PLUS: Seminary Women 'Rewrite Their Stories'
Ever since January 20, Christians have been traveling long distances to a modest warehouse in an industrial district near Toronto's Lester B. Pearson Airport. In a local Indian dialect, Toronto means "meeting place"—exactly what Airport Vineyard has become. Here people seek "the Toronto blessing."
Yet this phenomenon—marked by "holy laughter"—has prompted Christian leaders and scholars to question whether it is a genuine movement of God or merely controversial hysteria that should soon be forgotten.
For now, the movement has blossomed such that its advocates include a wide span: from dispensationalists to Presbyterians to Roman Catholics. Vigorous debate about the Toronto phenomenon has spilled onto the Internet, the global information highway. News of Ontarian exports of spiritual outpouring has been reported by churches in Atlanta, Anaheim, Saint Louis, several Canadian sites, Cambodia, and Albania. So many Britons have come in recent months that direct flights from London to Toronto are sometimes sold out for days.
Since January, meetings at the Airport Vineyard, which has nearly tripled in size to 1,000 members, have been held every night except Mondays. The hallmark manifestation of the movement, "holy laughter," traces its modern roots to two Pentecostal ministers, from South Africa and Argentina.
Last year, Saint Louis pastor Randy Clark attended a Tulsa conference conducted by South African Pentecostal minister Rodney Howard-Browne, whose name has become most closely linked with the "holy laughter" phenomenon. Airport Vineyard pastor John Arnott similarly encountered Argentine pastor Claudio Freidzen.
Last November, during a Vineyard leadership gathering in Palm Springs, California, Arnott learned that Clark had experienced powerful manifestations in ministry since Howard-Browne prayed for him. Arnott invited Clark to a January conference at his church, which he felt had been faithful but lately mostly routine in its religious affections.
On January 20, about 120 people gathered at the Airport Vineyard. Fresh from their Argentine and Tulsa encounters, Arnott says he and Clark both felt a heightened sense of faith. At the service, most church members fell on the floor "laughing, rolling, and carrying on," recalls Arnott. Clark ended up staying at the church for two months.
By then people were coming to Arnott's church in large numbers from distant parts of the globe. "It went from something hard to catch to something very contagious," he says. "Our whole ministry team-boom, they were very anointed."
CRITICS AND DEFENDERS
As the Toronto experience has grown, some apologists have attacked it as self-centered and evil. Others have written books defending it as historically rooted in earlier revival experiences, pointing to thousands of testimonies of renewed faith, marriages, and ministries. Critics cite a growing and evolving number of strange manifestations, such as people roaring like lions, something that has occurred as well in the Anaheim Vineyard, the mother church of John Wimber's Vineyard movement. None of the manifestations seen in Toronto are new to the Vineyard, according to Wimber. "Nearly everything we've seen-falling, weeping, laughing, shaking-has been seen before, not only in our own memory, but in revivals all over the world."
John Stackhouse, associate professor of modern Christianity at the University of Manitoba, says that while he noted areas of teaching and practice that needed maturity, Airport Vineyard's instruction seems basically balanced, with the church's leaders playing down their own importance. Ministry team members were not coercive and rarely touched the recipients, instead placing their hands one to two inches from the person's body and praying, he reports. Recipients often begin to quiver, go limp, or fall. Others sob or laugh. Some lay in prolonged states of seeming ecstasy.