Gamaliel's Admonition and the Toronto Blessing:
A Theo-Sociological Report
Article prepared for Rev. Dr. David Hilborn’s edited collection on the "Toronto Blessing" to be published by Paternoster Press. Draft prepared and revised on July 5, 2000 by Margaret M. Poloma (The University of Akron and Vanguard University of Southern California, USA).
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Introduction: Placing the Report in Social Context
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God." (Acts 5:34-39, NIV).
As a sociologist who has been involved with the so-called "Toronto Blessing" since late 1994, I welcome the Rev. Dr. Hilborn's efforts to bring together some theological reflections on the refreshing now that the flood of discussion and controversy has subsided. Too much of the early materials failed to reflect the wisdom of Gamaliel in his advice to the Sanhedrin. As I write this article, over six years has passed since the inception of this refreshing/renewal/revival in a small Vineyard Church just outside the Toronto International Airport on January 20, 1994 from where it quickly spread to the UK and around the world. Time is now ripe for more serious reflection.
I write not as a theologian but as a sociologist who attempts to use her research and perspective to contribute a kind of "empirical theology" or "theosociology" on our topic of interest. As a sociologist, I have played the role of a participant observer of the larger Pentecostal/Charismatic (P/C) movement for over two decades and view the latest happenings as waves which have once again revitalized the P/C movement. As an approach to Christianity that is heavily dependent on personal and corporate religious experience, the P/C movement requires ongoing revitalization lest it loose its charism. Yesterday's manna will not sustain the movement against the forces of routinization that prowl the modern world. Providentially the manna arrives with regularity at local churches around the globe, with some outbursts of charismata spreading far beyond any single locality. To switch metaphors, the waves of refreshing continue to come B whether they are termed "renewal" (as in the Toronto Blessing in North America), "refreshing" (as in the United Kingdom) or "revival" (as in the Pensacola Outpouring at Brownsville Assembly of God) matters little for purposes of this sociological discussion. All represent the latest example of the revitalization accompanying the major waves that have been part of P/C history since its founding nearly a century ago. The Toronto Blessing undoubtedly will take its place along side other revivals in P/C history, including the Azusa Street and Welsh revivals of the early 20th century, the Latter Rain and Healing Movement of the mid-20th century, the spread of Pentecostalism in the mainline churches during the 1960s and 1970s, and the so-called Third Wave which popularized a range of fresh experienced during the 1980s and 1990s. It was out of the Third Wave, of course, that the river of renewal known as the "Toronto Blessing" began its course.
The names of John Wimber and John Arnott are inseparably linked to the Toronto Blessing. It was John Wimber, founder of the Association of Vineyard Churches (AVC), who proved to be the prominent voice in the so-called Third Wave of the P/C movement, whose style of worship and ministry helped to shape Arnott's own ministry and whose earlier tilling of the P/C soil in the UK provided ground for the Toronto Blessing's rapid spread across the Atlantic. As a Vineyard pastor and regional leader in Canada, John Arnott's quest for ongoing renewal, ministry style and P/C orientation reflected that of Wimber and the AVC. Wimber's later dissociation from the Blessing (after earlier endorsing John Arnott's book The Father's Blessing, parts of which were used later as "evidence" against the Blessing) quenched some of the enthusiastic Third Wave support for the Toronto Blessing , adding further fuel to existing controversy surrounding the renewal.
Each revival movement carries within it the seeds of controversy and opposition, nurtured by those both outside the larger movement and many predecessors within it. Nevertheless, I would suggest that it is precisely because the revitalizing waves keep coming-regardless of the controversy and opposition--that the approach known as Pentecostal Christianity today has an estimated 500 million followers, comprising nearly 30 percent of the world's Christian population. Each of the major waves, including the revivals of the 1990s in which the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship has been a major player, has contributed to the present vitality of the larger P/C movement. It is the intent of this article to discuss briefly some significant tributaries of the Toronto stream of the 1990s renewal to assess what may be called Gamaliel's test.
Gamaliel's Test I: Social Psychological Data
When I first visited Toronto in November of 1994, in some ways I felt as if I had just entered a Methodist camp meeting of the 19th century or chanced upon a meeting of William Seymour on Azusa Street in the early 20th century. Although I had been involved in the Catholic Charismatic Movement during the late 1970s and studied classic Pentecostalism in the 1980s, I had never witnessed anything like the strange manifestations I saw all around me. My earlier cynical evaluation of Toronto=s being simply another example of a hyped attempt to rekindle the fire from the cooling embers of an earlier wave of the charismatic movement was immediately challenged. Toronto was a happening of greater intensity and duration than anything I had yet experienced during my years of studying the P/C movement, and I wanted to research it for posterity. When I approached Toronto=s pastor, John Arnott, with a plan to conduct a survey on pilgrims to the site, Arnott's immediate response was, "What can I do to help you?" He seemed as eager as I to secure some hard data to address the Gamaliel issue.
In 1995 we conducted a non-random survey distributed through the August issue of Spread the Fire magazine, through the October "Catch the Fire Again" program, and through the November "Healing School Program." Questionnaires were returned to the author at The University of Akron (Ohio) in the USA, with a place for the respondent to indicate whether he or she were willing to participate in a possible follow-up study. A total of 918 useable responses was received, from 20 countries, with the largest number coming from the USA (54%), Canada (26%), and England (11%). Seventy-five percent provided a useable address for a follow-up survey conducted in May, 1997 that yielded data on 364 of the original respondents. While such non-random procedures do not permit generalizations to the hundreds of thousands of persons who visited Toronto during the on-going renewal meetings, they do permit us to describe some of the possible effects Toronto has had on those respondents-conclusions that could with caution be extended to thousands of others who did not fill out the surveys. Responses to two sets of questions will be presented in this article: increases in personal empowerment and increases in service and outreach.
Although the doctrine and experience of glossolalia has been focal for many in the classic Pentecostal movement, the Third Wave (out of which the Toronto Blessing developed) has placed less emphasis on speaking in tongues and more on empowerment by the Holy Spirit. The preliminary and exploratory questions asked in the 1995 survey indicated that the vast majority of the respondents (92%) had experienced the power of God and that it lasted even after leaving TACF. Presumably it was this fresh touch of the power of God that led 90 percent of them to invite others to come to TACF and 82 percent to report that evangelism was more important to them now than it had ever been before. The follow-up survey secured additional information on experiences of empowerment.
More than half of the 1997 respondents indicated an increase in receiving prophetic words (62%), while almost half reported an increase in receiving words of knowledge (47%), prophetic intercession (48%), and prophetic dreams (41%). Similar figures were reported for an increase in empowerment in praying for the physical and emotional healing of others since visiting the renewal in Toronto: 49 percent replied that their was an increase in emotional healing and 34 percent saw an increase in their efficacy in praying for physical healing. In sum, it would appear that many pilgrims to Toronto did experience a fresh release of charismatic gifts, particularly in the realm of the prophetic and healing, both of which are subjects of regular conferences conducted at TACF. Based on this survey it would be safe to say that many individuals who have visited TACF believed they were moving in a much greater power of the Spirit in 1997 than they were in prerenewal days.
Increase in Service and Outreach
Another area of questioning in the 1997 survey that is relevant to the Gamaliel test is whether renewal participants are moved to action as a result of the Blessing. We have already seen that many purport to be more effective in charismatic ministry, especially prophecy and healing. Other questions tapped an increase in service and outreach to the larger community.
Nine questions were asked to determine whether participants became more involved in outreach as a result of the renewal, with a mean or average of 3.6 and a median of 4. This statistic suggests that the model respondent increased his or her service for approximately 4 of the listed items. Those experiencing the Toronto Blessing reported themselves to be more likely to offer assistance to friends (64%) or acquaintances (57%) as a result of their Toronto experience. They were more likely to increase their service to the church (55%), giving financially to missions (44%) and to the poor (35%), visiting the sick (34%), efforts to lead others to Christ (25%), to reach out to the poor and homeless (24%), and to be involved in other works of mercy (20%).
There appears to be a relatively strong relationship between experiencing an increase in empowerment and reporting an increase in outreach to others (r=.32). Those who have been more effective in prayers of prophecy and healing are more likely to report an increase in outreach and service. While these are personal data and self reports, they do suggest that there are countless individuals whose ministries have been enhanced as a result of their experience of the Toronto Blessing. It appears that the Blessing has empowered and activated many for service.
An appropriate sociological question to explore is how personal experiences and individual outreach have generated institutions which in turn provide resources for the revitalization and spread of the P/C movement. Assuming that institutions are the result of collective social behavior, it is theoretically sound to expect the recent experience of charismata is responsible for at least some reshaping and transforming the P/C movement. In the next section I would like to consider what can be called the "institutional fruits" of the Toronto Blessing. These represent only a few of the ministries I have encountered which have been either birthed by or renewed through the Toronto Blessing.
Gamaliel's Test II: Institutional Data
Religious experiences are central to the maintenance of the P/C vitality. At the same time, religious experience holds a paradoxical position in its relation to institutional religion. On the one hand, it is through religious experience that most religion comes into existence, and it is also through religious experience that many religions have been revitalized. Certainly this is true of Pentecostalism whose origins are commonly (but not exclusively) traced to the Azusa Street Revival of 1905-07 in Los Angeles. Religious experience was also central to the other waves of renewal which have revitalized Pentecostalism through the decades. On the other hand, religious experiences are often problematic in their critique of and challenge to existing religious form. In short, whatever else it may be, religious experience is institutionally dangerous.
The P/C movement has been subject to endless critique for the role its followers have allegedly played in splitting churches and confusing doctrine. It should be no surprise that there are examples of Toronto spin-offs which have been institutionally dysfunctional. What is dysfunctional for one institution, however, may prove to be highly functional for another. Jesus=s life and ministry and the early church developing around it was hardly functional for institutional Judaism. Sociologists have long known that seeming dysfunctionality can be an instrument of social change, paradoxically being "functional" when approached from another vantage point.
There is not space to address the conundrum of functionality and dysfunctionality except in passing to note that I am aware that not all that is done in the name of Toronto is always a "blessing". Rather I have sought to provide illustrations of ministries and churches through which the Toronto Blessing seems to be an important force for P/C revitalization. There is little doubt that the P/C approach to Christianity itself has become a major stream in global Christianity within the past hundred years accounting for as many as one in three Christians worldwide. The Toronto Blessing represents but one of several renewals of the 20th century that has contributed to the revitalization and institutional reinvention of this larger religious movement. The ministries used in this account are illustrative and narrative, representing only some of the interesting "institutional fruits" I have encountered during my research. I have grouped them to illustrate (1) the emergence of new "denominations"; (2) the planting of new charismatic churches and the revitalization of existing ones; and (3) the emergence of local networks for teaching, empowering, and evangelism. Together they are forces that are helping to direct the course of some tributaries of a global religious movement.
Denominations in the Making
The history of the P/C movement has been rife with examples of struggling against the institutional forces of denominationalism. It is significant that the Assemblies of God, a major worldwide Pentecostal denomination with some 35 million adherents still denies (at least in American dress) that it is a denomination. The two denominations-in-the-making that have developed out of the Toronto Blessing, Partners in Harvest (Toronto, Canada) and Harvest International Ministries (Pasadena, California), reflect this ambivalence toward denominationalism found in Assemblies of God history. While both emphasize relational networks (as contrasted with rigid structure) as basic to their respective organizations and purport to be "new-wineskins" to hold the first fruits of renewal, they are somewhat different in their respective articulation of purpose and structure, particularly as it relates to the Toronto Blessing.
Partners in Harvest/Friends in Harvest
It was in early 1996, just after the Toronto Airport Vineyard was ousted from the Association of Vineyard Churches, that John Arnott was approached by pastors of churches affected by the Toronto Blessing to provide spiritual support. Partners In Harvest - "a family of churches and ministries pursuing renewal and revival" - was developed to meet such requests. As Arnott writes in an open letter to pastors on the Partners in Harvest (PIH) web site (http://www.partners-in-harvest.org):
I realized after talking to several leaders in the Body of Christ that all of us have a need for our churches and ministries to have an identity as well as a desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves. . . .We are discovering this to be true in terms of our own network of churches, Partners in Harvest. We are able to share resources with one another and strengthen each other's hand, in many and varied ways. . . .We want to present to you what we believe is a very effective and efficient "new-wine-skin" for both growing and networking a renewal church that has a high value on wholeness, and a desire for outreach, evangelism and harvest.
Some 73 churches and 14 ministries are members of PIH. Most are located in the United States of America (35), Canada (25) and the United Kingdom (14). Another 198 churches and ministries belonging to mainline denominations or simply wishing to affiliate more loosely with PIH have become members of Friends in Harvest (FIH). The network is served by "Family Days," gatherings held approximately eight times a year at TACF just prior to major renewal conferences (particularly before the annual Catch the Fire Conference), allowing pastors and ministry leaders of PIH churches to be "encouraged and blessed" at the Toronto church. An elaborate Website and periodic e-mails provide the electronic means for this "relational network."
The emphasis on an organizational structure that stresses relationships is a theme that John Arnott and Fred Wright, the International Coordinator of PIH/FIH, have borrowed from the late John Wimber's Association of Vineyard Churches. Both Arnott and Wright had served in leadership roles within the AVC before it severed ties with TACF, Arnott in Canada and Wright in the USA. Whether or not to call PIH/FIH a "denomination" is tackled on the FAQ of the network's Website: "If a denomination means an identifying name for a specific family in the broader church, then we are. If denomination refers to conformity to a tight pattern of insisting on firm control, then we are not."
The primary expressed purpose of PIH/FIH is to keep the coals of renewal burning by encouraging and empowering leaders of churches committed to P/C Christianity. While attendance at nightly renewal meetings at TACF has tapered off and most local churches have been unable to maintain the momentum of local renewal gatherings, TACF conferences remain a time and place where charisma still freely flows. Through the holistic healing and empowering of its leaders, it is assumed that evangelism and the development of new church congregations will follow. There are 73 churches and l4 PIH ministries in eleven nations (out of which have come 21 new church plants) who have joined together to become "A family of churches and ministries pursuing renewal and revival."
TACF has established an academic arm to complement its spiritually empowering renewal meetings and conferences. The School of Ministry has reportedly "prepared over 500 young people to minister in the power and love of God" in preparation for missionary outreach and evangelism. The recently-established Ablaze Bible Institute serves those in a different life stage, offering "a school of Biblical and Theological Studies, coupled with many practical 'hands on' opportunities." Ablaze Bible Institute is reminiscent of the Bible institutes of an earlier era of Pentecostalism, many of which have been transformed into accredited colleges and universities over the decades. Students are promised to be "dually prepared in the scriptures and in the anointing, with the Word and the Spirit together."
How successful PIH/FIH will be in maintaining a distinctive identity within the plethora of other P/C ministries, networks, and denominational organizations is somewhat unclear at the time of this writing. The fire of the Renewal of the 1990s burns with less intensity today than earlier, but rumors of fresh wind, another downpour and new fire abound in some P/C circles.
Whether PIH/FIH can keep the coals glowing and even fan them into another revival flame or whether it will shift its expressed mission to find a somewhat different niche within the larger PC movement remains to be seen. At the time of this writing, TACF still continues to host nightly renewal meetings and near-monthly special conferences. For the present these are a means of recruiting new members and for maintaining important relationships among those who have already joined this network of churches.
Harvest International Ministries
Harvest Rock Church (HRC) in Pasadena, California is one of many independent churches that developed out of the renewal of the 1990s. Che' Ahn, founding pastor of HRC, had his Toronto-like experience that spiritually energized him to start the church in April, 1994 as a result of a conference held at the Anaheim Vineyard, a church that John Wimber founded and once pastored. After beginning his church plant, Ahn visited Toronto and quickly identified with the renewal taking place at TACF. HRC and Che' Ahn catapulted into renewal fame after John Arnott's visit in 1995, and HRC soon became known as "the Toronto of southern California" with its nightly meetings, large conferences, and its itinerant pastors who led conferences in other locations.
Ahn was joined in 1995 by three other pastors who brought their churches into Harvest Rock Church, resulting in an unusually effective example of pastoral team work. This integrated pastoral team in which authority and responsibility is shared among five men has allowed HRC to develop a strong organizational base while simultaneously freeing Ahn to pursue a vision that frequently takes him beyond the walls of the Pasadena church. Ahn and another pastor, Rick Wright, have been responsible for the development of a fledgling denominational structure known as Harvest International Ministries (HIM).
When the Toronto Blessing began to wane, HRC slowly shifted its identity from being the "Renewal Center for the West Coast of the United States" (as noted on its Website in 1998) to being a "new apostolic church" with Ahn being proclaimed as one of the new apostles and president of HIM. A totally revamped Website (http://www.harvestrockchurch.org) mirrors this shift in emphasis from a commitment to the free-flow of charisma to an organization that brokers spiritual power and authority. There is little evidence of the Toronto influence on its new Website, save for the annual Catch the Fire Conference scheduled for November, 2000. HRC, as with other congregations who sought to be renewal centers, has made its nightly renewal meetings meetings and extensive schedule of conferences seems to be a thing of the past. This is not to say that HRC is no longer an important player in the revitalization of the P/C movement, but rather that it sees itself as moving beyond the Toronto experience. As Rick Wright, vice-president of HIM commented in a recent interview, "The Renewal made us visible to others looking for oversight in the U.S." Like PIH, HIM promises to provide a "relational network", conferences, and spiritual renewal to interested church leaders.
Where HIM differs somewhat from PIH is in its structural model and articulation of its strategies and goals. Che' Ahn's passion for world missions is the spirit of HIM, which takes flesh in a model provided by C. Peter Wagner, particularly in the development known as a "new apostolic reformation." Wagner, who was one of Ahn's professors at Fuller Theological Seminary where Ahn earned a doctorate in World Mission, is one of several leaders involved in promoting the restoration of the apostolic age, "spiritual mapping" to identify the geographical areas in need of special prayer (10/40 window) and worldwide evangelism. HIM has a reported priority for church planting and reaching the "unreached peoples, especially those living in the 10/40 window of the world." It is also committed to "apostolic equipping" in which those with an apostolic anointing (like Ahn) recruit, screen, and send skilled missionaries to these areas of the world. Like TACF which has developed its schools, HIM has opened Harvest International School with majors in either church planting or missions to train young people for the mission field.
The church Website describes the purpose of HIM as follows:
Harvest International Ministries is a voluntary association of churches, ministries, and missionaries seeking to impact the nations. HIM gladly welcomes affiliation with local and international churches which demonstrate a heart for missions, a hunger for revival and renewal and a fervency for sharing the gospel with the lost.
It lists the names and addresses for over 50 churches and ministries who share Ahn's vision for the establishment of a "new apostolic church." Unofficially (in church sermons and during an interview with the writer), a much larger network is described with a conservative estimate of 400 churches being involved in HIM. It would appear that HIM is operating on two levels. One is as a group of independent renewal churches (primarily on the U.S. West Coast) who are coming together under Ahn's leadership. These are the usually small and independent churches who utilize the opportunities for networking, to receive counsel and encouragement and for opportunities to attend conferences in exchange for a contribution of three to ten percent of the ministry's annual income to support HIM. On another level there are "apostles" in other countries, especially those in developing nations, who are joining with and bringing their churches under the HIM umbrella.
Ahn's voice is part of a chorus in the P/C movement who believe that the apostolic is the last of the five-fold biblical office presently being restored to the church. While the 1970s saw the restoration of the office of evangelist and the l980s, the prophetic office, the 1990s has witnessed the beginning of the restoration of the apostolic. Ahn is regarded as one of the emerging apostles in the Pauline tradition, and HRC claims the identity a "new apostolic church." This vision, closely related to "spiritual mapping" and its attendant controversies, is one that is increasingly gaining credibility among some leaders both in the P/C movement and in the larger evangelical world. Given the ability of Ahn to retain a vision while changing course within the larger P/C movement, it is likely that HIM will continue its growth as an emerging denomination, albeit one with fuzzy boundaries that fits well with the larger worldwide P/C movement.
Church Planting and Church Revitalization
One of the institutional fruits of the Toronto Blessing is the undetermined number of new charismatic churches established throughout the world due to, at least in part, ministers being personally touched by the Blessing. As already noted, Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena is one example of such a church plant. Another related fruit is the refreshing of established P/C churches whose own congregations and ministries have been revitalized as a result of the Blessing. In this section I wish to tell abridged stories of four churches in the greater Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio area which have been impacted by Toronto. These represent churches that I have been tracking personally (visiting several times a year, attending conferences, talking informally with pastors and congregants, etc.) during the years of the Blessing, but they also reflect countless other churches I have encountered locally in the greater Cleveland area, during my travels to other locations, and in surfing the Internet. Each narrative involves a modern entrepreneurial pastor whose pragmatism has been tempered by a life-changing mystical experience in Toronto. Their accounts of personal transformation flesh out the statistical reports from renewal pilgrims presented earlier by putting faces and testimonies with changed ministries. They also illustrate the process whereby a personal religious experience often has institutional consequences.
Case 1. Shiloh Church: Maintaining the Presence and the Spirit
I begin with the story of Shiloh Church not because it is the "greatest" of the four congregations I will briefly discuss but because appearance would suggest it is the "least." With an attendance of seven to twelve people on a given Sunday morning, it is unlikely to be selected as a feature for any of the multitude of magazines on successful church ministry. Meeting in a large but homey rented room in an office building on a quiet street in North Canton, Ohio (some 40 miles south of Cleveland), its obscurity makes Shiloh somewhat different from the other churches discussed in this section. Its lack of programs and minimal structure has created a kind of "open space" where God's intense presence associated Toronto Blessing is still experienced in some measure at every gathering.
The name "Shiloh" was "given" to the young pastor, Jeff Metzger, as part of a larger vision for the church he felt he was "called" to plant. It seems a most appropriate name for a place where the presence of God can be experienced by both seasoned charismatics as well as those uninitiated into P/C thought and practices. A written paper is handed to newcomers instructing them simply to worship and seek God. In short order, even newcomers unfamiliar with Toronto and the strange manifestations of the renewal meetings may find themselves laughing or sobbing uncontrollably, involved in weird bodily contortions or being motionless for hours as if in a trance. Unlike Toronto and other renewal services, however, there has never been a programmed ritual with music, testimonies and preaching to precede the time of quiet prayer that is the focus of Shiloh's gatherings. With CD music playing in the background, some 40 or more people are likely to wander in and out during the gatherings that begins at 8 p.m. each Thursday evenings. More regular attenders may move to others in the room quietly asking of they might want prayer. Often it is a wordless prayer, allowing the pre-programmed CD music to be the invocation. There is no formal opening and no timed dismissal; it is not unusual for the last worshiper to leave after midnight. Each person seems to depart this free-form gathering with a sense of having encountered the presence of God.
When Metzger first visited TACF in June, 1996, he went as part of a business venture to assist in the production of the video "Go Inside the Toronto Blessing." He describes his first Toronto experience as "being glued to the carpet and filled with liquid love." His life, he says, has never been the same. Upon returning to is North Canton home, Jeff and his wife Beth prayed with a woman who was seeking counsel for her problems. Metzger had no wise counsel or quick fixes B only the offer of prayer which the woman graciously accepted. Although Metzger often prayed with people, he had never experienced the power of prayer in a non-church setting as he did that night. The woman went under the power of the Spirit for nearly an hour, later reporting that she was freed from the emotional baggage that brought her to the Metzger home. This scene was repeated time and again before Jeff and Beth opened their home on Thursday nights to anyone who wished prayer. The Thursday meetings, now held at the new rented facilities, have been going on weekly for over four years.. Many come only for a time-some only once. Although there is a core of more-or-less regular attenders, the periphery seems to change with the seasons. The small Sunday gathering and the turnover on Thursday nights could be discouraging, but somehow it is not. People phone regularly B even the one-time visitor B to share some blessing with Metzger, assuring him that the felt presence of God is not an illusion. There personal accounts of the presence of God keep Metzger faithful to the gatherings regardless of small numbers.
Shiloh remains a place where the essence of the Toronto Blessing can still be experienced. For many, if not most visitors, the prayer time after the service at TACF, with visible signs of "carpet time" and other outward physical manifestations that became so controversial, was when the presence of God seemed most intense. The outward signs may have caught the attention of the media and first-time visitors, but they masked the inner experiences of God and attendant healing that was occurring throughout the auditorium. For the present, Shiloh remains as it has for the past four years, devoid of organized ministry and programs that might detract from this singular focus on the presence of God. It provides a kind of "open space," similar to the earliest days of the Toronto Blessing, where Mary's sitting at Jesus's feet is cherished over Martha's preparing a meal. Its quietism may be unsettling to many B even some who have tasted of its blessing.
Metzger's own original fundamentalist approach to P/C Christianity has changed considerably since his Toronto experience. With God's love being so palpably felt each week as people gather, it's difficult to emphasize doctrine or form. Metzger seems content to live out what he wrote after a Shiloh retreat nearly two years ago (October, 1998):
Shiloh must remain a place in which people can find rest in the presence of God. Our emphasis is on truly being a Christian, allowing our doing to flow naturally from who we are. In the future, it cannot take on any rigid form, but rather must remain free form. In other words, we should remain simple and flexible in order to respond to His direction. We must allow fluidity in the midst of truth: not being preoccupied with the traditional way but not putting "being unique" on a pedestal either.
He continues to listen for direction for the church, but tries to resist the use of his entrepreneurial skills and training to facilitate growth. As he and his wife read the signs, God seems to be behind this call to provide a place where people can simply rest in the loving presence of God. The past year found Metzger without a job and three young children to support. Before long a new lucrative business seemed to fall from nowhere into their lives with little effort on their part. Metzger jokes that God seemed to give him this business to keep him from practicing his entrepreneurial skills on Shiloh.
I suspect there are many Shiloh's throughout the world that have spun off the Toronto Blessing. At times I have heard rebuke rendered from pulpits of churches were the Toronto Blessing once was strong warning people not to leave the church for small home fellowships that have broken away from the larger congregations. In other places I have learned of intercessory prayer groups within the congregation have become the vestiges of the Toronto Blessing in larger churches. Most American believers are too used to a full-service congregation to be satisfied with a diet of contemplative prayer. Shiloh-like meetings will probably continue, having little institutional consequences except to remind believers of the essence of the Blessing.
Case 2. Akron City Vineyard Church: Taking the Blessing to the Streets
Like the Toronto Blessing itself, Mark Perry's story begins in the Association of Vineyard Churches. While still a school teacher in California, Perry began to feel the call to plant a church B a call that was confirmed when the Vineyard where he began to serve on staff selected him to begin a new church in nearby Five Cities, California. After pastoring Five Cities Vineyard for three and a half years, Perry and his wife Cheryl "felt called" to leave their growing church of 250 members to begin another church in Akron, Ohio. Perry's "Welcome to the Vineyard" letter introduces himself and the church with the following:
In May of 1996, we moved our family to Akron, Ohio from the Central Coast of California, where we were pastors of a growing Vineyard church. Through His guidance, we believe God directed us to move to Akron to start this church. Since we've arrived, we have enjoyed the warmth of good people who have welcomed us and have helped us to build a really great church here in Akron. What started as a single family now involves dozens of families and individuals who have caught the vision. Our vision at Vineyard City Church is a family of happy, effective Christians loving our city into relationship with Jesus.
Perry's narrative is filled with prophecy and divine serendipity that has guided his ministry. He and his family left a church and area of the country they loved as a result of a series of "signs" that God wanted them to establish this church in Akron, a place neither had ever visited until Perry began to hear the call. One prophecy given them just before they left Five Cities stated that at first Akron would be a desert like experience, but "in three years you will be vindicated." I interviewed Perry at the end of April, 2000 when the spring rains seem to have fallen upon the new congregation. The church had finally grown to over 100 people who have caught Perry's vision that renewal and evangelism has to be wed.
Mark Perry remembers well his first visit to TACF in April, 1994, a visit that came shortly after he planted his first church. It began on the Tuesday after Easter with one of the leaders talking about repentance-and Mark wept. The next day he felt the Lord was telling him to drink freely as he experienced being "drunk" in the Spirit. On Thursday he was hit with "holy laughter," one of the most common signs during this renewal. On Friday Perry said he "shook, crunched, and trembled," during which he felt he was "given power." Perry returned to Toronto six more times, with each visit having a well-remembered significance, including the meeting in January, 1996 (just before making a final decision to come to Akron) of two men from Akron in Toronto who provided another "sign" of God's call to relocate.
Perry's experiences in Toronto and with renewal on the Central Coast of California left him convinced that renewal and evangelism had to be linked B that those in the renewal community "needed to give away to the whole community what had been given to them." His early desert experience in Akron was in part caused by the ups-and-downs of testing out ways to put flesh on this vision. His new church plant was in an area of the country that is quite different from central California -- geographically, culturally and socially. Perry first got a vision of planting a church in 1993 while still in California. It was to be a church that would be relationship based, with weekly services to celebrate relationships, and its multi-ethnic and cross class membership would minister to other churches in the city. Akron City Vineyard with its cross-section of people and commitment to the city is finally beginning to take shape in accord with this vision. It is an unusual church whose worship time is not limited to the meeting room but includes "going out and bringing church to people in the neighborhood" (rather than waiting for them to come to church). Perry's approach continues to be one of taking renewal to where the people live B as he puts it, "to take the waters of renewal to the street."
Mark Perry seems like a man who is at peace even though he is uncertain as to what the next step will be. He still waits to "hear from God" and listens carefully for confirmations to guide him. In December, 1999 Perry received an e-mail from a prophetess in his old Five Cities Vineyard who said, "The test is over. You almost didn't make it, but the next season will be fun. You will receive clear direction in the spring." Another man who knew nothing of these words said to Perry, "Have fun right now. The Lord will give you clear direction." After nearly four years of ups-and-downs with this new church plant, Perry seems to be enjoying the vision that is becoming a reality.
Case 3. Metro Church South: Taking Nations and Cities
Metro Church South, a church of some 200 adult members and another 100 children, was founded by Steve Witt in the south suburbs of the greater Cleveland area. Witt, a former Vineyard church planter, regional leader of the Canadian AVC, and church pastor founded the church on September 13, 1996, while involved in the Toronto Blessing. Although he had established two other churches (including one in the same area of Cleveland as his new church) prior to his 1994 Toronto experience, Witt describes this newest church plant as having a different quality from his earlier ventures.
Witt jokingly described his first visit to TACF in April, 1994, as a "baptism into the spirit of 'I don't care'." He elaborated by saying:
I was stone drunk and hit with waves of laughter. I was leaning against the wall, laughing and laughing. The laughter was so deep in my stomach that I was aching. I used muscles in my face that were not used to used exercise. The next morning my face was swollen from the laughter. I left Toronto feeling invincible. I was able to leave my concerns about security, numbers public response, etc. I felt as if I had been baptized into God. One cannot be a God-pleaser and a man pleaser. There was a washing off of all my cares and concerns C they were simply washed off!
This intense sense of surrender and abandonment is one that Witt has felt on five or six other occasions since that initial experience, allowing him a new freedom to minister.
As with the majority of the TACF survey respondents (90% of whom reported being more in love with Jesus than ever before), Toronto touched in Witt a moment of "first love" C the love he compares to the discussion in Revelation about the Church of Ephesis. As Witt commented, "The only thing that really matters is the Lord. That experience simplifies the reason as to why we are here. Only Got matters. We can forget everything else."
It was with this spirit of abandon that Witt and his family left their Canadian Vineyard for Cleveland to plant a church in the summer of 1996. Although Witt still has a high regard for the AVC, he chose to align his Cleveland congregation with Partners in Harvest and has visited some 15 countries "fanning the flames of revival" as an itinerant speaker. His first meeting of Metro Church South brought in 92 people, many responding to the fifty 30-second spots that Witt gave on Christian radio. In them he called for people who "loved the Lord but who were dissatisfied with church." The entrepreneurial church-planter "knew" that such a call would probably bring malcontents who were unlikely to stay put in any church, but the mystic felt God was telling him to put out this call. Surprisingly most of those who answered this early call are still with him. Witt notes:
This is the first church I've planted out of renewal. The focus was on worship. There were no other ministries (no youth groups, Sunday school, etc.) For the first year. Our main reason for coming together was to worship.
Although worship remains a prime reason for Metro, other ministries are now in place to serve the mostly young families in the congregation. One ministry relevant to the spread of the P/C movement is Witt's own itinerant ministry which he shares with teams from his congregation. He explained the recurring trips to the Faeroe Islands, a group of islands with some 43,000 inhabitants in the North Atlantic, as "practicing nation-taking." When asked what he meant by this phrase, Witt responded:
We send ministry teams to bless and build a nation. Even if we don't build, we want to bless. Our team prays with people and gives prophetic words of encouragement to each person prayed with. We want to strengthen people C to encourage them C to help them in any way we can.
Metro teams are presently set to practice "presence evangelism" in the United States as well as abroad. Like Perry's Akron City Church, they take the renewal with prayer and prophecy to the streets of Cleveland. Led by Witt, they are also available to train teams in other churches and cities for low-key evangelism that focuses on blessing rather than tracts.
Case #4: St. Luke's Episcopal Church: Reviving the Renewal
Although persons of all different denominations, often accompanied by clergy, visited Toronto, the single dominant group involved in the Toronto Blessing has been independent/non-denominational congregations. Small independent churches and new church plants have less to lose in aligning themselves with controversy, whereas established congregations often fear division and the loss of members. St. Luke's Episcopal Church in suburban Akron, Ohio is one of the few mainline churches that risked taking an active role in the Toronto revival, encouraging people to visit TACF, sponsoring renewal meetings and conferences, and opening the Sunday morning service to renewal experiences. When first hearing parishioners' reports about Toronto, Fr. Roger Ames, Rector of St. Luke's, would reply, "You don't need to go to Toronto. Whatever they have, we have right here." After finally making the pilgrimage himself with other priests who serve the congregation for the 1994 Catch the Fire Conference, Ames confessed upon his return: "Brothers and sisters, I know what I said B and I have had to repent. I now say, whatever Toronto has, we want."
St. Luke's Episcopal Church (formerly of Bath and now Fairlawn, Ohio) has been a flagship for the P/C movement in mainline churches for nearly 30 years. Its founding pastor Charles Irish had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the late 1960s during the height of the Charismatic Renewal Movement and led his tiny congregation into the renewal. The congregation grew and St. Luke's eventually launched two other charismatic Episcopal churches, one of which still serves inner-city Akron. Unlike many other mainline churches touched by the CRM in the 1960s and 1970s, St. Luke's remained a viable and growing church that retained a charismatic flavor. Over the years, charisma continued an ebb and flow within the church, being periodically revitalized with visiting speakers and charismatic conferences. It was not without reason that Roger Ames could assume that the Toronto church had little new to offer his congregation. Moreover, the Toronto Blessing came at a time when St. Luke's was planning launch a fund-raising campaign for a new church building to accommodate its congregation of about 400-450 that gathered each Sunday. Aligning with this new controversial movement could involve great risk.
Roger Ames took the risk and it seemed to pay off. The building campaign, the building of the new church, and the transition to these new facilities on Pentecost Sunday, 1997 (all during the height of the experience of the Blessing at St. Luke's) were successful beyond anyone's expectations. St. Luke's now has approximately 650-700 people in attendance each Sunday in its new facilities, an increase of over 25 percent since Toronto. Ames believes that the renewal has also heightened the mission emphasis of the church, including the adoption of "sister churches" in the Ukraine and Brazil. He feels that short term mission trips to poor countries overseas "has helped this upper-middle-class congregation to better understand socio-economic issues. It has given us a higher consciousness about issues here in the United States."
When Ames was asked to summarize what effect the Toronto Blessing has had on St. Luke's he responded:
It has revitalized the old and given us new perspectives. It has increased our awareness of our early Christian roots. It has also increased intercessory prayer. The intercessors have become more contemplative. We will see if this spirit of contemplation moves into the Body. Intercession does undergird our mission work, our conferences, and our increased outward focus.
HarvestNet: Harvesting Northeastern Ohio (USA)
Moving behind the scenes of the institutional developments being discussed one usually finds interesting P/C narrative not only in personal lives but also on local and regional levels. In the case of the Northeastern Ohio (the greater Cleveland-Akron-Canton area), the saga begins with prophetic promises spoken about this region years ago and reiterated as the Toronto Blessing came into the area C promises that point to a "church of God's dreams" coming to Cleveland. A key prophecy was given in September of 1989 in Kansas City, MO at a spiritual warfare conference. The prophetic team emphasized that this prophecy was for all believers in the Cleveland-Akron area and that those present at the Kansas City conference were functioning as "seed representatives of the entire local church." A eyewitness to the prophetic word describes it as follows:
The Holy Spirit gave these men many revelatory insights into certain situations in the city, insights that were quite miraculous and which attested to the veracity of the whole prophecy. The sense was that this Psalm (18) was an inspired curriculum or training manual for the metropolitan Cleveland area, like a spiritual treasure map that would help the city church in finding the treasures of her inheritance. In a symbolic way what was received in that room on that day was received for the whole church in Cleveland. Not only that, but it was revealed that to fulfill this word it was God's plan to bring other prepared vessels into the city, and that God would fulfill His wonderful promises to all of us together."
Some caught the seedling vision of a Cleveland "city church" that would transcend old and new denominational and congregational barriers. After prayer and fasting some of the pastors began to gather a couple of times a month for prayer and once a month for lunch in order to promote a pastoral unity that would be a foundation for the vision. As Tom Hare, one of the leaders of this movement and now director of HarvestNet Institute, commented: "These individuals were sowing God's vision into the spiritual genetic code of the Church in this region."
When the Toronto Blessing developed, Tom Hare was a pastor of Church of the King (COTK), a non-denominational congregation in one of the eastern Cleveland suburbs. As early as June, 1994, Church of the King experienced a minor outbreak of Toronto. In October, the church began to host monthly "refreshing" meetings patterned after TACF's renewal. In March of 1995 a team from TACF came to minister to an overflowing crowd in the church's rented facilities, an event that began COTK's hosting renewal meetings four nights a week. By late 1995 Hare began to feel that people were "missing the point" about the renewal. As he noted, "People were perceiving it only as a rain of refreshing. It is refreshing, but the purpose is to water the crop. It needed to grow in depth, purpose and magnitude."
Hare was one of a growing number of leaders who began to agree that it was time to "get off the carpet" and to prepare for evangelism. By late 1995 in some sectors of the renewal there was less talk about experiencing personal intimacy with God and more about gathering in the soon-to-come "harvest" during a new "wave" of "revival". The renewal at TACF was becoming old news as many charismatics were flocking to newer well-publicized sites, especially in Pensacola, Florida and Smithton, Missouri. With this shift also came more of an emphasis on the concept of "harvest" to replace the original emphasis on divine intimacy. It was out of this search for a structure for preparing for the harvest that HarvestNet emerged in 1997 with pastors of six churches, including Metro Church South, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, and Church of the King providing support.
HarvestNet describes its mission the training of workers for the harvest of souls that was coming to the area.Ba mission that would be pursued through HarvestNet Institute (see website www.harvestnet.net). A brochure describes HarvestNet as "a training center based in Northeast Ohio. . .to equip the next generation of leaders and workers for the massive harvest of souls that is coming, not only to the greater Cleveland area, but to the nation and the world." HarvestNet leaders believe that local congregations must work together as a city-wide church to accomplish the task that is coming. Its brochure on HarvestNet Institute of Northeast Ohio offers the following explanation:
The city-wide church is a formidable force of talent, diversity, gifting and anointing. In fact, it is within the city-wide church, throughout its local expression, that God has given "some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service..." (Ephesians 4:11). It is in unity that the church has strength. . . .It is this common vision of unity, strength and anointing which birthed HarvestNet: A broad range of area churches representing thousands of people, coming together to meet the challenge to train workers in this region.
In certain respects HarvestNet Institute bears resemblance to HIM's Harvest International School (HIS). Both have been shaped by Peter Wagner's call for a new paradigm for training that offers an alternative to the traditional seminary. Both offer training as well as theory about the range of the five-fold ministry (rather than the seminary focus on training pastors and teachers). It calls for more than academic knowledge, promising a place where anointing can be imparted. It would appear that, at least at this initial stage, HarvestNet has been more successful in recruiting students with its regional network than has been HIS with its international focus. The regional pastors who have come together in support appear to agree that HarvestNet Institute is one vehicle to express their Christian unity despite the racial, socio-economic, and denominational differences among their congregtions.
As with Harvest International Ministries, there is talk about the rise of the apostolic in these "last days" before the big harvest. The concept of "city-church" itself implies the rise of the apostolic, although the apostle for HarvestNet is still more of a theory than a named individual. Perhaps all of the 16 pastors involved see themselves in some way in an apostolic role, but as yet an apostolic hierarchy has not emerged. Some pastors have been pronounced "apostles" by itinerant prophets ministering in the area, but the precise shape of this apostolic city-church remains nebulous.
HarvestNet Institute's purpose is to train locals for city-wide mission and city-wide church planting. At present 16 churches are sponsor churches, including three Black churches, one Asian, and one Messianic Jewish congregation. Of the nine Anglo churches, four are members of established denominations (Episcopal, Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, and Four Square). HarvestNet seems to offer another alternative to existing denominationalism for corporate renewal endeavors as the continually changing P/C movement seeks new structures to balance charisma with institution. As with the other case examples presented, how much of its vision will be actualized remains to be seen.
Conclusion: Refreshing, Revitalization, and Rest
Three of the issues Rev. Dr. Hilborn requested that each contributor to this volume would address were (1) "To what extent do you now view the 'Toronto Blessing' as the work of God? (2) What lessons can be learnt from the >Blessing'?. (3) Does the "Blessing" have a future, or was it only "for a season"? This article has focused on providing empirical evidence for the first issue, albeit any attribution of divine action to the empirical developments is a matter of faith and beyond sociology's scope. What I am suggesting is that, like the other waves of P/C renewal in the 20th century, the Toronto Blessing has born institutional fruit that is revitalizing the movement. In being a medium for life-changing experiences for individuals, it has empowered many to begin new ministries and has revitalized old ones. (Another paper could be written to describe the many P/C parachurch ministries that have been launched, brought to greater visibility, or experienced revitalization through the Blessing,) In sum, I believe the Toronto Blessing has been a significant revitalizing force in the P/C movement in its use of and teachings about the charismatic gifts, especially prophecy in its different forms and emotional, mental and physical healing. The experience of "signs and wonders" have brought another generation of younger followers into the P/C movement to complement the graying heads of the boomers who experienced the earlier Jesus Movement and the Charismatic renewal of the 1960s and 1970s.
It is only with great hesitance that I proceed to briefly address the second and third issues. Although sociologists have a pretty good track record for analyzing the present, we usually have proved to be dismal prophets. My own assessment is that renewals such as the Toronto Blessing have a limited life span before its charisma is transformed into more static institutions. Charisma and institutionalization are both needed for the continuation for a viable P/C movement, a relationship that is usually move of an uneasy alliance than a graceful dance. Despite rumors of new revivals, prophetic words about harvests, and attempts to provide "new-wineskins", it appears that the Blessing has run its course. It has offered a new crop of leaders and young adherents to replace the aging leaders of the earlier charismatic movement and its boomer-aged followers. Some continue to bathe in its afterglow, but the free-flowing, nameless-faceless "Toronto Blessing" of 1994-1995 has slowly but surely moved away from charisma toward institutionalization.
I expect other renewals will come in the future to again revitalize the P/C movement. They will most commonly take the form of mini-renewals and revivals similar to ones occurring in between the waves prior to the Toronto Blessing and those taking place now. Information about them, however, will be more quickly disseminated in this electronic age. Given the speed of
communication and travel and the input from developing nations where the P/C movement seems less subject to the rolling-coaster effect, perhaps it will not take another generation for a new wave to develop.
Beyond such sociological observations is a word I am hearing in prayer and in the reported prayers of others C a word of caution and of invitation. The word of caution is to remain focused in the present. While much of Christendom either focuses on the past contained in
its traditions or apocalyptically looks to the future, the Toronto Blessing has provided those who chose to be refreshed an awareness of the contemporary kingdom among us. Retaining the focus on the present while looking to the vision of the kingdom that is yet to come has never been easy for Christians.
The word of invitation is to continue to rest in the (present) presence of God. One of the most important messages of the P/C movement is that God is indeed with us C in the ordinary and in the not-so-ordinary happenings of life and worship. God is not simply the giver of or the subject of propositional truths, but is the One in whom "we live and breathe and have our being." Living in the now, as illustrated in some of the narratives found in this article, is not easy C for those who swam in the river of renewal as well as those who have not. Perhaps the "lesson" of Toronto can be found in reflecting on Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn fro me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Toronto was (at least in part) about learning to find rest for one's soul in God. It seemed to be provided instantly during the prayer times following the services when it was not unusual for pilgrims to rest on the floor for an hour or more. Such Sabbath-rest (see Hebrews 4:1-11) is an illusive and fragile gift but one that was almost universally experienced during "carpet time" throughout the renewal. Whether it can be retained by those who have experienced it and transmitted to others without the dramatic events that brought the curious and the faithful to TACF in the early years of renewal remains to be seen.