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The Toronoto Phenomenon


Articles in the LOOKOUT section of this website span a number of decades and are re-published on behalf of Adrian van Leen for research purposes. Original dates are being added to articles so as to place them in their correct historical setting(s). Adrian has endeavoured to be as fair and accurate as possible at the time of the original writing, but please note that the original article information may no longer reflect the subsequent or current actions, values, beliefs, positions, opinions, teachings or policies held by individuals, groups and/or organisations referred to in the original published article at the time of writing. As people change and move on, the same often applies to related Internet links; some links referred to in articles may have been changed or may no longer be available online.

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THE TORONTO PHENOMENON

For some time now CCG Ministries has been receiving enquiries about "Holy Laughter", or what has also been called the Toronto Blessing. The enquiries have come from around Australia and overseas, from people with a wide variety of backgrounds, but especially from Pentecostals and Charismatics. Most have expressed uncertainty, concern, uneasiness, confusion, about what they have heard proclaimed, personally seen and generally observed happening, in their own local churches. Some have heard about things second, or third, hand and have been both curious and concerned about the phenomenon of "holy laughter", or the "Toronto Blessing".

Our Ministry has not been alone in receiving enquiries about this issue. Around the world varying Christian organisations and publications have been dealing with this current phenomenon. Even the secular media has reported on it (e.g. TIME magazine, Aug. 22, 1994).

Churches around the globe have been affected, many claiming positive benefits for individuals and the congregation as a whole. But some other churches have apparently had disruption, division, and loss of members. From mainline churches such as the Anglicans to Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God; from churches as culturally and geographically diverse as from Singapore to Sydney, Toronto, Canada to Brighton in Britain, to Hong Kong in East Asia - something has been happening. And responses have been varied.

Writers and publishers raising questions and concerns have expressed their views with very diverse comments and headings. The titles used for some articles have been very critical, such as: ’Holy Laughter or Strong Delusion?’, ’A Look at Spiritual Pandemonium’, ’No Laughing Matter’, ’Disenchanted Evening’. Others have been more gentle and conciliatory in their tone, and this is reflected in the titles used on their articles, such as: ’Toronto Blessing - An Evaluation’, ’Holy Laughter - Is It Biblical?’, ’"Toronto Blessing" - True or False?’, ’Is There a Biblical Basis for the "Toronto Blessing"’, ’Mixed Blessing?’.

It appears that material from the United States tends to be much more polarised and dogmatic, with people either extremely in favour, or extremely against, the phenomenon. Articles from Britain tend to be more gentle and conciliatory in their cautionary approaches. Australian material tends to fall between the USA and Britain, with some taking a strong hard-line approach, others cautious, but not dogmatic either way.

The situation presents a complex problem. As one British writer, Doug Harris, Chairman of Reachout Trust, commented:

If we were to believe everything that we read we would be schizophrenic. The morning post brings a clear presentation that everything that is happening is of the Devil. The next post shows equally clearly that this is of God. This situation is a cameo of the division and confusion that are found within the Church in Britain at this time.

These comments can equally apply, not only to Britain, but also to Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, the USA, and elsewhere.

 

DO YOU CATCH IT?

Some have expressed concern about the pressures they have witnessed being applied by pastors who told their congregations that there was a danger of God’s blessing passing them by, and they (the pastors) had to be sent interstate or overseas to catch the blessing and bring it back.

The way a number of pastors have talked about the phenomenon, it almost appears to others to be a contagious disease which they want to catch and then spread.

Others have indicated that pastors have been put under pressure from members of their congregation to go to churches and places promoting the Toronto phenomenon to catch and fetch God’s latest blessing, otherwise the congregation would suffer and miss out.

Some pastors and church members are keen to "get the blessing" because they believe this is the latest way in which God will, through the Holy Spirit, bring growth to the church.

Serious questions have been raised about this as a movement of the Holy Spirit. If it truly IS, why do pastors have to travel to "catch" it? Or why does it sometimes, seemingly, require special travelling evangelists to spread it? Can’t the Holy Spirit spontaneously take it and spread it wherever, and whenever, He wants, and would He necessarily want to spread identical forms of blessing to different and diverse congregations with different and diverse needs?

 

ORCHESTRATED HYSTERIA AND HYPNOTISM?

There have been a number of critics, especially non-Pentecostal, non-Charismatic (but by no means only!), who have raised questions, or made suggestions, that the "Toronto" phenomenon reflects mass hysteria and forms of mass hypnosis. Concerns have been expressed about some seemingly orchestrated meetings and rallies involved in such things as "wearing down people’s resistance" - having people stand for long singing sessions; long times with eyes closed and hands in the air; subtle use of mood-setting music; use of group dynamics and group behaviour modification techniques; building up expectations and anticipations through suggestion and promotion.

Observations and reports from people in different places indicate that most often the phenomenon occurred at meetings and rallies during specifically designated "ministry" times (often at the end of lengthy meetings). The British magazine, Prophecy Today, had a Pentecostal pastor describe the meeting he attended at one of the first British churches to experience the "Toronto" phenomenon:

It was a three-and-a-half-hour service...The first hour was entirely taken up with heavy beat music, excessive use of drums and constant repetition of triumphalist songs declaring, "We are going to take the land, subdue the nation and present it to Christ." At one point a young man shouted, "The beast is dead! The beast is dead!," which was greeted with much screaming and shouting, culminating in a growing crescendo, with the whole congregation growling. After this, the elder leading the service told visitors not to worry about the growl, as "it always happens here". In the service...only three verses of scripture were read, during which the elders were falling about laughing on the platform. Typical of the testimonies given that night was one by a woman who said, "When I first came here I thought they were all nutcases, but now I am one of them!" She then went off into hysterical laughter.

Sometimes audio tapes are used of meetings and messages focussing on the "Toronto" phenomenon, and these are shared at services, meetings, prayer groups, and privately, to prepare people for what may follow, thus building some anticipation and expectation of the phenomenon repeating itself. One wonders about the appropriateness of the comments, reported of some pastors, who, having built up the expectation then state, "Let’s see if it will happen here," or "Now let the party [let the fun] begin!".

 

WHAT HAPPENS?

Throughout the history of the Church there have been times of revival and sometimes unusual phenomena occurring. Some of those heavily promoting the "Toronto" phenomenon are claiming that what is now happening has all happened before and seen, experienced and approved by such people as, John and Charles Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and others. These names, especially that of Jonathan Edwards, are being used to endorse and provide legitimacy for the "Toronto" phenomenon.

A selection of Bible verses are also being used as proof texts to support what is happening. These include: 1 Samuel 19:23-24; 2 Chronicles 5:14; Proverbs 17:22; Jeremiah 23:9; Ezekiel 1:28; Daniel 10:8; Micah 1:8; Habbakuk 3:16; Matthew 28:4; Acts 2:1-21, 3:19; 26:14.

Biblical and historical endorsement is "loosely" sought for the expressions of the "Toronto Blessing" descriptively reported as including:-

laughter: collectively - in waves, individually - sometimes gently, mostly loudly, often hysterically, even maniacally, uncontrollably, prolonged; making animal noises: barking, grunting, growling, roaring, screeching; making other noises: crying, groaning, moaning, screaming, shouting; body movements: twitching (sometimes violently), shaking, bouncing, rocking, strutting, walking like a chicken, staggering like a drunk, falling, rapid eye movements, rapid breathing (hyperventilating); feelings and sensations: feeling - heavy, stuck to the floor, unable to move (catalepsy), light as a feather, drunk, detached from one’s body, tingling like electricity, as if being stretched, as body (or parts of it) are changing size or shape, hot and cold, washed and clean, healed of ailments and diseases, -- sensing - the smell of flowers, buzzing sounds, changes in hearing, bright lights.

The preceding list of, what are generally called "manifestations", have been culled from what various people have told us directly, as well as what others have reported in Australia, Britain and the USA. These things don’t all happen at once, at any one meeting, or to any one person, but many of them have occurred collectively at individual meetings, rallies and/or services.

At some meetings these "manifestations" break out during Bible readings, sermons on serious subjects, during quiet prayer and worship. There have been times when special meetings have been called to pray about and deal with specific issues, which then ended up not dealt with because everyone was overcome with laughter. On many such occasions laughter has been inappropriate and offensive, and a hindrance to effectively dealing with important issues. There is no Scriptural support for the Holy Spirit being offensive, hindering His own work, or bringing ridicule to God’s Word or to His people.

Whatever we may make of these "manifestations", to claim support for all of these from historical revivalists and the Scriptural proof texts mentioned before is to generally take things out of context and to stretch historical statements and Scripture.

 

WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF IT ALL?

Many of the churches and people involved in the "Toronto" phenomenon have approached it differently.

Some have taken a very aggressive approach, virtually claiming that everyone has to have it, or else God will not bless the church or the individual. They arrogantly treat anyone who dares to question, or who calls for caution about, the "Toronto" phenomenon, with disdain, rudeness, name-calling, often with accusations about being spiritually blind and/or stifling the Holy Spirit, or trying to hinder the movement of the Holy Spirit. As David Forbes, a British charismatic, observed: "The "blessing" has evidently not made them more gentle and courteous."

It is in these groups and churches that the worst of the excesses (what some have kindly dubbed "evidence of the flesh") come to the fore.

Others have taken a low-profile approach - if it happens, it happens, and praise God for it - rather than chasing it and insisting everyone has to have it. There is no great deliberate emphasis on the phenomenon, other than that people are encouraged to be open to the Holy Spirit and whatever He wants to do in their lives. The services and meetings focus primarily on the need for repentance and a right relationship with Jesus Christ. There is a genuine concern for those in need of salvation, and for Christians to become more like Jesus Christ, as they surrender to His Lordship. Generally there is an effort to ground everything solidly in Scripture.

While the origins of the "Toronto" phenomenon are linked to the Airport Vineyard Church, Toronto, Canada (hence the term "Toronto Blessing"), John Wimber, and most Vineyard churches appear not to be pushing or heavily promoting the phenomenon.

A number of churches involved in the "Toronto" phenomenon are seeking to keep things balanced and without the excesses (which are as much of concern to them as to others). Some only allow for this development at special services - conducting services and meetings where there aren’t "manifestations", and quietly conducting people to prayer rooms if they begin to laugh or show a "manifestation" during a "normal" service. Some provide guidelines for pastors and leaders to ensure control and to maintain a focus on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, rather than on flamboyant personalities or showmanship, or on the experience. In these churches it has been stressed that leaders should not hype things up and that there must be a continuing emphasis on holiness.

One pastor, Andrew Evans, of Paradise Assembly of God in South Australia, expressed his heartfelt desire to be open to God and involved in doing what is right:

My cry to God is, "Help me not to miss what You are doing. Give me wisdom to lead my church into the blessing. Help me, Lord, not to force it or make it happen and may I not just seek some formula, but out of a relationship with Jesus, guide my assembly into the fulness of the Spirit."

Many people have been positively affected by the "Toronto" phenomenon and experience. Their lives have found a deeper meaning and purpose, a stronger and deeper commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord, a greater concern for others and the need to share the Gospel message of hope and life. Some have experienced a deep inner release - and people who have been far too uptight and intense have been able to relax in their relationship with Christ, and with God’s people. Some have also found healing - not only emotional, psychological and spiritual, but also physical. These people were genuine in their desire to come closer to God and didn’t simply chase an experience as the latest "super spiritual high".

While it is right and appropriate to note, with concern, some of the excesses and bizarre things that have gone on in the name of Christ, we must also acknowledge the positive changes that have happened to many.

 

OUR STAND (at CCG Ministries)

1.) We believe that it is right and appropriate to call God’s people to be cautious and discerning about this issue - and that includes being cautious of making extravagant or extreme claims for or against the "Toronto" phenomenon. Most people, including those who favourably accept it, have acknowledged that at present there is very much a mixture - a genuine move of God, blessing and changing the lives of some of His people; there are also clear indications of the flesh in operation, and some would say, even of the demonic.

2.) We must all be ready to obey Scriptural injunctions to test and try everything (John 7:24; 1 Corinthians 14:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1-6) - if it is genuinely from God it can stand the test of scrutiny. While there can be no place for arrogance or judgementalism (on either side), neither can there be a defensiveness that deliberately tries to avoid scrutiny. We should be prepared to face tough questions - including extremely critical ones - and weigh them up carefully, responding in informed and balanced ways and not just with emotional reactions and rejection.

3.) We must evaluate this phenomenon, and anything else, in the light of the Written Word of God, the Bible, in its totality and in context. Experiences and feelings must be tested by Scripture and not the other way around. What is clearly contrary to Scripture must be rejected. Where the Scriptures are silent we must exercise due care and caution. Just because some other person, or persons, have found something beneficial does NOT, in itself, guarantee that it is from God, or that God wants the same for us.

4.) We must always ask whether something of this nature truly glorifies God, helps His people grow in maturity and Christ-likeness. The emphasis needs to be on the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26), rather than on the thrill and excitement of experiences. Laughter and joy in the Lord, through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit, is a good thing, and we need to learn to enjoy the presence of God, but ultimately He calls us not to hilarity (and certainly not to hysteria), but to holiness and living our daily lives in His power and to His glory.

5.) We must also ensure that we are not simply chasing a new experience to make us feel good or happy. For the Christian relationship, rather than experience, is of primary importance. If we focus on the experience, rather than on the relationship with the Giver of the experience, our faith can easily go wrong and deteriorate into shallow carnality. We need to let Christ be central as our Lord and Saviour; be open to what He, through the Holy Spirit, wants to do in and through us; and praise Him for whatever positive and upbuilding experiences He may choose to lead us through.

6.) However we may ultimately evaluate the issues, let us respond personally to one another in the love of Christ - without imputing or assuming that all those who promote the "Toronto" phenomenon are manipulative, money-making, power hungry showmen; or that all who choose to question and distance themselves from the "Toronto" experience are narrow-minded, bigoted spiritual obstructionists. The "Toronto" phenomenon is not essential to our salvation. It will neither save us, nor condemn us to hell. As Christians, let us stand firm together in what is essential to our faith, let us exercise liberty and freedom (including the freedom and right to agree to disagree) in the non-essentials, but let us show sensitivity and love to each other in all things.


CONCERNED CHRISTIANS GROWTH MINISTRIES TRAINING INSTITUTE
April 1995