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The Spirit and The Bride:

The "Toronto Blessing" and Church Structure

Margaret M. Poloma
The University of Akron
Department of Sociology
Akron, OH 44325-1905

Manuscript prepared for the Evangelical Studies Bulletin (July, 1996). (Published Winter 1999, Vol. 13, No. 4:1-5).

*Due to the length of this article, you may choose to download this article now for a printable format.

Whatever else they are, religious experiences are institutionally dangerous. They can shake our ecclesiastical walls and cast a glaring light on the inadequacy of our theologies. While the Bride may be saying liturgical prayers inviting the Spirit to come, when He does come, as history repeatedly demonstrates, religious institutions often tend to resist His advances. This resistance is reflected in the biblical account of the Day of Pentecost, where Luke reports that the onlookers made fun of the disciples and some decided that the disciples had had too much wine. It loomed in Charles Chauncy's vehement opposition to Jonathan Edwards and to what has come to be known as the First Great Awakening. More recently in the 20th Century it found expression in the anti-Pentecostal stance of the Fundamentalists and later in the anti-charismatic stance of many Pentecostals.

Similar resistance, sometimes in the form of stark condemnation but more often through seemingly benign over-cautionary statements, has been the fate of the so-called "Toronto Blessing." It is not my intent to write a theological apology for this latest wave of the larger charismatic/ pentecostal (p/c) movement. Other works found in the select references at the end of this article have already presented biblical and historical defenses for what has come to be called the "Renewal" or the "Father's Blessing" by its leaders. What I will do here is to provide a brief account of the history of the "Toronto Blessing" (including its place in the larger p/c movement), a sociological assessment of its significance, and present some of the dilemmas it now faces as its leadership looks to the future. I write this article as a sociologist who has experienced the "Toronto Blessing" first hand but who seeks to use her social science training and nearly 20 years of observing and researching the p/c movement as tools for describing and assessing the Blessing's social significance.

The "Toronto Blessing" in Social Context

What's Been Happening?

For those who have not personally visited a Renewal site, the following description provided by Leslie Scrivener, a reporter from the Toronto Star (October 8, 1995), shortly after Hurricane Opal had spewed its wrath on the east coast of North America may provide some descriptive insight:

The mighty winds of Hurricane Opal that swept through Toronto last week (were) mere tropical gusts compared with the power of God thousands believe struck them senseless at a conference at the controversial Airport Vineyard church. At least with Opal, they could stay on their feet. Not so with many of the 5,300 souls meeting at the Regal Constellation Hotel. The ballroom carpets were littered with fallen bodies, bodies of seemingly straightlaced men and women who felt themselves moved by the phenomenon they say is the Holy Spirit. So moved, they howled with joy or the release of some buried pain. They collapsed, some rigid as corpses, some convulsed in hysterical laughter. From room to room come barnyard cries, calls heard only in the wild, grunts so deep women recalled the sounds of childbirth, while some men and women adopted the very position of childbirth. Men did chicken walks. Women jabbed their fingers as if afflicted with nervous disorders. And around these scenes of bedlam, were loving arms to catch the falling, smiling faces, whispered prayers of encouragement, instructions to release, to let go.

Although this description is not matched in intensity at every service (such a scene is less likely to be found at a regularly midweek renewal service and more likely to be found during one of the scheduled conferences), unusual physical manifestations have been part of services at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (formerly known as the Toronto Airport Vineyard) since January 20, 1994. On that evening Randy Clark, a Vineyard pastor from St. Louis, Missouri, was invited by TACF's pastor, John Arnott, to lead a local church revival. The rest, as commonly said, "is history."

The "Toronto Blessing" represents the latest phase of the larger pentecostal/charismatic movement, an approach that is said to account for nearly one out of four Christians worldwide (Cox 1995). Beginning with the Welsh Revival (1903-04), escalating with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906-07), and rekindled through the Latter Rain Movement (1948), the Charismatic Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Third Wave in the 1980s, and now the "Toronto Blessing" (1994), the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in 20th century America may be characterized as a religious movement struggling against the forces of institutionalization. (To paraphrase in the language of metaphor, the Bride may be calling for the Spirit but when He appears, she isn't sure that she wants to let him disrupt her settled life.)

The "Toronto Blessing" is not a unique phenomenon; it is part of a larger movement that traces its origin to the ministries of Claudio Friedzon and Rodney Howard-Browne. Friedzon, an Assemblies of God pastor in Argentina, had already been in the center of a revival sweeping through parts of Latin America; and Howard-Browne brought his "laughing revival" to the United States from South Africa in 1987. [Although the ministries of both of these men were important catalysts for the revival in Toronto, there were still other precursors (see Riss).] In November, 1993, TACF's senior pastor John Arnott traveled to Argentina for a conference where he was prayed for by Claudio Friedzon (who had received an "impartation of spiritual anointing" from Rodney Howard-Browne). Friedzon reportedly asked Arnott, "Do you want the anointing?" After he responded affirmatively, Friedzon said, "Then take it!" Arnott, who had been prayed for on different occasions by both Rodney Howard-Browne and Benny Hinn, reported:

"Something clicked in my heart at that moment. It was as though I heard the Lord say, 'For goodness sake, will you take this? Take it, it's yours.' And I received it by faith" (Arnott 1995: p. 58).

After a brief experience of some manifestations during the New Year's Eve service the following January, Arnott invited Randy Clark (who received his "impartation" from Rodney Howard-Browne at Rhema Bible Church in Tulsa) to speak at the Toronto church. Arnott (1995:p. 59) describes what happened as follows:

On January 20, 1994, the Father's blessing fell on the 120 people attending that Thursday night meeting in our church. Randy gave his testimony, and ministry time began. People fell all over the floor under the power of the Holy Spirit, laughing and crying. We had to stack up all the chairs to make room for everyone. Some people even had to be carried out.

As already noted, TACF was not the first church to experience this outpouring of the Spirit at the hands of someone who had experienced the anointing. Rodney Howard-Browne had reportedly been witnessing continuous revival at his meetings since 1989, and several well-known charismatic ministers were impacted by him before the TACF revival, including Kenneth Copeland, Karl Strader, Bud Williams, Oral Roberts, Charles and Frances Hunter, and Kenneth Hagin (see Riss for further discussion). Nor has TACF been the last to develop as a revival site. Nightly renewal meetings continue at Harvest Rock Church (Pasadena, California) and Brownsville Assemblies of God (Pensacola, Florida). The meetings in Pensacola are presently the center of attention for many where the ministries of Rodney Howard-Browne and Toronto are both seen as catalysts for the revival than began on Father's Day, 1995 under the ministry of Assemblies of God evangelist Steve Hill.

Although the renewal meetings take on a relatively familiar form at the different sites and conferences, TACF's ministry mode (followed by many other congregations) stands out for its attempt to be "nameless and faceless" in that its meetings are not dependent on the presence of a particular personality or "charismatic star." As a former member of the Association of Vineyard Churches (AVC) until its ouster for alleged violations of nebulous "Vineyard values" in early December, 1995, TACF continues to embody the democratic ministry that has been characteristic of John Wimber's AVCs. Although Vineyards are hardly egalitarian organizations (pastors are powerful figures), they have been resistant to what Wimber has perceived as "pentecostal/ charismatic showmanship," preferring to model the availability of the "signs and wonders" to all believers. (Paradoxically, however, there can be no doubt that John Wimber himself has been the name and the face behind the Vineyard churches just as John Arnott has come to be a central figure for the "Toronto Blessing.").

TACF, possibly to a large degree because of its Vineyard base, proved to be a place where many (who might have felt uncomfortable with Rodney Howard-Browne, Benny Hinn, and other charismatic stars) could experience the same anointing after hearing a sermon given by an unknown minister and after prayer administered by one of the church members. Toronto--its Indian name means "the meeting place"--became the gathering place for people from scores of nations to carry back the so-called "Toronto Blessing."

What Does It All Mean?

As a sociologist, I am not prepared to use hermeneutics to ascribe biblical meaning to the form taken by this latest outpouring of charisma. What my discipline has prepared me to do is to study the definitions given to the experiences by those involved in the "Toronto Blessing" and to assess the social consequences of these experiences. From the time of my first visit to TACF in early December, 1994, I listened carefully to the testimonies given by visitors. These testimonies were supplemented by those I heard at my home church, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio, where people began experiencing the Father's Blessing in the fall of 1994. By late spring, 1995, I had John Arnott's permission and full cooperation to conduct a survey of visitors to the Toronto church. Based on over 900 responses from 386 men and 523 women from 20 countries, I have been able to report on some of the perceived effects of this Azusa Street of the 1990s.

The unusual physical manifestations have come to be a hallmark of the "Toronto Blessing." As I have described elsewhere (Poloma 1996a,b), these manifestations are regarded by most as signs that the Holy Spirit is at work rather than as ends in themselves. As John Arnott (1995:p.153) notes:

People often shake when the power of God hits them. Why are we so surprised that physical bodies react to God's power? It is a wonder to me that we do not explode and fly apart. God's power is real power--the dunamis from heaven.

Most respondents have experienced several different manifestations, with only 1 percent reporting that they have never had any. These ranged from glossolalia (tongues), to wild shaking, jerking and rolling, to appearing "drunk", to quietly falling to the floor ("carpet time"). Judging from the reported effects, it would appear that indeed the Spirit of God is at work.

The responses to the survey reflect well the impressions that continue to be reinforced through the verbal testimonies given regularly at services. The manifestations, while not necessary for the "change of heart" that is the focus of the testimonies, often do accompany significant changes in those who have visited TACF. Seventy percent (70%) of the respondents noted that friends and family have commented on such changes. (Only 10 % said that they could see no change in their lives that they would attribute to their visit to TACF.) The effects may be described as increases in personal spiritual refreshment, holiness and healing, and evangelism and social outreach. Although approximately 50 percent of the respondents reported coming to TACF while "spiritually dry," most left with a deeper sense of God's love for them. Ninety-one percent (91%) said they had a greater sense of the Father's love and 89 percent reported being Amore in love with Jesus than ever before" as a result of their time at TACF. This greater awareness was often coupled with a new sense of sinfulness, with over half (54%) reporting they had experienced some form of deliverance from the hold of the devil on their lives. While only 1 percent of the respondents reported giving their lives to the Lord for the first time, 28 percent reported that they made a recommitment of their lives to Jesus.

The fresh experience of God's love and forgiveness often brought with it personal healing, the most common of which was an "inner healing" (reported by 78 percent of the respondents). Twenty-two percent (22%) claimed they received some physical healing, and six percent (6%) acknowledged a healing from a clinically diagnosed mental health problem. The benefits of the Blessing appear to extend to the whole person--touching the body, the mind, and the spirit.

People also reported changes in relationships. Eighty-eight percent (88%) of those who were married claimed to be more in love with their spouses than ever before. Thirty-seven percent (37%) said they had become more involved in works of mercy, like feeding the hungry or visiting those in prisons. They were also more likely (83 %) to share their Christian faith with others than ever before. Perhaps reflecting these personal changes, 71 percent reported that the "Toronto Blessing" had a positive impact on their churches, with only 10 percent saying that the response of their church community to the Blessing was a "negative" one. (See Poloma 1996a for a more detailed account.)

The mission statement for the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship can be found on a banner draping the back wall of the church auditorium: That we may walk in God's love and then give it away. It would appear that people who have visited TACF have indeed experienced a new depth of God's love and do in fact attempt to share it with others.

Structural and Cultural Considerations: An Assessment

When the Toronto Airport Church was summarily ousted from the Association of Vineyard Churches, it was set free to sail the larger sea of Christianity, no longer tied to the restrictions and prohibitions increasingly being set in place by the AVC. (The AVC reportedly wanted to pitch its tents more securely within the evangelical campground rather than with charismatics, and its leaders felt the pressure of the mounting evangelical criticism of the "Toronto Blessing".) While these restrictions sometimes threatened the free flow of charisma, they also provided the very institutional matrix that allowed the "Toronto Blessing" to develop as more than a charismatic wildfire that was out of control. This dismissal caused the Airport Church to form closer bonds with some of its remaining allies and led to the establishment of Partners in Harvest, a group of former Vineyards and independent churches that have been impacted by the "Toronto Blessing". Partners in Harvest joins other newer denominations-in-the-making, in what University of Southern California Professor Donald Miller terms "the reinvention of American Protestantism." Other similar groups have appeared on the evangelical/charismatic scene within the past couple of decades, often under similar circumstances (including the AVC itself). TACF, under the larger umbrella of the Partners in Harvest, is structurally positioned to chart an innovative course away from the provincialism of much of the American charismatic/evangelical movement.

Despite the controversy the generated by the "Toronto Blessing" in the evangelical community, the larger Christian community, including Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox Christians, is hardly aware of its existence. The "Toronto Blessing" in North America remains, at this point in time, a subculture within a subculture. Although it has the potential to impact the larger secular community as it has in the United Kingdom (Cotton 1996), it has had little similar impact in the United States. Unfortunately space does not permit me to elaborate, but I believe the "Toronto Blessing" has the potential to not only revitalize a faltering p/c movement but to break out of the evangelical subculture. It offers a fresh presentation of the basic Gospel message that could serve as a Christian voice to postmodernists and could provide a Christian alternative for the popular New Age movement. To actualize this potential, however, necessitates getting out of the boat that Evangelicalism has provided many American charismatics and walking on the seas of a larger contemporary postmodern culture.

One of the main challenges facing the "Toronto Blessing" (if not the main challenge) is the need to articulate a vision for the Kingdom of God within the context of a radically different world view --one that is consistent with its experience while remaining true to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Balancing orthodoxy and fresh religious experience is like riding a unicyle. There is always the danger of heresy when religious experience is the sole guide; the "Toronto Blessing" leaders are well aware of the dangers that lie in this direction. At the other extreme is a Christian rationalism that has inherited the Enlightenment tendency to idolatrize the human mind. Enlightenment rationalism and its stepchildren (materialism, extreme individualism, narcissism, and Cartesian dualism, to name a few) have distorted the western Christian world view and made it ill-prepared to be a voice in a postmodern culture. (See DeArteaga's Quenching the Spirit for further discussion.) For p/c and evangelical churches alike, the church is too much one with the world in which it lives rather than providing a radically different alternative to secular culture.

The "Toronto Blessing" is now at the crossroads. One path it can take is the familiar one of routinizing charisma, a road trod by some successful pentecostal groups as they traded respectability for the free move of the Spirit (see Poloma 1989). Another path is to identify with marginal independent ministries that have been somewhat more able to retain a charismatic fervor but who have been unable to relate successfully to the broader culture. Or it can take a road less traveled--of looking beyond the American evangelical community for ways of incorporating the Blessing into a larger world view. For models it needs to move beyond the American scene to other cultures that have been impacted by the "Toronto Blessing". (One especially promising scene is the United Kingdom, a place where revivals have not been tainted with American Civil Religion and have had a certain staying power. An estimated 7,000 churches are said to be in revival in the U.K.) Other models may be found in history, not only in the history of American Protestantism but in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches where a strong mystical tradition can provide a wealth of insight that is yet to be related to the charismatic experience. Balance for the sometimes polyannish Christianity advanced by some charismatics can also be found in traditional churches that use a liturgical cycle to remind believers that there is a rhythm to be found in the history of salvation--a cycle that replays itself in both religious institutions and in individual lives. Finally, in an attempt to strip some of the cultural veneer from western Christianity, leaders can look beyond Europe and North America to examples of Spirit-filled Christianity's successful adaptation in two-thirds nations (see Cox 1995 and Poewe 1994). It is significant that the p/c stream of Christianity has grown rapidly and now accounts for nearly one in four Christians worldwide, most of whom are in developing nations (Cox 1995).

As a newly-emergent religious movement that has touched believers and churches on all continents, the "Toronto Blessing" has the potential to offer the western world an alternative Christian perspective that is truly catholic--one that will speak not only to the churched but to the increasing numbers of unchurched people. Whether it is courageous enough to embark on this uncomfortable but promising road remains to be seen.

Select References

Arnott, John. 1995. The Father's Blessing. Creation House: Orlando.

Chevreau, Guy. 1994. Catch the Fire. Marshall Pickering: London.

Cotton, Ian. 1996. The Hallelujah Revolution. Prometheus Books: New York.

Cox, Harvey. 1995. Fire From Heaven. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.: Reading, MA.

DeArteaga, William. 1992. Quenching the Spirit. Creation House: Orlando.

Dixon, Patrick. 1994. Signs of Revival. Kingsway Publications. Eastbourne, U.K.

Poewe, Karla (ed.) 1994. Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture. University of South Carolina Press.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1989. The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads. University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1995. "The 'Toronto Blessing': Charisma, Institutionalization and Revival." Paper presented at Orlando -95 Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelism (July) and at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (November 1995).

Poloma, Margaret M. 1996a. "By Their Fruits...:A Sociological Assessment of the Toronto Blessing." Paper presented at the Society for Pentecostal Studies Annual Meeting. Toronto.

Poloma, Margaret M. 1996b. "The 'Toronto Blessing' in Postmodern Society: Manifestations Metaphor and Myth." Paper presented at The Globalization of Pentecostalism Conference. San Jose, Costa Rica. June.

Riss, Richard M. n.d. "A History of the Worldwide Awakening of 1992-1995." Paper may be found at http://www.grmi.org/renewal/Richard_Riss/history.html

Roberts, Dave. 1994. The "Toronto" Blessing. Kingsway Publications. Eastbourne, U.K.




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