A Pre-History of the San Francisco Revival

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“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” – Matthew 26:13 (NLT)

April 1st, 2024 A.D.

By now, one-quarter of the way through the 21st century, almost everyone has heard of the San Francisco Revival.  While skeptics question its longevity — and theologians its validity — there is no denying the impact it has had on the city and the region: the eradication of homelessness, conversion of red light districts into family neighborhoods, stadiums full of young people dedicated their lives to Jesus, legions of techies quitting their VC-backed startups to pursue social entrepreneurship, etc.

There has also been endless coverage both lauding and critiquing the organizations responsible for shepherding and publicizing the Revival: YWAM SF, TBC, and of course Harvest Evangelism.  Regardless of how you feel about their methods, you have to admire those organizations for having the foresight and courage to invest in the region and move quickly to capitalize on this strange phenomenon, despite the enormous risks.

Yet there is another, deeper story that still hasn’t been told. Unlike the general public, scholars are well aware that the revival first started in the South Bay before spreading up the Peninsula to San Francisco and beyond.  But even most of them are unaware of how it all began.

Allow me to explain.

Of course, any move of God — or social phenomena, if you don’t believe in God — is fed by many streams.  But for my money, the San Francisco Revival began on Sunday, January 24th, 2016 at a small church meeting at a community center in Campbell.  The name of the church is unimportant, it having long since metastasized into a diffuse coalition of church planting movements in order to handle the influx from the revival. However, if you want to understand the real cause of the revival, it is important to understand how it began.

This church was the typical small, non-denominational church you’ve never heard of. It did not have a famous pastor who wrote books or preached to millions over the airwaves.  In fact, it did not really have a full-time pastor. The previous pastor was retiring, and had sent out two campuses under young, part-time preachers, including the schoolteacher at this community center who had just started a series on discipleship. They had grand visions of launching a church planting movement, but due to limited growth and financial challenges it was unclear whether that dream would survive.

Sunday morning started out like every other Sunday, with worship led by a young man who later went on to fame and fortune with an indie rock band.  As this was a charismatic church, founded out of the Jesus People movement in the 1970’s, they always had time after worship for individuals to share testimonies, Bible passages, or “words from God” that had been spoken to them during the preceding week.

The sharing started out auspiciously.  One grandmother shared how she was so thankful to God for reconciling her children to her during her bout with cancer.  A single mother, new to church, shared how grateful she was to be part of the community.

And then it happened.

Revival is a strange thing. Many Christians, especially those from evangelical or charismatic traditions, consider it their duty to pray for revival.  There are numerous parachurch and meta-church organizations who are explicitly pursuing revival.  Yet even while they focus on church unity and community service, they studiously ignore the one essential ingredient universally acknowledged to be a harbinger of revival.

Public confession of sin.

It wasn’t even a particularly dramatic or detailed confession.  A young lady who was part of the newly formed college group simply stood up and shared how grateful she was to be there that day, even though she felt so unworthy to even come to church.

One lady immediately went up to pray for her, pointing out that all of us were equally unworthy to be part of the Kingdom.  Another greeted her when she came to sit down, and spent most of the service praying for her.  Others sought her out afterwards, or met with her during the week to pray for healing.

This may seem a small thing, especially given everything that has happened since.  But it is critical that you understand how courageous an act this was for everyone involved. At the time, in churches across America, it was only acceptable to admit sin in the past tense.  Young preachers were diligently trained to never admit weakness, in order to preserve the authority of the pulpit.  Being sinful was routinely hushed up or glossed over; publicly talking about being sinful was met with severe sanctions or removal from positions of leadership.

It is also important to understand the context in which this happened. The college group had been launched — under protest! — by a middle-aged technician who saw himself as a failure.  He had been praying for revival for years, but after numerous crushing disappointments was barely able to muster enough faith to ask God to work among the young adults in his fledgling group.

That isn’t to say everyone had given up on revival.  The intercessors at that church had actually experience a mini-revival back in April 2015, characterized by deep repentance and a hunger for holiness in response to the long-running California drought.  There were prophecies of a “cleansing wind” flowing through the body of Christ, which seemed only partly fulfilled that October during Harvest’s first conference in San Jose.  But nothing that looked like a widespread renewal in the body of Christ, must less the revival that turned San Francisco upside down and reverberated to the ends of the earth.

The names and details of those faithful few may be lost to history forever.  The aged intercessor who turned into an unbreakable wedge. His daughter, whose body became a living sacrifice.  The loving mother whose wayward children broke her heart.  The stoic administrator whose heart turned to clay. The failed entrepreneur who never stopped dreaming of building the Kingdom of God.

They prayed, they wept, they confessed. And nothing seemed to happen.  Yet somehow, one quiet Sunday in January, a brave young woman stood in utter vulnerability, and something broke in the heavens.

And the world has never been the same.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world,things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. — 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 (NLT)

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