jesus. A wonderful part of the Ablaze Conference is a concert with some of them: The Salt Company, The Second Chapter of Acts, and Love Song.

These groups were part of the excitement of the early Jesus Movement. But perhaps even more importantly is their lifelong transformation to which they witness in the present. Their lifelong transformation is truly what the Jesus People Movement is all about. “Smile, God loves you!”

Learn more about Ablaze Conference. Register for the conference here.

Written by Michael J. Wilkins. Michael J. Wilkins is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament Language and Literature and former Dean of the Faculty at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University where he taught for 43 years.