Hi, everyone! Welcome back! Sometimes I’m amazed at how a planned post topic intersects with current events. Case in point: today’s topic. After the holidays, I’d planned to write about the Toronto Blessing and get started on a long examination of it. Then a story exploded across the Christ-o-Sphere about a popular evangelist’s sordid behavior maybe finally catching up to him. And who’d’a guessed it, but that evangelist has ties to the exact topic I’d planned anyway! Today, let me introduce some of the major players of the Toronto Blessing–and how they fit together with Todd Bentley, the weirdo that strangely, none of these Christian ‘prophets’ saw coming.
The Toronto Blessing: An Overview.
In January 1994, a bunch of fundagelicals at a Toronto church suddenly busted out into fits of laughter, clapping, rolling around, dancing, and other demonstrations of catharsis and euphoria. And for years afterward, they continued to meet together to do more of it. This “movement” spread to various other places around the world, even to the United Kingdom. Then, it just sorta fizzled out.
This was not, of course, the first time such a chaotic outbreak had occurred. The church where it began, the Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV), was a member of a larger network of churches called the Vineyard.
But our story actually begins well before TAV’s first day of blessing.
As this timeline makes clear, similar manifestations–especially the fits of laughter–had occurred in the Vineyard network since at least August 1986. Moreover, fits of laughter have broken out in extremist low Christianity-styled churches for centuries. This Vineyard group just capitalized on such displays and put them front and center, that’s all. It wasn’t even the first group to do exactly that.
Around 1986, John and Carol Arnott led a fast-growing fundagelical church in Stratford, Ontario. They met John Wimber, who was in charge of Vineyard, at a conference. Just a few months later, Wimber’s church broke into its fits of laughter. Wimber’s philosophy and leadership style greatly impressed the Arnotts. Very shortly after getting swept up with John Wimber, they joined their Stratford church to the Vineyard and John Arnott took a major leadership position with the network. In 1990, they started Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV).
The Lineage of a Circus.
Vineyard churches always preferred the flashy, demonstrative displays of euphoria. Critics sometimes jabbed at them for their lack of discipline and oversight, but nobody could deny that Vineyard churches had good luck with growth. And I don’t doubt that they grew. From the beginning, Vineyard leaders either behaved like showmen or learned from showmen.
Long before signing up with Vineyard, John Arnott himself learned his craft at the knee of the famous “healing evangelist” Kathryn Kuhlman. Kuhlman operated in America, mostly, but also offered her “healing crusades” in other countries. Eventually, she parlayed her road act’s success into radio and television success. In the 1970s, toward the end of her life, she founded a Canadian branch of her ministry. That’s how John Arnott ran into her. From what I’ve seen, she really impressed her fellow huckster.
John Arnott also paid a lot of attention to Benny Hinn–yes, that Benny Hinn–in the 1970s. Benny Hinn also adored Kathryn Kuhlman. When she died in 1976, Hinn made a habit of visiting her grave (along with that of Aimee Semple McPherson, very much a third pea in that pod). By the time Arnott started his first church (with his wife Carol), he was well-equipped to orchestrate the Toronto Blessing.
The Line of Leadership: KCF and the Vineyard.
John Wimber led the Vineyard network itself. He got tangled completely up with another similar Christian group: the so-called Kansas City Prophets. These were a group of bombastic evangelists operating out of the Kansas City Fellowship (KCF).
Paul Cain, one of these “prophets,” met with Wimber in 1988 and told him that the Vineyard needed to get its act together. Wimber decided that this advice constituted a divine utterance straight from his god. That, of course (?) and obviously (?), meant he needed to stick with KCF.
KCF came to greatly appreciate that loyalty.
In 1990, a pastor named Ernie Gruen wrote a huge–and strikingly detailed–accusation of misconduct and hypocrisy against Mike Bickle, the leader of KCF. In response, Wimber sought to mediate between accuser and accused. Bickle, in appreciation, placed the entire KCF network under the Vineyard–and submitted himself to Wimber’s leadership.
Apparently that ended Gruen’s issues with Bickle. He and Bickle soon issued a formal joint statement assuring Christians that they were chill again. Notably, however, the statement doesn’t say Bickle stopped being a hypocrite or that he had addressed his shortcomings. It just said that Gruen and Bickle were done fighting.
I bet the resolution of that squabble is quite a rabbithole, but we turn reluctantly from it in the interests of time.
Maybe some other day we’ll find out why Gruen just dropped his accusations. But for now, the second most-major player in the Todd Bentley drama has arrived onstage.
The Rick Joyner Connection.
Rick Joyner is a pastor, speaker, author, evangelist, and self-styled prophet. He’s never had any formal training or education in religious matters. Still, he’s been pastoring since the 1970s-ish. In 1985, he and his wife founded MorningStar Ministries.
Apologetics Index notes that Joyner has denied ever being part of the Vineyard. But he really doesn’t need to be an official part of it, as I’ve shown above. He’s thick as thieves with the KCF and extensively promoted the “Kansas City Prophets” while they were a thing. He’s also well on board with big huge bombastic movements like the Toronto Blessing. Even from an unofficial vantage, he seems to have been involved up to the neck with Vineyard business.
The leader of the KCF, Mike Bickle, fostered Rick Joyner’s initial career. Mike Bickle now leads the International House of Prayer (IHOP). Frequently, Joyner speaks at at IHOP events. Oh yes, they’re pals! Maybe that’s why Joyner seems to clean up so often after the sexual misconduct of various leaders associated with these groups.
Seriously: the lines of leadership here are more inbred than the European royal family lines of the Renaissance.
And Now, Todd Bentley.
Todd Bentley is one of those creeps that gets into Christianity for painfully-obvious reasons, gets a powerful benefactor, and then nobody can get rid of him until he does something drastically egregious (or renounces the culture wars).
Bentley’s path to power followed exactly the trajectory that my then-husband Biff ached to take. Bentley converted somewhere around 1994. Immediately, he made tracks toward leadership. He gravitated toward the super-showy antics so beloved of the Arnotts, Hinn, Kuhlman, the Kansas City Prophets, and Joyner: faith healing, prophecies, and other such chicanery.
Bentley claims to have founded Fresh Fire, the ministry he leads. He must be referring to the second Fresh Fire group, as we’ll see shortly. Of the first Fresh Fire group, as we learn from Wikipedia and a number of other sources, they existed well before Bentley got involved with them. He gave them his testimony in 1997, which I’m sure was 100% true, after which they asked him to assume leadership in 1998.
The Lakeland Revival.
Todd Bentley’s position in fundagelical leadership got cemented in the most spectacular way possible:
In April of 2008, he led a humongous revival.
It’s now called the Lakeland Revival because it began in Ignited Church of Lakeland, Florida. The pastor of Ignited invited Bentley to preach the revival–he had a big reputation by then for doing good revivals. And this revival was huuuuuuuuuuuuuuge.
Bentley, still leading the first Fresh Fire, came down from Canada to preach this planned revival. It was supposed to last a week, but it actually lasted till August. Over 10k people a night attended, hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world visited the church, and over a million people watched the event online.
Like the Toronto Blessing before it, the Lakeland Revival was an out-and-out circus. It featured many of the same manifestations that the first event had, though because Bentley fancies himself a magical healer, healing was the main focus for him. Among other things, participants claimed (without corroboration, of course) to have raised people from the dead.
But the success attracted a lot of attention to Bentley.
Malignant people like him often get too bold when they start succeeding at their various scams. And Bentley not only had some horrific skeletons in his closet, but also some predilections, practices, and impulses that absolutely could not see the light of day without causing a disaster.
… Annnnd the Disaster.
On July 9, 2008, ABC News released a detailed expose of the Lakeland Revival, focusing on Bentley himself. Among other things, the world learned that he’d done time for sexually abusing a 13-year-old boy when he himself was 15 and that he’d been a thief, joyrider, and drug addict.
Their reporter also noted that Bentley never provided solid support for a single one of his supposed magical healings:
When asked to present evidence of the healings, Bentley promised to give “Nightline” the names and medical records of three followers who would talk openly about his miracles. He never delivered. Instead, his staff gave “Nightline” a binder filled with what he says are inspiring miracles, but with scant hard evidence. It offered incomplete contact information, a few pages of incomplete medical records, and the doctors’ names were crossed out.
Who’s surprised? Other stories kept leaking out as well about Bentley beating up people onstage at this revival–kicking a stomach-cancer patient in the stomach, knocking another guy’s tooth out, kicking an old lady in the face, and the like.
After ABC News’ broadcast, Bentley announced he’d be taking some time off from his revival. Then he returned on the 18th. A few days later, he announced he’d be leaving Lakeland for good on August 23rd. His actual last day of preaching at Lakeland was August 8th.
At that point, Fresh Fire finally canned him.
Restoring Todd Bentley.
But not to worry! These foxes may not be really good at guarding henhouses, but rest assured: they guard their own house well.
In the wake of his separation and the drama that went along with it, Bentley’s fellow foxes made him go through the usual fundagelical rigmarole of “restoration” to get his star back on track.
Restoration is Christianese for a song-and-dance process fundagelical leaders apply to a disgraced fellow pastor that, theoretically, gets him back in shape for ministry. They make him do all kinds of performances and busy-work to demonstrate how sorry he is and how much Jesus has forgiven him. Then they declare he’s rehabilitated. Hooray Team Jesus! And the ex-reprobate goes back into ministry without a single bit of side-eye given in shade court.
Obviously, no evidence exists to support the effectiveness of “restoration.” And yet fundagelical leaders get this treatment all the time: Ted Haggard, Josh Duggar, etc. In fact, the only recent leader I can think of who flat-out refused to go through with this undignified farce was Mark Driscoll.
(I just realized that Driscoll’s refusal might be the only thing that crybully coward’s ever done that I don’t completely despise.)
Another Cleanup on Aisle Jesus.
The restoration for Todd Bentley began with a field trip to California to see Bill Johnson, an old friend of Rick Joyner’s, then to North Carolina to hang out with Rick Joyner himself. Those two, plus John Arnott, helped out with Fresh Fire while this was going on. Some other names show up on Johnson’s writeup of the process that I recognize from KCF, like Jack Deere.
In 2009, Rick Joyner helped Bentley create “Fresh Fire USA.” I’m guessing the original Fresh Fire wanted nothing whatsoever to do with Bentley by then. They even totally renamed themselves to “Transform International.” The announcement of this renaming tries to play it off as Fresh Fire “separating into two organizations.” Sure Jan. It sounds a lot more like they just wanted to get as far from Bentley as they humanly could. They pretty much vanished after that.
Also in 2009, Rick Joyner leased some land to Bentley to create a “Healing Center” and a “Secret Church.” Until recently, Fresh Fire sounds like it was busy busy busy.
Oh, and Bentley married his adultery partner in 2009.
Rick Joyner announced that marriage.
Gosh, what a pal!
The Rat King of Fundagelical Leadership.
Later on, we’ll talk about how Todd Bentley’s situation shook out (and is shaking out as we speak). For now, I just wanted to shed light on some of the connections I began noticing in all these recent revivals, awakenings, refreshings, blessings, and crusades. The same names began popping up all the time. Organizations crossed aisles to merge with others, then separated after mingling leaders.
Often, it feels like authoritarian leaders validate each other as a way of gaining credibility for their own operation.
Mike Warnke built a career around lying about his supposedly-Satanic past. He gave his official professional seal of approval to all kinds of other Satanic Panic fakers and liars-for-Jesus. Lauren Stratford lied both about being in a concentration camp as a child and being a victim of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA). She did a similar service for her various fellow fakers in both movements.
Each movement’s leaders move in the same circles together along with their groups. They draw strength from each other, protect each other, and push each other’s antics further and further away from reality as each seeks to outdo the rest.
But even though I know that evangelicals tend to muddle their own organizational lines, I was astonished by how far it all went here.
Little wonder they resist, bitterly and to the last breath, any oversight or accountability.
The Line of History.
That mingling, I knew a bit about before learning about the Toronto Blessing’s past and its effects on fundagelicalism as a whole.
It’s just that now I can put the Toronto Blessing into a historical context. I can perceive it as part of a long trend, not just as an outbreak that seemingly came from nowhere. That trend began with the Great Awakening and moved on through various other Awakenings, through the so-called Latter Rain Movement, the Pensacola Outpouring, and more like them besides. I haven’t had time to touch on them all, but hopefully I’ve given you an idea of just how entangled evangelical leaders are.
And the Toronto Blessing’s after-effects brought us–as the night the day–the Lakeland Revival as well as the rise to power of Rick Joyner, Todd Bentley, and all the rest of those guys.
You’d think that after accusing non-Christians so often about muh accountabiliteeeee, evangelicals would, I dunno, care more about being accountable themselves.
But maybe that’s why I deconverted: I can’t abide hypocrisy.
NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides on Monday! On Tuesday, we see how Todd Bentley fares lately. I’m betting his friends will continue to protect him–even at the utter expense of their own credibility and their religion’s tattered brand. Authoritarians gonna authoritarian, eh? See you soon!
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