Until Kevin Galey "found Jesus" at age 19, he had searched vainly for love, recognition and relief from the memories of an unhappy childhood.

"My dad would come in at night and thrash my brother with a belt, or lock him up in a closet," Kevin says. When Kevin was 5 his father left home for good.

"Me and my brother vowed if we ever saw him we'd kill him, no questions asked. I hated my dad with a passion."

At high school Kevin got straight As, became captain of the football team and took up body building. But he lacked "acceptance and love."

Still searching for a milieu that would live up to his hopes, he and a buddy headed west for the body-building gyms of Los Angeles.

"We found these guys engaged in homosexual acts, taking pictures of themselves, and on drugs constantly, tense and nervous, having to look for jobs in nightclubs and having to stay in touch with the new pills coming out, the new fads, the steroids. They were nervous wrecks."

And so when Kevin finally felt the presence of Jesus as he stood next to the casket of his dead, beloved grandfather, he was ready to accept Him.

Kevin, now an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, has been born again. With the help of Jesus and a family counseling service for young Christians, he has found "a whole new love for my dad."

And he has found fellowship and support in the Alpha Omega Ministries for Christ, a campus group whose members oppose abortion, pornography, the Equal Rights Amendment and state aid to nursery schools for working mothers.

Liberals who waged the fight for women's rights and sexual toleration in the 1960s and 1970s react suspiciously toward the political activism of the Christian Right, but they may be missing the significance of this phenomenon. The search for spiritual contentment, belonging and purpose in a materialistic world is one of the hallmarks of today's youth.

In an age when they are skeptical of other institutions, from government to the family, young people are also searching for believable authority. For some the search leads to Jesus, or to a non-traditional religious group.

For others it leads to mysticism, jogging, martial arts or a self-help group.

Youthful interest in the Jesus movement is not an isolated development, for it reflects other currents flowing through the youth culture.

While many young people are growing up happy and satisfied with themselves and their lives, others experience anxiety. They feel caught up in a bureaucratic educational system that rewards achievement but does not care about their emotional growth.

Others find the personal freedoms won in the '60s difficult to handle. Still more feel that the authority of the family, organized religion, government and schools has broken down and left kids to fend for themselves in a chaotic world that provides little guidance or discipline.

"We need someone to take control."

That sentiment, expressed by a 19-year-old woman from Cleveland, runs deep in this generation.

"There is so much freedom, and so little guidance."

These are common threads in the disparate groups that attract youth, from Jesus to Tae Kwon Do. They provide structure, challenges that seem real and immediate, discipline, community and a sense of being in personal control of at least one small corner of one's life.

"What we're seeing today in the U.S. is a disconnection between the individual and the family unit," says Kevin. "When someone's not being loved he'll reach out. Drugs and alcohol are what they get into. But what they're really looking for is acceptance, love and purpose.

"I think today what you're seeing is the increase in the pinnacle of people who are coming together looking for the answer to life. We've accumulated more knowledge in the last 20 years than in all history. But people are not finding the answer in knowledge. They're not finding it in booze, sex or drugs.

"They are finding some kind of satisfaction in spiritual things."

For Debbie Till, the Alpha Omega group has been a haven from the chaos she has felt in her family. She believes that "Jesus kept my father from being crushed under the weight of his problems."

"When I was in the fourth grade my sister was starting to date and I found myself waking up at 1 or 2 in the morning to tears and arguing back and forth between my dad and my sister. My sister would be saying, 'It's my right to do it.'

"She had met this guy who was into drugs. He had his own apartment and these wild friends who rode motorcycles and popped 'wheelies.' Eventually this guy came home and told my dad he'd brought my sister up the wrong way and now he wanted to marry her. And here's my dad who'd worked real hard and supplied everything he could for his family, a good home. But he finally agreed.

"My sister was 16 and they went off and got married. Everything we sent them went right to him and she finally got divorced and remarried. My dad was under a lot of pressure and didn't do too well at work--they finally showed us the bills.

"Emotionally we've never been the same, but the Lord is trying to bring us together."

Clay Harris, 25, is the leader of the Alpha Omega group which meets at the Annandale Baptist Church just outside of Austin. A University of Texas graduate, Clay came from a strong Methodist home and had never drunk alcohol, let alone tried drugs, when he arrived at college at 17.

He quickly developed a "heavy dependence on marijuana," and experimented with LSD. He was "seeking whatever the greatest thrill was," but was "going through life awful scared" until he began to go to church seminars.

Now he leads the youth group at the University of Texas in his spare time. What he gets back is a sense of purpose and direction.

Steve McGregor describes himself as very ambitious while he was at high school, caught up in the "success ethic." He was a "hotshot saxophonist," vice president of the French club and popular with girls.

He dreamed of attending West Point and felt he would succced after Rep. J.J. (Jake) Pickle (D-Tex.) nominated him. When his application was rejected because of a minor hearing problem he felt stunned and angry.

"I started blaming God, but as I began to draw close to Him I read his words and let Him speak to me through his words, and He began showing me verses of encouragement."

As a missionary for Christ, Steve feels he has learned to accept himself but also to concentrate his energies and realize his potential. He says he came to see that God intended for him to attend Baylor University and learn accounting and finance.

"My sense of satisfaction came from knowing I was doing what God wanted me to do," he says.

Today nearly one of three college freshmen describes himself or herself as a reborn Christian, according to a 1979 survey by the American Council on Education and UCLA. One of 20 freshmen is a member of some non-traditional religious group, even as their participation in organized religion has been dropping off.

"They freshmen are a group for which both drinking and praying are growth industries," writes Arthur Levine in his study of college freshmen, "When Dreams and Heroes Died."

"Increased competition in the classroom is paralleled by increased competition on the playing field," Levine continues. "Escapism and searching are inseparably intertwined. One person's escape is another's haven at the end of a long search. Health and religious movements confirm their indivisibility."

In the aftermath of the youth movement of the late '60s, youth culture fell into a period of confusion. Young "acid freaks" swore off drugs and turned to an array of extremist cults and sects.

This seemed confusing to the outside world but made sense from the point of view of young people cast adrift and searching for new forms of discipline and guidance.

It was this period that gave rise to an array of seemingly bizarre groups: the saffron-robed Hari Krishnas, the followers of the Guru Maharaj Ji, the Rev. Jim Jones' socialist Peoples Temple in Guyana, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and hundreds of others.

But as these groups have faded from headlines, a new generation of young Americans is turning to the Jesus movement and to a variety of others: Zen meditation ashrams, est, Alateen, martial arts and hundreds of self-help groups.

Members of the Alpha Omega Ministries emphatically deny there is any similarity between them and the followers of any of those other organizations. And those other groups deny any spiritual kinship with the Jesus movement. But there are common elements.

Self-discipline is a central focus of all of them.

Far from encouraging members to withdraw from the world and submit to the will of a spiritual leader, these organizations encourage involvement with the world.

They promise to make their converts function better in their families, schools or work, in effect, to get control of their lives in a confusing world and live a life up to their fullest human potential.

In that respect, they are no threat to the "system" as the counterculture was. In fact, they seem in tune with the ethic of work and productivity that is the mainstream of American values.

Joseph Buga, a spokesman for the SYDA Foundation which supervises a nationwide network of meditation centers on behalf of Indian visionary Swami Muktananda, says the meditative experience appeals especially to highly motivated professional people and their children. The SYDA Foundation center at South Fallsbury, N.Y., draws lawyers, professors and actors from all over the country.

"I feel I'm getting strong and stable inside," says Jessica Farrar, 18, who dropped out of a Manhattan private school to study with Swami Muktananda. "Later this will help when I get married and have a job. I feel lucky that I've been given this tool."

At the same time, these groups seem to be filling a variety of emotional voids in the lives of young Americans.

The spread of a vast, well-to-do middle class in the years after World War II satisfied material needs. But it left the children of this middle class free to try to fulfill what psychologist Abraham Maslow calls "higher order needs"--the need for the emotional development and love needed for full self-esteem.

But schools and families often seem unable to fulfill these needs and the political outlets available to the "Woodstock generation" are no longer there.

The Christian Right and other spiritual groups provide discipline, order and a set of traditional moral and sexual values that are an alternative to those of the sexual revolution.

Meditation groups provide tranquility in a confusing world, through discovery of the inner self.

And self-help and self-improvement organizations provide new kinds of communities that cut across lines of class and professional associations and tell members: "you can make a difference; you can get control of your own life in a complicated world."

Rodeny Battiste, a black belt instructor at Jhoon Rhee's Tae Kwon Do school of martial arts in Washington talks about the impact of karate on the attitudes and self-esteem of young people:

"Someone who has mastered karate is really saying, 'I can.' You take an introverted kid and suddenly he's a black belt. He goes into his classroom and no longer is the teacher asking him to read and he has his nose in his book.

"He's up on his feet talking in a loud clear voice. He just takes over. The confidence is there."

Meanwhile, college bookstores now have whole sections on the literature of self-help.

All of this is related to what has been happening in American society.

Between 1950 and 1978, the suicide rate for whites between 15 and 24 rose from 4.7 per 100,000 to 13. The sharpest rise was for white males in this age group, from 6.5 to 20 per 100,000. Nearly 5,000 children and young adults under 18 took their lives in 1978.

A San Franciscan who "deprograms" Moonies attempting to return to mainstream society estimates that one of five have had a drug problem and two of three are children of divorced parents.

He describes the average young follower of Moon as "a middle class kid in transition, just out of school or college, usually well-meaning and socially concerned, but not street-wise."

Although rising rates of teen-age pregnancy (from 9 percent in 1971 to 16 percent in 1979) have been attributed to everything from moral decay to poor parenting, some see another explanation.

Public health officials say the majority of these pregnancies are the result of mistakes or ignorance, but some may be rooted in a desperate need to give and receive love.

"I wanted someone to love, who I could take care of and who would love me," said one teen-ager of her illegitimate child.

Chicago psychologist Eric Ostrov, co-author of a just-published book called "The Adolescent," says research in middle-class suburbs has found that girls between 16 and 19 are more inclined to say they feel "ugly and unattractive" than they were in the early '60s, before the sexual revolution began. They also were more likely to report "negative moods."

Ostrov speculates that pressures on women to be both feminine and to compete with men may be involved.

Other research suggests that television may sharpen the dilemma of young women.

Researchers at the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia found that young women who watch a lot of television over an extended period aspire to higher level jobs than those who watch less.

The researchers speculate that they are responding to the world they see on television, one populated mainly by professional people. But these same young women also want larger families, perhaps because women are overwhelmingly portrayed on television as playing "traditional" female roles.

For teen-agers going through personal or emotional crises, groups in which each individual has a commitment of concern for the others has a powerful appeal. In these groups people are encouraged to "feel themselves" rather than work hard to protect themselves from being known.

"In here there's no falseness. It's all just what you feel," says Amy Young, member of a Unitarian Church youth group in Prince George's County.

Another member, Charles Shields, adds that at school and in the community "you have to be constantly putting up an act or something. Nobody can be totally open. Coming in here cleans you out a little. You grow."

Still another member, Linda Barnum, feels the group helped pull her through her parents' divorce.

"When the divorce hit I was on my way up the social ladder at school. Then pow! I felt like I was completely ostracized, that nobody would talk to me. Probably it was all in my head. But I felt I was all alone at school.

"But I'd come in here and feel like I had something to fall back on, that I was accepted."

Some teen-agers are not so fortunate.

Stephanie B. is a 20-year-old Californian who has wandered through five religious communes since she had left home three years earlier.

In the course of that journey she has met "people from all walks of life: halfway houses, coffee shops and bikers." She stayed in one commune where "they had this belief that you'd meet someone from your sign and marry that person and undergo celibacy for three months. I stayed three days."

Stephanie's search has taken her to the California Conservation Corps, whose members live an austere life in mountain campsites when they are not fighting forest fires or floods.

"I'm not going to stick to any one thing," says Stephanie. "I'm so open-minded I'll accept the people who believe in UFOs, psychic phenomenon and so on. But I like it in the 'Cs'.

"Discipline can become a spiritual experience. It requires discipline to communicate with God, to look into your beliefs. The exercise, the atmosphere!

"Something happens to people when they come here. I think most people probably find themselves." NEXT: Minorities and mainstream