Early in 1994, a small church in a strip mall near Toronto Pearson International Airport had thousands of people waiting at its doors night after night—50,000 unique visitors, as we'd say today, in the first six months of the year, enough to make it "Toronto's top tourist attraction of 1994," according to Toronto Life magazine. The Toronto Blessing was falling.
Laughing, falling over, shaking, roaring like a lion, and being "drunk in the Holy Spirit"—the Toronto Blessing was a charismatic revival featuring manifestations of spiritual power more commonly associated with the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thousands registered first-time conversions to Christianity at the services. Every evening people lined up to stand or fall under shouts of "More, Lord!" while hands were laid on them in prayer.
The atmosphere felt just the same as it did 20 years ago as I made my way through a crowd that had turned up two hours early to celebrate the revival's anniversary on January 20, 2014. The services were held at Catch the Fire, formerly known as the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, which was the Toronto Airport Vineyard at the revival's inception. The church has grown from its storefront to a 3,200-seat auditorium, 8 satellite campuses, 23 church plants, and a global Catch the Fire church network.
I hadn't been back to the church for a long while, but I was drawn to this celebration. I was grateful for what I had received there 20 years before. As a side task, I had taken CT up on its invitation to write about my reunion experience.
A Mixed Blessing?
In 1994, I was a young reporter assigned to cover the Toronto Blessing. I was significantly discouraged aboutChristian ministry at the time. In spite of my angst, I was curious about the bizarre stories of spiritual manifestations coming from the airport church pastored by John and Carol Arnott. I remember going to the back of the church, phoning my sister, and complaining, "Everyone is getting this 'Father's blessing' here but me." My charismatic sister told me to put down my notepad, stop being a reporter, and just receive. What I experienced was so significant that I divide my own spiritual journey into pre- and post-Toronto Blessing eras.
My sister's advice still applies. It's hard to rationally account for the results of the Toronto Blessing over the past two decades. A few themes, though, are consistent. This revival attracted people who wanted their spiritual condition to change, and it commissioned people to live for God's service and glory. Such spiritually charged events often devolve into massive scandals—like the one that enveloped evangelist Todd Bentley in the wake of Florida's "Lakeland Revival" of 2008. Not so with the Toronto revival, which has had a remarkably scandal-free track record.
Many of the Toronto Blessing's critics have moderated their concerns in the last two decades. Dr. James Beverley, professor of Christian thought and ethics at Toronto-based Tyndale Seminary, published one of the most detailed examinations of the revival, Holy Laughter and the Toronto Blessing, in 1995. At the time he concluded that the revival was at best a "mixed blessing," with an undue emphasis on extreme and bizarre manifestations and a tendency to exaggerate claims of signs, wonders, and prophecies.
Nearly 20 years later, Beverley strikes a more appreciative tone, emphasizing the positive and lasting impacts of the revival. "Whatever the weaknesses are, they are more than compensated for by thousands and thousands of people having had tremendous encounters with God, receiving inner healings, and being renewed."