The Lasting Legacy of the Toronto Blessing

The Lasting Legacy of the Toronto Blessing January 30, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about this huge evangelical movement called the Toronto Blessing (TTB). Though it began in 1994 and ended quite some time ago, the Toronto Blessing left a lasting impression on today’s evangelicals. Today, let me offer one last afterword on the topic: what many evangelicals miss about this movement, what they ache to recreate, and how they’re going about it.

smoke and mirrors
(theilr, CC-SA.)

(Previous related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From AccountabilityA Muddle of InfluencesAuthoritarianism in TTBThe Chaos Created by TTBThe Problem With the Christian Slapfight Over TTBTTB Does The UKLeekSoup Saw It HappenThemes of Power and Control; Reconciling Experiences With Deconversion. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! Thank you for being part of it.)

A Powerful Experience.

The Toronto Blessing (TTB) was a powerful, worldwide experience for evangelicals–and really, nobody else. It began in 1994 and lasted many years.

But nothing lasts forever. TTB proved to be no exception to that rule. Eventually, it petered out.

Many of the people involved with TTB ghosted on the whole thing. They just quietly stopped doing all that stuff–the barking, the roaring, the growling, the fainting and dancing and hopping and magic healing–and went back to how they’d always worshipped their imaginary friend.

Not all of them, though.

Others felt like they’d touched something real in all those prayer meetings. They’d finally gotten a touch of something truly divine, they thought. Sure, nobody outside of evangelicalism experienced it or even heard about it. And sure, nobody actually ever authenticated a single one of these experiences as supernatural or even real.

It felt real.

And they only wanted more of it.

Much more.

Everyone, Meet Bill Johnson.

Bill Johnson’s name came up dozens of times while I researched TTB. He himself wasn’t directly involved with starting the movement, but he visited the initial-outbreak church, Toronto Airport Vineyard (TAV), not long after it began. Afterward, Johnson carried TTB’s ideas with him to his home church at the time–spreading the contagion, to use the metaphor we employed recently. He became a big name in this movement–and stayed a big name after it.

For this post, we’ll be using him as an example–but there are many, many other pastors just like him doing much the same stuff, just on a smaller scale.

In 1994, the first year of TTB, Bill Johnson worked as the pastor of a church in Weaverville, California. He’d been there for years. Many people considered it a successful church, even. But he wanted more than what one critical Christian blogger called “just a sermon and worship choruses.”

Even before 1994, Johnson wanted miracles. He wanted rowdiness. With all his heart, he wanted to experience all that jazz that his indoctrination told him he should be getting.

He just didn’t know how to get all of that–yet.

But help was on the way.

For every desire in the fundagelical heart, there exists a huckster holding out a vial of Jesus-flavored snake-oil.

The Vineyard Experience.

Kenn Gulliksen founded the Vineyard denomination in the mid-1970s. In 1982, Gulliksen handed the reins over to John Wimber. That’s when the party really started. Under Wimber’s leadership, Vineyard exploded in popularity. Many evangelical church leaders eyed Vineyard with envy and longing.

Bill Johnson was very much one of those jealous fellow pastors.

In 1987, Bill Johnson had attended one of John Wimber’s “signs and wonders” conferences. Vineyard churches ran a lot of these at the time. As their nickname suggests, these meetings focused on the glitzier, showier parts of fundagelical rowdiness: magic healing (even resurrection–seriously), speaking in tongues, hopping and shouting.

Evangelicals weren’t fundagelicals yet. These kinds of excesses and raw emotionality just weren’t part of their emotional makeup. Only fundamentalists like Pentecostals did that stuff. But here was a prominent evangelical leader pushing these experiences on the flocks! So yeah, “signs and wonders” conferences had a big impact on visiting evangelical pastors.

The pastor of TAV itself, John Arnott, had attended one just the year before in 1986–and he had fallen into John Wimber’s orbit right afterward. Evangelical leaders hungering for something real loved Wimber’s style–and the results he got from his carefully-coached and cultivated flocks.

Indeed, when Bill Johnson visited a Wimber conference the next year, he loved what he saw.

Discouragement Strikes–And Resolves.

After his 1987 visit to Wimber’s conference, Bill Johnson was sad, even discouraged. As he related later in one of his books (emphases are always from the original):

I left [Wimber’s conference] discouraged. Everything that was taught, including many of the illustrations, I had taught. The reason for my discouragement was the fact that they had fruit for what they believed [that’s Christianese for real-world results consistent with a given teaching or ideology — CC]. All I had was good doctrine.

There comes a time when simply knowing truth will not longer satisfy. If it does not change circumstances for good, what good is it? A serious reexamination of personal priorities began.

Like a lot of evangelicals, when reality didn’t conform to his beliefs he took exactly the wrong lesson from it. Instead of testing the beliefs themselves against reality, like I did, he assumed he just had the wrong priorities. And this is what came of his “reexamination” of priorities:

It was apparent that I could no longer expect good things to happen simply because I believed they could… or even should. There was a risk factor I had failed to enter into–Wimber called it faith. Teaching MUST be followed with action that makes room for God to move.

Things changed immediately. We prayed for people and saw miracles. It was glorious, but it didn’t take long to discover that there were many also that weren’t healed. Discouragement set in, and the pursuit with risks decreased.

In 1995, he made his fateful trip to TAV. On the way, he says he promised his god that if he’d only “touch” him again, he’d never “back off” from pursuing these experiences. In that book, he claims his god did indeed “touch” him, and thus he kept his promise as well.

The Storm Chasers.

When LeekSoup and I discussed TTB together, he talked about a strain of experience-chasers in evangelicalism in the mid-1990s–similar to tornado chasers!

For years, evangelical leaders had slowly taught their followers to revere powerful experiences–and to desire them. As that end of Christianity dumbed down and became more and more about emotions, hucksters flowed into their churches to give them those emotions.

It’s not hard to coach a crowd into feeling a certain way–especially if they really want to feel that way in the first place. Stagecraft can accomplish what sure looks miraculous to the unschooled in these matters.

I was Christian myself in the mid-to-late 1980s–Pentecostal, specifically. So I had a ringside seat to some of the changes going on in evangelicalism right then. I saw Southern Baptist kids caught up in Vineyard-like movements, then saw the Vineyard-type churches getting happy-clappy to music and caught up in many of the same euphoric displays that my own church enjoyed.

I had no idea what TTB even was–and wouldn’t till a few years ago!–but I saw evangelicals growing ever more Pentecostal-like in their worship and ideology.

Wanting What Was Promised.

These Christians all wanted something real.

For years and years, that end of Christianity had been preaching about an all-consuming god who gave his most devoted followers a rich, joyful, experience-loaded devotional life that left no room for doubt about his reality, nor any space for it all being just in their heads. This god they preached about was not only real, he was unmistakable.

But here, as with everywhere else, reality collided with indoctrination. What they actually had wasn’t what they’d been promised.

When that truth finally came home to me, I deconverted. But not everyone could or can pass that threshold. Their faith pools still have enough water in them (meaning: reasons they think their beliefs are true) to keep them believing.

So they figured that The Big Problem Here was that they were just doing something wrong. They just needed to find the right group, the right ideology, the right doctrine, the right way to worship, and then they’d finally get what they were promised.

And then along came John Wimber, John Arnott, Rodney Howard-Browne, and all those other hucksters to teach their leaders how to make them believe that their wildest dreams had come true at last.

An Even MORE Subjective Belief System.

What actually happened was that these TTB hucksters taught Christian flocks to value their subjective experiences and feelings over and above everything else–including reality.

Sure, that teaching alarmed those evangelicals who opposed TTB. But it titillated and excited a whole bunch of others who chased after those experiences with abandon.

Even worse, though, Johnson, like his pals, taught his flocks to ignore what their rational minds told them in favor of chasing these experiences:

When I filter everything through my mind and remove what isn’t immediately logical, I extract much of what I really need. Only what goes beyond my understanding is positioned to renew my mind. If we can learn more about the actual voice and presence of the Lord, we will stop being so paranoid about being deceived by the things we can’t explain. Usually those who use the natural mind to protect themselves from deception are the most deceived. They’ve relied on their own finite logic and reason to keep them safe, which is in itself a deception.

In essence, Johnson taught his followers to be wingnuts. He pared away their ability to assess his claims, then taught them to distrust and vilify anybody who even suggested that such assessments needed to be made in the first place. Most of all, he taught them to judge stuff by their own feelings and indoctrinations–not through testing against reality.

He wanted an army of authoritarian followers.

And that is exactly what he made for himself.

The Offshoots That Lasted.

Even evangelicals who objected to TTB have accepted the heightened authoritarianism it promoted. The bigger an evangelical movement is, the more power flows up out of it into leaders’ hands. And this was one of the biggest such movements in recent history.

Clifford Hill, a powerful older evangelical from the United Kingdom and vocal opponent of everything involved with TTB, is on record as saying that the general ideas informing that movement have filtered out into pretty much all evangelical churches in his country:

Ever since the events in Toronto in the 1990s, Dominionist teachings and spiritual practices have been spread worldwide through books, music, the internet and through big Christian gatherings such as New Wine and Soul Survivor. Today it is almost impossible to find a charismatic church in this country that has not in some way bought into the influence of such as Bill Johnson and Bethel Church in Redding, California.

Pretty much everything that people dislike and criticize about modern fundagelicals got popularized and spread during their various trendy movements, to hear him talk. Their hyperfocus on prophecy, their fascination with miracles, their intense and scary politicization–these were the darlings of the influencers behind TTB.

No wonder evangelicals want another movement like it–and soon. Even groups that reject the movement itself end up accepting many of the ideas that underlie it, thus expanding the movement leaders’ power.

The Cloud Has Moved.

It’s not even a surprise to me to hear, either, that the earliest sparks of big revivals and movements in evangelicalism tend to become powerful figures in their own rights, at least locally. Consider Florrie Evans, a very young woman who helped usher in the Welsh Revival of 1904-5. (This revival is usually counted as one of the influences of TTB.)

Christian history is full of similar figures. Evangelicals gravitate to people who claim to have supernatural experiences in hopes of having one themselves through osmosis. When they hear about a new hotspot of activity, they rush right over there.

To that point, TTB had a big tradition of “laying on of hands,” which they thought was a formal ritual that passed on their magical Jesus powers to new people. That tradition alone likely ensured a steady stream of new people coming to TTB churches clamoring for the latest big experience. Most of the leaders who came out of TTB have maintained that tradition.

Christians haven’t changed since the 1990s. If anything, their hunger for powerful experiences–and their habit of trusting those experiences’ validity (even second-hand) and using them as PROOF YES PROOF of their religion’s claims–has only increased over the years. And, too, as non-Christians and ex-Christians have become more vocal in offering pushback to Christians’ claims, Christians have only become more eager to find support for those claims.

The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.

Aching for Revival.

I used Bill Johnson as an example because he so perfectly encapsulates why evangelicals glommed onto TTB and what they got out of it. When TTB petered out, all he wanted was another go-round.

To that end, in 1996 Johnson started Bethel Church in Redding. It’s very much a signs-and-wonders-chasing church after John Wimber’s own heart. Predictably, these folks are out-and-out nutjobs if ever there were any. In 1998, they started an honest-to-goodness School of Supernatural Ministry! Its goal is apparently to “train students to become revivalists.” That sounds like pure stagecraft instruction to me–but with a purpose. This guy wants another Toronto Blessing to break out, and he’s training young adults to help him make it happen.

We’ll see how that goes for him and his many other hopeful storm-chasers. Other Christians, even other evangelicals, consider Johnson’s ideas absolute heresy. I mean, he thinks that one Christian can pass on an “anointing” to another–and in fact must do so before death. If the anointed Christian doesn’t pass it on, then that anointing just putters around doing nothing after the original owner dies.

Still, the popularity of his megachurch and his teachings both speak to evangelicals’ deep hunger for what is real. They won’t get it from there or anywhere else in Christianity, no, but at least they’ll get enough stagecraft and euphoria stuffed down their throats to feel like they did.

Thanks to the legacy of the Toronto Blessing, it’s unlikely they’ll ever know there’s even a difference.

NEXT UP: Paige Patterson’s finding out that it might be slightly harder for disgraced leaders to get back into the game than it used to be–maybeSee you soon!


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Also: Ding dong, the witch is dead! Jack Van Impe has finally died. This conspiracy theorist, racist, and obvious huckster helped exacerbate fundagelicals’ panic and ignorance for decades. Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) finally booted him in 2011 after he accused two specific Christian megachurch pastors of secretly plotting to merge Christianity with Islam to create “Chrislam.” Seriously. That was their breaking point. I don’t know what’s worse: that he was daft enough to go there at all, or that that’s where TBN finally drew the line. Better late than never, I suppose.

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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