Five Lessons from the Jesus Movement

What can we learn from the Jesus Revolution film to inform our practice and prayers for revival today?

Never before have I started crying within the first 30 seconds of a movie. As the opening scene of Jesus Revolution revealed the sandy and rocky path over the ridge to Pirate’s Cove, on the west end of Corona Del Mar State Beach, my memory was instantly taken back almost five decades.  I clearly remembered scrambling over those same smooth boulders, sand in my toes, anxious to get up to the summit where I could see the hundreds of other young people gathered around that calm bay, preparing to meet the Lord in baptism!

Filming much of the movie on location in Southern California was absolutely necessary at one level, but also presented the challenge that you can never completely reproduce on film, something which was so vivid and so powerful in so many people’s lives, yet the movie came very close to succeeding in that effort.

I was a 16-year-old teenager, growing up in Los Angeles County who was invited by some older kids to come with them to Calvary Chapel, about a 30-minute drive southeast in Orange County. It was 1972 and I had just had a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit through a small home fellowship of other “Jesus Freaks,” and, as a young musician myself, was just starting to learn about these new bands that were leading worship at Calvary Chapel.  

As much as I try to recall, there are only a few images in my memory of that first night at Calvary Chapel. But I do recall a skinny hippie, Lonnie Frisbee, holding his Bible and inviting people to the front to both receive Christ and to encounter the Spirit of God. I recall so many people flooding the front of the church, including some who clearly were high on drugs and I saw a powerful move of the Holy Spirit on them that night.

A few years later, my girlfriend Linda (who later became my wife) and I were baptized by Pastor Chuck Smith in Pirate’s Cove. In 1979, I became an Associate Pastor at a growing Southern California “mega-church” in LA County, Calvary Chapel Downey, where Pastor Jeff Johnson was also leading baptism services at Pirate’s Cove. Over the next several years, I led worship there on the shoreline, and also baptized hundreds of new believers in that same spot.

Our personal ministry journey then led us to Denver to serve with Pastor Tom Stipe, from the early Calvary Chapel “tent” days. Back in the early 70’s, I regularly went to that same “tent” portrayed in the movie, for the Saturday night evangelistic Jesus “rock” concerts, where Tom was the evangelist every Saturday night. In 1976, he moved to Denver, where he was pastoring a rapidly growing “Jesus Movement” church, which then became one of the early “Vineyard” congregations and in 1982, we moved to Denver where I joined his pastoral staff.  Pastor Tom went home with the Lord in December 2020 and I had the privilege of being one of the speakers at his memorial service, along with Greg Laurie, and a number of those early leaders and musicians in the Jesus Movement. Here are a few lessons we can learn from this remarkable outpouring of the Spirit.

1.  Spiritual revivals often occur within specific cultural circumstances which are rarely reproducible.

The “Jesus Movement” organically happened within a major cultural event, the counter-culture/hippie movement of the late 60’s and 70’s. Young people began to reject their parents’ norms, choosing a completely alternative and “counter” lifestyle in a street culture. As they embraced drugs, “free love,” rock n’ roll, while at the same time, opposing the Vietnam war, these young people were looking for love in all the wrong places.

Cultural anthropology tells us that language acquisition is the most important aspect of cross-cultural communication.  While we can chuckle at some of the fashion and language of the 70’s, the shared identity that came with the slang, the clothing, the music, and the legitimate frustration and anger toward the “establishment,” all brought the clash of cultures to a predictable collision.

Hippie preacher Lonnie Frisbee spoke the language of this new counter-culture and Pastor Chuck Smith was willing to try to understand it. As a young adult, I sat under Pastor Chuck’s ministry and teaching for several years. We all respected the ways in which Chuck never tried to look like us, yet his love for us and his willingness to be our pastor were so evident. (Early on, Pastor Chuck would continue to wear a coat and tie for Sunday morning services, while dressing casual on Sunday night (which meant wearing a sport coat over a turtleneck sweater). That was as counter-culture as he could dress at that time!

The history of modern revivals in the past 200 years demonstrates how the Spirit of God often landed upon social and cultural people movements that were already exploding on the scene. The extraordinary difficulties of western expansion in the early 1800’s gave way to the Cane Ridge Revival in rural Kentucky. The Welsh miner’s movement to organize and protest unsafe work conditions back in the late 19th and early 20th century provided fertile ground for the Welsh Revival. And, near to the heart of modern Charismatic and Pentecostal believers, the social and racial inequities of the early 1900’s gave birth to the Azusa Street Revival, where non-segregated worship preceded any social or legal efforts to abolish racial segregation.

My father grew up during the Great Depression in Los Angeles. His aunt attended Angeles Temple and as a 10-year-old boy, he recalled to me visiting Angeles Temple and seeing Aimee Semple McPherson on the stage.  His memories weren’t all stellar, as he once recalled the offering being taken on silver ice picks, where only bills, not coins, could be given in the offering at a time when few people had dollar bills with them.  But, in time, he came to Christ, and that is clearly why I came to know Christ at a young age. These revivals came at remarkable times within history and that history is certainly complex. Even in these moves of God’s Spirit there were very human elements.

While it’s too recent to truly reflect upon it in any meaningful way, the recent Asbury outpouring seems to be connected to young people, who just recently had their lives radically interrupted by a pandemic that isolated them, robbed them of “normal” high school experiences, and kept them from close, physical human fellowship and community for several years. Perhaps being robbed of basic human interaction for those couple years fertilized the “field,” as they could gather together again, this time in the Asbury University Chapel. The Holy Spirit fell on these young people corporately as they genuinely sought God.

The challenge is that these cultural conditions which provide the very environment for revival can rarely, if ever, be replicated. Yet, the immediate response in almost every case is to try to organize and duplicate the conditions for a revival.

2. Spiritual revivals have a shelf life.

As a kid, growing up in Los Angeles County, we would drive to our Lutheran church and parochial school multiple times a week, and I would often notice a small, old Pentecostal church that we would almost always pass by in our car. Years later, after doing some research, I discovered this church had roots back to the Azusa Street Revival. Yet, as a kid, I noticed that at least once a month, they would have a huge banner outside their church declaring, “Revival Services next week!” I would ask my mom about it, but we Lutherans didn’t really know much about “revival services!” Throughout my entire childhood, this little church regularly advertised the next revival they were hosting. I have often wondered how they could be so sure that revival was going to show up next week!

After the red-hot flame of the Jesus Movement diminished, eventually the hippies got older, got jobs, got mortgages, and became part of the “establishment” they had so passionately opposed. And, those “Jesus Freaks” started learning how to pastor and disciple the converts who had come to Christ during this movement. Some things however, remained counter-culture to this day. The musical genre called CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) has almost completely replaced the organs, choirs, and hymns of a previous generation. In the decades since the Jesus Movement, casual dress, “non-churchy” buildings, and the contemporary worship band have become standard for most evangelical churches. Which of course, begs the question, is it even contemporary anymore?

I admire the leadership of Asbury University with the maturity and wisdom they demonstrated in the way they responded to the recent outpouring on their campus. They showed genuine concern for the small town of Wilmore, Kentucky which had a massive influx of tens of thousands of people, some of whom, it would seem, wanted to show up and even influence the meetings with their own particular idea of what God wanted to do in these meetings. Their decision to eventually stop the 24-hour meetings, and then go off-site to a larger town and venue showed they were aware that these moves of God don’t last forever.

I remember being at the Brownsville Revival back in 1998. We had an incredible time during our week there. There was such a powerful sense of the presence of God on the entire campus of Brownsville Assembly of God as people were standing in line for hours in the hot Florida sun, just to get into one of the overflow buildings. I recall meeting a handful of folks who had simply “moved” to Pensacola, just so they could permanently live there at the revival.

Some revivals have lasted weeks, others months, and many continued for several years, but none have lasted forever. The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the few events recorded in all four Gospels. As Jesus shows Peter, James, and John His glory, their immediate response is, “let’s build dwellings so we can just stay up here forever!” That’s always our human response. “Lord, can’t we just stay here in this place with You forever?”  We don’t want to go back down the mountain, to the challenges of life, of work, of everyday routines. Yet the very nature of Jesus’ incarnation, is, in the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson’s “Message” paraphrase of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”  

Times of revival end, but our responsibility to continue to walk with Jesus even through our mundane and routine lives and share His Good News with others remains.

3. We are not responsible to ignite the flame of revival, but we are responsible to pastor and steward it!

There were several poignant moments in the “Jesus Revolution” movie, where Pastor Chuck gently corrects Lonnie when Chuck believed his somewhat dramatic style was a bit “too much.”  That did actually happen, and eventually Lonnie left Calvary Chapel to head to Florida. Five or six years later, he reemerged in Southern California just as the Vineyard churches were beginning. It was during those days I actually got to know Lonnie, as I was a Vineyard pastor during that time.

More can be said about Lonnie’s personal challenges, but several things are true. First, God always has and always will use broken people if they love Him and are willing to serve Him. Second, being a pastoral influence in the lives of highly gifted, yet broken people is difficult. I think many of us who were around him would admit that we could have done more to reach out to Lonnie in many ways. Finally, Lonnie always returned to God’s mercy and grace. I have no doubt whatsoever he entered into the Lord’s presence upon his death in 1993. But that old saying that the Church is the only army that “shoots its own wounded” has some truth. Though the stories are often hidden, there are many men and women, used mightily by the Lord who were never really “pastored” by those in authority toward the purposes of personal healing, restoration, and maturity.

Along with the move of the Spirit, there are always parallel movements of emotions, personal agendas, and many mixed motivations by others seeking to use an outpouring of the Spirit as a stepping stone for their own personal, and often carnal purposes and self-promotion. It is vital for mature men and women of faith to provide Godly stewardship over these moves of the Spirit, protecting both the participants and the integrity of the move itself.

4. True revival results in strong local churches being revived and new churches being planted.

A revival that only populates student ministries, or mission organizations, or any other entity at the exclusion of the local church is not a revival. I’ve worked with a mission organization for over 20 years, but we still acknowledge that the local Church is the way in which God works to reach the world!  We want to see new believers, new disciples integrated and solidly connected within local congregations of believers. The Church is God’s Plan A.

It is vital that, as a result of revival, local faith communities are revitalized, restored, and new churches are planted to make room for new converts.  Going back to this movie, we see that Pastor Chuck took a tremendous risk in welcoming these new guests: young people who looked nothing like his existing church community.  His church grew, many new churches were planted, and beyond the “revival” dynamics of the Jesus Movement, thousands of new churches were planted throughout the country, providing a solid place for growth and maturity for these thousands of new “converts” to the faith.

I would suggest that a welcoming church should be more than a somewhat disguised liberal term for congregations or denominations which embrace and endorse non-biblical sexuality. It should be an invitation for us to demonstrate biblical hospitality, welcoming and loving “the stranger!” What would it look like for your faith community to welcome people who currently don’t imagine they could ever feel welcome in any church?  Let’s make this our goal as we ask God for revival again.

Ministries like Alpha and Celebrate Recovery are great examples of making these “strangers” feel welcome within the church.  Lord send revival is a great prayer, but are our present-day churches ready for God to actually answer that prayer?

5. Revival will come as we pray for the next group of twenty-somethings who will lead the next revival, rather than trying to pretend to be those twenty-somethings ourselves!

In more recent videos of Pastor Chuck’s sermons just prior to his death in 2013, you will most likely see him in a suit and tie. For most of his ministry, he continued to dress as a pastor from his generation was expected to dress. Chuck was comfortable in his own skin, in contrast to my [Boomer] generation’s fixation with never aging and wearing “skinny jeans” when our bodies are far beyond that trend!  

We should not just be “strategizing” on how to reach the next generation. We should be praying; praying that God will raise up the next batch of young 20-somethings who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and can reach their generation!  We need to start “fathering and mothering” these young people rather than competing with them in our efforts toward relevance and “being cool.”  In the movie, Pastor Chuck asks his daughter, “so, do you think I’m square?” She replies, tongue-in-cheek, “you are the squarest square I know!”  The actor portraying Chuck shows a bit of a smile, but the rest is history.

Are we on the cusp of a new Jesus Revolution? I certainly hope and pray so. Are we ready to be as open to what that might look like? For that, we must genuinely search our hearts and endeavor to have that “welcoming” and loving attitude toward the next generation. Let’s begin, even before the “revival” begins. What if we entered our local churches, looking around for young people to meet, and actually show an interest toward them? What if we learned their names, starting praying for them, and see what God might do? We don’t have to be “cool,” we just have to be loving and genuine.

Lord, hear our prayers!

This article was originally published in Charisma Magazine. Dr. Steven Todd has served the Lord as a pastor, mission leader, and currently as an adjunct professor at The King’s University.