How the Toronto Blessing’s Influences Created Chaos

How the Toronto Blessing’s Influences Created Chaos January 16, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Most folks know well that evangelicals live in a haze of alternative facts. Several times here, we’ve examined this or that belief they hold about themselves that has turned out to be completely false–if not the polar opposite of reality. Their beliefs about the Toronto Blessing (TTB) of the mid-90s don’t work any differently. Today, I’ll show you how the lofty ideals of the Toronto Blessing got completely out of hand–and why evangelical leaders were powerless to stop it.

a bunch of monks labor on a vineyard
Lucas Cranach the Younger, The Vineyard of the Lord. 1569.

(Previous TTB-related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From Accountability; A Muddle of Influences; Authoritarianism in TTB.)

The Intention.

The Toronto Blessing (TTB) broke out in January of 1994. To make it happen, its various influencers and engineers combined a number of trending ideas:

  • Anointing: the idea that the Christian god grants his most devoted followers a special boost of Jesus Power. This power grants them the ability and strength to fulfill his (half-baked) plans. Jesus Power also sparks signs and wonders, which include miracles and all that jazzy attention-getting stuff.
  • Charismatasigns and wonders erupting from all corners of the congregation in rowdy displays of euphoric bliss. John Wimber called these displays “doin’ the stuff.” By “stuff” he meant the imaginary original Christians‘ practices. See, Jesus can’t kick-start the end of the world till all Christians do the stuff (see also: Latter Rain; Restorationism).
  • Word of Faith: believers can get anything they can imagine and name. Its origins are tangled up with those of prosperity gospel. Some believers in this doctrine even think they have an entitlement to magical healings, money from nowhere, and the like.

Sure, lots of churches did this stuff at various points. But now we add one last fillip:

  • Every Memberliterally any member of the congregation can serve in any and all capacities in the church (however: some groups exclude women from this doctrine). Also, any member of a congregation can, at any time, erupt into baby-babble or press forward with a magical spell. Everybody should all be doin’ ALL the stuff.

After combining all of these influences, Christian leaders’ goal was a spectacle that would attract tons of new members.

That is not exactly what they got.

Yet Another Thing Jesus Won’t Do.

See, every member ministry collided head first with anointed styles of ministry. Usually, just one person in a Christian endeavor is anointed: its leader.

Evangelicals of that time had not yet merged with fundamentalists (a process that reminds me of the creepy robot’s fate in The Black Hole) to become fundagelicals. Even before that merge, though, both groups already held a deeply authoritarian worldview.

To authoritarians, every group–from the smallest to the largest–needs a leader. This leader claims total power over the group and can veto any and all member ideas. Leaders can–and do–even force their decisions onto the rest of the group, even if all of them actively oppose the plan.

Without a leader wielding absolute and unilateral power, authoritarians think, a group inevitably fails. There just isn’t any way, in their little world, for an egalitarian group of any size, from two on up to millions, to exist for any length of time without a clear chain of command. They think nothing can possibly get done in such groups and nobody can get what they really want/need. (See endnote for one outgrowth of this mindset.)

Once evangelicals merged with fundamentalists, that viewpoint only grew more extreme. But it was already pretty darned extreme in 1994. This complementarian diagram looks exactly like one I saw as a newlywed Pentecostal in the early 1990s:

This diagram was well-liked by Pentecostals back in my day.

This diagram represents the operating paradigm that Toronto Blessing churches worked with in the 1990s.

The Secret Ingredient Is (Supposed To Be) Jesus.

When fundagelicals talk about “the divine order,” as in that diagram above, they aren’t kidding at all.

Christian authoritarians really think their social structure and its rules came straight from their god. He’s a very angry, punitive, retaliatory, petulant, possessive god. (Gosh, exactly like the people who created him! O.O) Therefore, everyone–not just his worshipers–must follow this arrangement or he’ll fly into a rage and destroy the planet with “possibly a meteor.”

However, these same Christians believe that Jesus helps groups find good leaders if they just think very hard at the ceiling, pay lots of money to his other leaders, and catch him in a mood to do what they’ve requested.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Obviously, reality looks way different.

If Jesus really existed and really did anything at all for anybody, his involvement in this social structure would be beyond-obvious. For such an obviously-poorly-designed group to have any good leaders in positions of power would just about require divine intervention. Otherwise, we should fully expect to see charlatans, abusers, liars, conjobs, and such awful people sleazing their way into leadership to fleece those gullible Christian sheep nonstop. That’s the only way this story ends, because it’s the only way it can.

Without a god making these authoritarians’ paradigm work, it just doesn’t.

And the Toronto Blessing made that truth crystal-clear.

The Broken Reins.

When this movement first broke out, evangelical leaders probably reveled in their success–at first.

Very quickly, though, they seem to have realized what a tempest they’d unleashed. Worse yet, so did the movement’s many detractors. The situation only got worse for the host church’s denomination, Vineyard, when they issued an opinion paper in 1994. This paper, called “What In The World Is Happening To Us?”, contained an admission that would have alarmed a lot of evangelicals (2.B.5):

While there is a primary text dealing with prophetic revelation, there are no primary texts that clearly state that Christians are to fall down, shake or look drunk during seasons of divine visitation.

This paper’s author, Vineyard leader and pastor Bill Jackson, shoehorns a whole lot of Bible verses into his paper. But he also had a caution for his fellow Christians:

The results are what He’s after, not the phenomena. If, under God’s sovereignty, He chooses, during seasons of divine visitation, to do His work without phenomena, that is his choice. So also, it is of no benefit to shake or fall and have no long lasting fruit.

That caution would prove to be prophetic. (SWIDT?) As it was, those wackadoo phenomena are exactly what TTB is known for now. While it ran, any member of the flocks could claim that Jesus had told them something or given them orders to do something, and nobody else could say boo about it.

A Quick Note About This Paper.

Bill Jackson’s entire paper is quite a hoot. I encourage you to check it out if you have time. It’s not long, and it’ll show you a lot about the mindset of the leaders of this movement.

While Vineyard’s leaders mainly intended it to offer “a biblical apologetic” for TTB’s displays, they also used it to set strict limits regarding how Christians would be allowed by King Them to question the movement. In several places in it, I spotted attempts to control the narrative of TTB. Jackson admonishes readers to “be honest about the motives behind our questions” and the like. He presents his opinions and wildly subjective interpretations of various Bible verses as “Biblical perspective” all throughout the paper. And it’s almost funny to see how many Bible verses he can smash together to support this-or-that display occurring in TTB.

Toward the end, Jackson even finds a way to issue vague, implied threats to the Vineyard flocks (9.A.3.b.):

Don’t run — if this is God, then you would be turning your back on Him.

There’s only one penalty for that, right? Who hears me? Lemme hear an AMEN! 😉

(A 1996 Finnish paper, meanwhile, flat-out called TTB’s outbursts “a mockery of the Holy Spirit,” which is a big huge insult in fundagelicalism. The author goes on to name some very important concerns that really should have worried TTB’s fans. It didn’t matter to them. Nobody’s criticisms did.)

An Example.

Check out the first six minutes or so of this church service held at Toronto Airport Vineyard. The knock-kneed fellow in blue on the left is John Arnott, the pastor of the church. (The guy in the thumbnail in the black hat is John Scotland, a guest preacher. He’s not important right now.) This service, according to the uploader, occurred “smack dab in the middle” of TTB (goodness knows what year that might be–maybe 1995?) Scotland was a regular preacher there, it seems.

I won’t pretend to be an expert at body language interpretation; it’s such a subjective art. But I will say that I often saw men with that exact posture when I was Pentecostal–and it always meant they were flying by the seats of their pants, just making everything up as they went along because in reality, of course, everything was just made up. (They’d have called that state being led by the Spirit. I call it poor stagecraft.)

The way the testimony-bearing woman behaves and the way Arnott mills around beside her both combine to produce a seriously off-kilter vibe in the video. Context doesn’t match behavior. Moviemakers use this sort of mismatch to evoke creepiness. In churches, it produces a frisson of expectation in fundagelicals–and a permission slip to go wild and expect weirdness.

Before too long, the audience members in the video begin cutting loose. The redheaded lady is just rambling, working herself into a frenzy, and you can tell the pastor is trying to rein her in a bit. But he can’t. By the rules he himself set up for this dance, she now controls the moment.

Before the “Blessing” broke out, leaders could at least utilize the group’s social mores and their own force of personality. But after it, their authoritarian followers proved difficult to bring back into line.

They’d tasted the wine of attention, power, and gratification.

Willful Ignorance.

Oh, some leaders tried to rein in the excesses going on. In fact, many evangelicals objected vehemently to TTB, even at the time. We’ll get to them later on. For that matter, I still see modern bloggers dissecting the movement to declare it demonic or, conversely, the supah-real Jesus deal. This movement deeply divided evangelicals. Really, it still divides them.

They still don’t understand what even happened.

And I don’t think they really want to. Fundagelicals would far rather just blame each other for Jesus-ing all wrong. If nobody listens to them, then it’s not their fault. Elegant, no?

They aren’t interested in understanding how their tribe’s social design encourages this behavior, either, which would help them prevent future outbreaks of movements like TTB.

In particular, fundagelicals don’t want to think about their most fervent tribe members maybe being a bunch of narcissists in search of attention, gratification, power, and a big ole permission slip they can use to act out against (and try to punish and rigidly control) others.

The Problem of Wingnuts.

A wingnut is someone who fanatically believes in a conspiracy theory or other such wackadoo notion–and wants you to believe it too. Almost all fundagelicals are, by that definition, wingnuts.

You can’t convince wingnuts that they’re wrong. They entirely lack any tether to reality to use as a reference point. They only use subjective tethers to self-defined parameters, and they do not ever engage with outside references or feedback that contradicts their beliefs. Their entire world becomes a soft, thick bubble of confirmation bias, circular reasoning, arguments-as-evidence, and willful ignorance.

Worse, wingnuts often run in herds. Their group encourages each wingnut to try to out-hardcore the others. See, they pay the most attention to the most hardcore of the flock. So if someone in the flock wants a lot of attention, they learn almost immediately that they can get it by taking the group’s ideology and practices to their furthest and most ridiculous extent.

The group–and its leaders–typically reward these extremists lavishly. As one pastor put it, churches would–if they could–conduct “bidding wars” for ultra-gregarious congregants! Meanwhile, quieter and more studious followers in wingnut groups soon notice that they’re ignored in favor of these louder mouths.

The sheep seem to learn these lessons immediately. Most take it in stride. Others, well, they keep alert for ways to buck their place in line.

The Toronto Blessing was their ticket out of anonymity. 

The Fruits of Their Labors.

When we ask the question, “What in the world is happening to us?”, it is clear from what we are seeing and hearing from all over the United States and Canada, that we are in a sovereign move of the Holy Spirit.

Bill Jackson, “What In The World Is Happening To Us?” (1994)
Because it couldn’t possibly be anything else.

As I talked to LeekSoup, we both quickly came to notice a narrative forming as we talked about his experiences and the research I’d already done. That narrative concerned authoritarian control. Who owned it in TTB? And who sought it out and used it? How did the reins switch hands? How did other Christian leaders try to squash it?

As I studied the timeline about TTB and read more and more about it, I began to notice those same questions arising from evangelical leaders themselves. None of them could agree on the answers, either–as one would expect.

The main objections other Christian leaders had of TTB consisted of how out-of-control and rowdy participants became during services. In evangelicalism, these displays were rare. Fundamentalists–like my own tribe of Pentecostals–danced around and screamed baby-babble at the ceiling and whatnot, but evangelicals tended to be more staid.

In the end, it was that rowdiness that got TTB’s host church kicked out of its denomination.

An Abrupt End–Sort Of.

In December 1995, almost two years after TTB began, the Vineyard denomination kicked Toronto Airport Vineyard clean out of its group. The separation completed in January 1996. The reasons are murky.

Ultimately, Vineyard appears to have disliked the chaos and bedlam  (especially the bizarre animal noises) that were a constant feature of TTB meetings. In the end, because TTB could not be controlled, it had to be ejected.

There was nothing whatsoever that Christian leaders could do to heal that controversy, either. Their own teachings had led to exactly this pass, like the outlines of footsteps on the floor of a ballroom-dancing class. Making matters worse, since they were all wingnuts none of them possessed any real-world yardstick they could use to measure this out-of-control movement of theirs.

So the host church renamed itself and carried on. Now nobody could get in their way or tell them to tone it down! Hooray Team Jesus!

Weirdly, “Jesus” appeared to be telling all of these Christians completely contradictory things about what he wanted. Thus, even today Christians argue about the Toronto Blessing and can’t agree on anything about it.

NEXT UP: As various leaders flexed their power, the true nature of evangelicalism swam into focus. Join me next time for a look at the arguments that erupted around the Toronto Blessing–and what they tell us now about the people in that end of the religion pool.

See you soon!


Endnotes.

About this hierarchical worldview: This mindset explains why they never believe feminist and egalitarian married couples when we talk about how happy our marriages are. In their world, such a utopia is impossible–so we must all be lying and gosh they just weep Jesus tears of sorrow for all our henpecked husbands who have to lie to keep their wives around! Fundagelicals remind me as often as they can that they’re not part of the religion to do the boring stuff Jesus commanded Christians to do. (Back to the post!)

A tangential observation: Is anything as funny as two Christians squabbling about doctrine? Am I the only one who finds this spectacle hilarious–not to mention a big hint regarding the truth of Christian claims?


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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