A former editor of ‘On Being’, Owen Salter wrote while part of Hawthorn West Baptist Church community in Melbourne, where he served as an elder.
More of Jesus; more of his love; more love for him –
all brought with a fresh intensity by his Spirit.
That seems to be the experience of growing thousands of Christians
In the first week of May 1993, the Holy Spirit erupted at the Christian Outreach Centre in Brisbane. Some people rocked with laughter, others fell to the floor, others reeled around as if intoxicated. Within days similar phenomena broke out in COC congregations across Australia.
‘I’ve seen the Holy Spirit move like this here and there over the years, but this was different, said Nance Miers, wife of COC International President Neil Miers. ‘In the past it seemed to have affected a few individuals, but this time it was a corporate thing.’
Miers himself commented, ‘It started in New Zealand and then broke out in New Guinea, and now it’s here. If I know the Holy Ghost, it will break out across the world – wherever people are truly seeking revival.’
If the evidence of the last 18 months is anything to go by, Miers does indeed know the Holy Ghost. Excited reports are painting a picture of a global wave of extraordinary phenomena, accompanied by a powerful upsurge of repentance, hunger for God, deep intercession, maturity, boldness, reconciliation in relationships, healing and release from demonic oppression.
In Australia, the ‘Toronto Blessing’, as it has become internationally known, seems to be spreading faster than you can hear about it. From Randwick Baptist in Sydney to Shiloh Faith Centre in Perth, people are falling down, laughing uproariously and reporting a great growth of love for Jesus.
‘From what we have seen and experienced we have no doubt that at the heart of what is happening there is a genuine movement of the Spirit of God’, says John Davies, rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Northbridge, Sydney, and NSW chairman of Anglican Renewal ministries of Australia. ‘Although some of the outward manifestations are unusual, and sometimes bizarre, the fruit that is being produced bears all the marks of true godliness.’
‘Toronto Blessing’ is the name coined by the British media to describe the spiritual renewal as it swept through British churches during 1994. It arose when Christian leaders began visiting the Airport Vineyard church in Toronto, Canada – part of the Vineyard network of churches founded by John Wimber – where these things were happening on an astonishing scale.
But the ‘Toronto Blessing’ did not, in fact, begin in Toronto. Most accounts trace it back to the ministry of a South African evangelist named Rodney Howard-Browne. Resident in the US since 1987, Howard-Browne’s meetings are characterised by what he calls ‘holy joy’ and other unusual phenomena.
When Randy Clark, a Missouri Vineyard pastor who had been profoundly touched by God at a Howard-Browne meting, went to Toronto in January 1994 to conduct four nights of meetings, so extraordinary was the outbreak of the Spirit that the meetings were extended again and again for forty days. Since then the church has been meeting six nights a week until the early hours of the morning as thousands of people from around the world pilgrimage to Toronto to ‘catch the blessing’.
Travelling to Toronto – or to some other place where the same phenomena have appeared – is perhaps the main way in which the ‘Blessing’ is spreading. While hundreds of churches are being affected, some seem to be playing a role as ‘dispersal centres’. London’s Holy Trinity Brompton is one. Another is Christ Church Anglican in Dingley, one of Melbourne’s southern suburbs, which started holding meetings on Monday and Tuesday nights from October 1994 after its senior and associate ministers both visited Toronto.
Sometimes the ‘Blessing’ breaks out when people who have been touched by God visit a church and pass it on. This was the experience of the Hope Valley Uniting Church in South Australia when a ten-strong ministry team from the North Phoenix Vineyard visited in August 1994.
There have also been instances where Toronto-style phenomena have simply started. For example, in September 1993 in Veszprem, Hungary, more than 3,000 people experienced ‘holy laughter’ at a regional conference of Faith Church.
Features of the Renewal
It is more than a year since the ‘Blessing’ started in Toronto, and it is now possible to get a picture of its distinctive qualities.
Unusual physical phenomena. The most common is falling over, usually when prayed for (increasingly referred to as ‘resting in the Spirit’). Laughter, from quiet chuckles to paroxysmal guffaws, is also widespread. Trembling and shaking, ‘drunkenness’ and bouncing up and down like a pogo-stick are among the manifestations. Waves of warmth flow through bodies; people feel wind that isn’t there; they weep in repentance or bellow in triumph.
Some phenomena are stranger than others, including dog barks and rooster crows.
Those involved generally understand these phenomena to be people’s emotional and physical responses to what the Holy Spirit is doing within them. Laughter, for example, is a manifestation in a body that can no longer contain the joy a person is experiencing.
A concern for biblically authentic fruit. Noticeable in scores of reports is the determination of advocates that this movement be judged by its results. Phil Martin, pastor of Waverley Community Church (AOG) in Melbourne, who visited Toronto, commented. ‘Phenomena are always second to fruit. We’re more interested in what God is doing in you than what he is doing on you’.
And what is God doing in people? Airport Vineyard pastor John Arnott put it this way: ‘When I ask them, “What has it done for you?” they always answer, ‘I’m so in love with Jesus”.’
A sense of greater closeness to God is common. Frequently people can’t wait to begin praising him and are reluctant to stop. A sense of being humbled is often described, as is conviction of sin, greater desire to read the bible, more power in prayer, lukewarm commitments turning to zeal, healing of long-standing emotional hurts, restored relationships, increased concern for those who don’t know God . . .
Overall, joy seems to be paramount. West Australian Bible teacher David Boan says, ‘God is doing many kinds of healing and change, but often people come up from prayer reporting an experience of God’s joy. He’s teaching people in their spirits and experience that they’re loved by the Father and secure in him.’
Unity. The cross-denominational character of this renewal is also distinctive. God is showering it on Pentecostals, Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, charismatics and everyone else besides. Observers estimate that at least 7,000 churches in Britain alone, from across the spectrum, were involved in 1995.
Many church leaders have testified to the fact that God has broken their pride and denominational elitism.
The lack of focus on individuals. If aspects of Rodney Howard-Browne’s theology and practice have come in for some sharp critical attention from evangelical theologians – and they have – his personal self-effacement doesn’t square with the normal stereotype of the Pentecostal revivalist. In late 1994 he dropped his name from the name of his organisation, having earlier told Charisma magazine that he didn’t want his face associated with the new outpouring and that anyone who wanted to could ‘press in and touch the hem of [God’s] garment.’
One mark of this renewal is that it is largely growing independent of major personalities. Low-key and diverse, it has by its very nature been a movement of thousands of excited people taking their experience to others.
An acknowledgment of dangers. The frank acknowledgment that alongside the genuine experiences there are always likely to be the spurious defuses some of the charges that it’s all just fleshly emotionalism or demonic counterfeit.
‘We try to be careful about the physical phenomena,’ explains Marc Dupont of the Airport Vineyard. ‘The roots can be the Holy Spirit, the flesh or the devil. Things are always mixed, you know.’
The emerging consensus is that Christian leaders have a responsibility to give proper and mature biblical shape to what is happening so that people can test their experiences according to truth. To this end, a growing number of churches, including the Vineyard, Holy Trinity Brompton and the UK’s Pioneer network of charismatic churches, are putting out resources to help people be discerning.
What does the ‘Blessing’ mean?
Notwithstanding criticisms, there is a swelling tide of opinion that the ‘Toronto Blessing’ is definitely God’s work. It has received affirmation from evangelical leaders like Michael Harper.
So that leaves us with the question: What is God doing?
The traditional distinction between renewal, revival and awakening has been pressed into service as Christians have tried to get a handle on these events. In this understanding, renewal is an action of God in stirring up the ‘first love’ of Christians; it becomes revival when it flows over to non-Christians on a substantial scale; and it moves to awakening when its effects are so significant that the surrounding society is widely impacted.
Few are saying this is revival. The Vineyard churches have labelled it instead a ‘refreshing’ – a time when God is drawing his saints near to himself to experience the joy of their salvation. Their description has rung true with thousands around the world.
But is that all there is to it? Few seem happy to think of God giving people a rollicking good time without having some wider purpose. There is a widespread belief that the ‘refreshing’ is the forerunner of something bigger.
‘There is no doubt that we are seeing the early stages of a transnational move of God, linked to the whole unfolding process of world revival’, writes Patrick Dixon in his new book, Signs of Revival. ‘This is no “flash in the pan”; no unexpected visitation.’
According to John Davies, these events fit with a number of prophetic words, some going back to 1984, that 1993/4 would see a great outpouring of blessing. Now some of the prophets are saying that this is the first of a three-stage work of God, the second part of which will be a time of exposure of sin in the church and of repentance, and the third a time of evangelistic harvest. In this scenario, the current refreshing is understood as God preparing his people for discipline by making sure they are secure in his love.
And being secure in his love is what it seems to be about. Mary Pytches, wife of retired Anglican bishop David Pytches, tells how she initially went to Toronto dry and thirsty. She felt she needed more anointing from God, so she stood in a service calling out to him. Then people started singing the song ‘Holy and Anointed One’.
‘Suddenly I thought, “How stupid I am! Why don’t I just ask for more of Jesus? That is the answer. If you have more of Jesus you have more of everything. You have more anointing, more gifting, more fruit, more righteousness and holiness – the lot.” And so I changed my prayer and I kept praying, “Lord, I want more of Jesus” – and that’s what I got.’
More of Jesus; more of his love; more love for him – all brought with a fresh intensity by his Spirit. That seems to be the experience of growing thousands of Christians. As one child commented when the experience first fell on the Christian Outreach Centre churches in 1993, ‘God is making me bigger inside so I can love him more.’
And if that’s the case there’s really only one thing to say: “More of you, Lord – more of you.”
Reprinted with permission from On Being, April 1995, pp. 32-38.
© Renewal Journal 7: Blessing, 1996, 2nd edition 2011
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