A year ago few people, Christian or secular, knew anything about the small Vineyard church located just west of Toronto's Pearson Airport. Now certain airlines offer a discount for travelers who want to fly in for the nightly, Tuesday-through-Sunday renewal meetings. "Toronto Life" magazine has even billed the Toronto Blessing as the top tourist attraction of 1994.

Toronto's Airport Vineyard Church has had to move to a new location just to handle the crowds. When the "fire" first fell a year ago, about 200 believers were gathered to hear Randy Clark, a Vineyard pastor from Saint Louis. On January 20, 1995, one year after the birth of the renewal, Clark returned to preach—only this time, to an anniversary crowd of 4,000. On a typical night, there are 500 to 1,000 people, from every corner of the globe, in the four- to five-hour worship service.

Already the Airport Vineyard phenomenon has generated four books, dozens of articles in both secular and Christian media, and significant television coverage in Canada, England, and continental Europe. Dave Collins, a Toronto pastor who recently attended the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Seoul, said, "Virtually every time I told people where I pastored, they asked me about the Toronto Blessing."

Physical manifestations occurring in the worship services of the Airport Vineyard have been the focal point for the attention—holy laughter, shaking, animal noises, and falling down, to name a few. There have also been reports of healing miracles, including a story of angels working with dyslexic children. The most famous account claims that Sarah Lilliman, a teenager who lives northwest of Toronto, was cured of paralysis and loss of speech, memory, and eyesight after a visit to the Airport Vineyard. Others have testified that they have been healed of pain, headaches, long-term infertility, and severe emotional disorders.

Some view this Toronto-based renewal as a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, akin to the birth of modern Pentecostalism on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. Pilgrims from all over the world seem to agree, as many continue to travel to Toronto believing that the Holy Spirit has indeed landed at the Airport Vineyard. John Arnott, senior pastor of the church, has said repeatedly that "we need to have more faith in God's ability to bless us than Satan's ability to deceive us." Out of this conviction, he now travels the globe to spread what some believe is the last great work of the Spirit before the return of Christ.

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Support for the ongoing activities at the Airport Vineyard has come from a wide variety of sources. Dave Roberts, author of "The Toronto Blessing" (Kingsway) and editor of England's "Alpha" magazine, says he has been impressed by the servant ministry and passion for Jesus that permeate this latest Vineyard renewal. One of Canada's most influential evangelical thinkers, Clark Pinnock, answers the question "Is this a divine visitation?" in the affirmative: "I go to the meetings in order to wait on God and listen," he writes in the March 1995 issue of "The Canadian Baptist." "It is uplifting to place oneself in the company of believers so intent on encountering God."

David Mainse, the host of 100 Huntley Street, Canada's most influential Christian TV show, also embraces the Toronto Blessing. He says that while visiting Holy Trinity Brompton church in London, the launch site for the British version of the renewal, God came over him with such power that he could not move for 40 minutes. "I know that something has transformed my life and I believe I'm a better person than I was before I went to England," he states in a recent issue of the Airport Vineyard magazine "Spread the Fire."


Despite the wide-ranging support for the Toronto Blessing, an equally diverse amount of negative opinion abounds. Some Pentecostal leaders in Canada and the United States are concerned both over the renewal's neglect of tongues-speaking and over its emphasis on other manifestations. Steve and Cheryl Thompson, former members of the Airport Vineyard, believe that demonic possession can result from participating in Vineyard services. They are not alone in suggesting that the Toronto Blessing is possibly paving the way for the rule of the Antichrist.

Other critics focus on Rodney Howard-Browne, the South African revival leader known for his laughter-filled renewal meetings. Howard-Browne is considered the catalyst for the Toronto Blessing; soon after he anointed Randy Clark and told him to "lay hands on everything that moves," Clark visited Toronto, "and the rest is history."

Howard-Browne has drawn public criticism from Hank Hanegraaff, author of "Christianity in Crisis" (Harvest House), the blockbuster critique of the Word of Faith movement. Hanegraaff, head of the Christian Research Institute, states that the ministry of Howard-Browne and the Airport Vineyard represent something "extremely dangerous that could be a road to the occult" because of the focus on subjective and chaotic religious experience. While Hanegraaff does not believe the Vineyard has become a cult, he says the Toronto Blessing has resulted from the unintended psychological manipulation of gullible and desperate believers.

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Hanegraaff's warnings have been echoed by other leaders in both North America and Britain. John MacArthur includes the Airport Vineyard as a target in his latest work, "Reckless Faith" (Crossway). In the Fall 1994 issue of the "Spiritual Counterfeits Project Newsletter," Warren Smith contends that the current emphasis on holy laughter may represent a "strong delusion" from Satan. British renewal leader Clifford Hill argues that Howard-Browne's meetings resemble voodoo worship. (In actuality, Howard-Browne's meetings typically begin with high-powered Pentecostal-style worship, give way to a biblically based sermon from Howard-Browne, and conclude with a time to anoint the congregation).

Even Vineyard leaders have not demonstrated full-fledged acceptance of the Toronto Blessing. While John Wimber, international director of the Association of Vineyard Churches, has endorsed the Blessing, he has done so with some reserve. A year ago he called a special board meeting at Vineyard's headquarters in Anaheim to address problematic issues about personal prophecy and the making of animal sounds in worship. This past January he sent two advisers to Toronto to monitor the renewal and give some strong guidance to local Vineyard leaders about perceived weaknesses. One of these advisers, Vineyard national coordinator Todd Hunter, says, "The human reason so many Christians have gone to Toronto is because of the enormous trust they have in the leadership of Wimber." But he adds that "if John thought the Airport Vineyard were hurting the body of Christ, he would shut things down in a second."


Wimber's cautious optimism about the Toronto Blessing signifies the difficulty of interpreting any renewal unequivocally. True discernment demands thoughtful probing of the authentic blessings and the real dangers that accompany any divine work involving human beings. Ian Rennie, one of Canada's leading church historians, notes, "It is singularly unhelpful for Christians around the world merely to dismiss the Toronto Blessing or endorse it carte blanche. Why not, rather, work at seeing how God works creatively and powerfully even in renewals that need correction and discipline?"

While truth-telling is not always about balance, many evaluations of the Airport Vineyard have been either too defensive or too harsh. What, then, must be affirmed?

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First, the Toronto Blessing has provided spiritual renewal for many thousands of Christians. This must not be ignored or downplayed (see "How I Was Blessed," in this issue). Hungry and desperate people have been nourished and revived by the worship, prayer, and counsel that infuse the nightly meetings. Arnott believes the reason he has attained such international visibility is because "there are a lot of satisfied customers out there." English pastor Dave Holden has written, "When we pray for [people], they laugh or weep. In the following days they talk of a sense of God's presence, of their marriages being different, of ethical changes in their lives. [Our church has] discovered a new lease on life; our prayer meetings have quadrupled."

Second, there is a social and evangelistic impulse at work in the Toronto Blessing. Arnott claims, "Every night I give an altar call for people to be saved. We have had well over 5,000 people make decisions for Christ. And that's a very conservative figure." Pentecostal evangelist Ace Clark, a former member of a motorcycle gang, credits his time at the Airport Vineyard for newly empowering him in his work with those on the fringe of society. Steve Long, an Airport Vineyard administrative pastor, believes this renewal helped him break his habit of yelling at his family.

A third positive element of the Toronto Blessing is its spirit of joyful celebration. A relaxed style is a trademark of John Wimber's public ministry and permeates the overall ethos of the Vineyard. On the surface, holy laughter deserves the benefit of the doubt. If laughter is the best medicine, there is something disturbing in any rush to prove that holy laughter is simply fraudulent.

Fourth, the essentially evangelical theology behind the Vineyard movement must be affirmed. Its doctrinal statement is biblical and orthodox. Though Wimber's pragmatism hurt him when he embraced the Kansas City prophets (CT, Jan. 14, 1991, p. 18), his biblical moorings ultimately led him to self-criticism and change. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School theology professor Wayne Grudem has shown in several essays how many of the attacks on Wimber are based on careless work and half-baked analysis. No essentials of the Christian faith are under attack as a result of the Toronto Blessing.

Arnott, a graduate of Ontario Bible College, has worked hard to build relationships with other churches in central Canada. He has had significant interactions with leading pastors in many denominations, including the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada and the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches. Yes, disagreements remain, but they are not about the central claims of the gospel.

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This is not to say that elements of the renewal do not raise serious concerns. Methodologically, Vineyard apologists should take a cue from Wimber and be more relaxed in response to criticism, as difficult as that may be. Serenity can go a long way in debate. Defenders of this renewal have dismissed critics as "God's frozen chosen" or as "Pharisees" (the dominant motif in William DeArteaga's work, "Quenching the Spirit;" Creation House).

These responses are troubling, because they use both history and prophecy to silence critics and force adherents into an unnecessary dualism about this renewal. On the historical dimension, those who raise questions about the Toronto Blessing are compared to poor, dense Charles Chauncy who dared to question Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. But the ghosts of Edwards and Chauncy should not be used to quench the legitimate testing of the spirits in our day.

Meanwhile, the two-pronged prophetic defense of this current renewal has lacked substance. On one hand, some justify the Toronto Blessing by saying that various prophets have predicted the phenomenon in the last decade. However, when these prophecies are examined, they turn out to be very vague and are often set in a larger context of repeated, false speculation.

On a more alarming note, prophetic warnings are also being delivered against critics. In the first issue of "Spread the Fire," Stacey Campbell delivered a thunderous warning against those who cause division: "It will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than it will be for that one on that day." Readers are then told they have a choice: see the Toronto Blessing and "call it 'God' or follow after human wisdom and reasoning."

Both Vineyard pastor James Ryle and psychiatrist John White (who has announced his calling as a prophet) have issued judgments on those who dare to question the current activity in Toronto. But given the Vineyard's past ambivalence about the Kansas City prophets, these present rumblings have a rather hollow ring.

Another cause for concern is that the preaching connected with the Airport Vineyard has been weak. With too few exceptions, sermons have been lacking in exegetical and theological depth. On this point, R. T. Kendall, pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, England, and an advocate for this renewal, has decried the anti-intellectual ethos that often pervades renewals. "If you are empty-headed before the Toronto Blessing, you will be empty-headed afterwards," he noted in a public speech last winter.

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The lack of rigor deplored by Kendall also surfaces in exaggerated healing claims. With the help of two medical doctors, I examined three of the more popular cases of alleged divine doctoring. In the case of Sarah Lilliman, she did experience a wonderful recovery but not of the magnitude or in the manner suggested by Airport Vineyard leaders. The story of a man's alleged instant delivery from cancer was marred by later medical reports that cancer is still present. The belief that angels healed two girls of dyslexia is currently the most fascinating and hopeful case, but a final verdict will depend on careful medical testing, which is yet to be done.


The Toronto Blessing also demands further thinking about what constitutes Christian unity. Tom Stipe, an ex-Vineyard pastor, finds it tragic that the Toronto Blessing might bring "a polarization greater than the tongues controversy of the past." While people from many traditions embrace the Toronto Blessing, what about those who do not?

Arnott rightly notes that "the Holy Spirit is the only true unifier." But if unity is simply taken to mean uniformity in affirmation of the Toronto Blessing, then the Vineyard will have lost its place as a vital charismatic force that appeals to Christians of many persuasions. Paradoxically, a relentless focus on the Toronto Blessing as the great move of God for the end times amounts to a reductionistic view of the Spirit, one that is blind to all the other ways that God is at work in Toronto and elsewhere around the world.

The most significant theological issue in the Toronto Blessing is this: What is central in a Christian's life of obedience to the Spirit? Francis Schaeffer realized many years ago the need for careful thought on what constitutes "true spirituality." His comment is especially relevant in the light of recent, relentless emphasis on spirituality of any guise.

People are drawn to attention-grabbing spiritualities. As in Jesus' day, believers and nonbelievers alike long for the spectacular. Few pilgrims would make their way to the Toronto Blessing if it were "just" about feeding the poor or biblical hermeneutics. Crowds love signs and wonders and will often settle for talk about signs and wonders. The controversial manifestations are defended too easily and have been given too much prominence. If there were no shaking, barking, laughing, or roaring, the Toronto Blessing would only be "normal" spirituality. And for this there would be no media attention, no crowds, no claims of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

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One television reporter went to the Airport Vineyard's "Catch the Fire" conference last fall as an unknown observer and saw that the manifestations were given center stage. When she returned to do interviews for a documentary, she was told constantly that the shaking and falling were really not crucial. This dichotomy troubled her. The bifurcation may also explain why many interviewed for this article expressed feelings of guilt or sadness when nothing happened to them during "ministry time."


The manifestations raise the larger issue of boundaries in spiritual worship. How does one decide how to discern what proceeds from the flesh and what proceeds from the Spirit? This question brings to mind the apostle Paul's teaching that in worship "everything be done in a fitting and orderly way" (1 Cor. 14:40, NIV). The context is an extended argument that Christian worship is to be rooted in love and characterized by intelligibility and order. Toronto Blessing meetings certainly press the edges on meaning and order, and often the manifestations are very hard to interpret.

Even Howard-Browne noted concerns about elements of the Toronto Blessing. "We don't have any barking or roaring in our meetings," he says. "If you bark like a dog, we'll give you dog food. If you roar like a lion, we'll put you in the zoo."

Furthermore, many believers have been offended by some of the wild and chaotic behavior, even though such frenzied actions are not the norm for most people most of the time. For example, picture men and women doing "carpet time" together, under great strains of moaning and holy laughing, touching one other with fresh jolts of power. Picture a man who, after a round of carpet time and bouncing up and down like a pogo stick, is anointed by two women, apparently releasing charges of the Spirit with every touch of their hands.

Airport Vineyard leaders like Arnott and Long are perplexed by doubts about how readily the Spirit moves in the nightly meetings. Allegedly, all it takes for some to fall over, laugh, writhe on the floor, twitch, or shake is a simple hand motion from someone in leadership. Others wave the Spirit around or simply blow the Spirit toward willing recipients. Can the Holy Spirit be so easily dispensed? (See "Pumped and Scooped?" in this issue.) Clark even mentioned an instance when a woman "fell in the Spirit" without someone behind her to catch her. She hit her head on a concrete wall and spent a week in hospital. Is this from the Spirit?

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Hunter acknowledges that the current emphases in the Toronto Blessing could result in its proponents being "adrift on a sea of subjectivity." It is from this same concern that Wimber has advised that Vineyard leaders "focus on the main and plain things of Scripture." Wimber's directive led the Vineyard board report to state: "It is our desire to embrace all that is good about this renewal while correcting that which is excessive, long-term hurtful, or contrary to Biblical mandates. We are committed to 'power evangelism' not just 'power'; we are committed to 'signs and wonders and church growth,' and not just 'signs and wonders.' "

Airport Vineyard leaders have responded to these concerns by placing less emphasis on the manifestations. Now in its second year, the church services reflect this change to some degree. And Christians both inside and outside the Airport Vineyard are coming to a greater realization that authentic spirituality has to be measured in the more important, yet less spectacular realities that constitute daily obedience to Jesus Christ, the giver of the Spirit.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes that we carry the gospel treasure in earthen vessels. This recognition of a mixed blessing serves as a signal that any renewal, by virtue of the human, imperfect element, demands continued probing. What some may consider an authentic, Spirit-filled experience may actually be peripheral to a life truly changed by the fires of the Holy Spirit.


James A. Beverley teaches theology and ethics at Ontario Theological Seminary; he is the author of "Holy Laughter and the Toronto Blessing" (Zondervan).


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