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.
Many participants appeared energized in their faith due to their Toronto experience, according to Stackhouse. "It seems to me that people are enthusiastic about Jesus, are happy to be Christians, and there doesn't seem to be an oversupply of that in North American Christianity today," he says. "If you don't like the idea of holy laughter that breaks out in a church service, then what kind of laughter do you believe in?"
Psychologist and author John White, a Canadian Vineyard member, is enthusiastic yet cautious. Some people seem more concerned about "my physical state, how I'm making it, which detracts from the sanctifying grace of God and our declared righteousness," he says. "Certainly one of the byproducts of Toronto is extreme pride in some at having had the experience."
Arnott acknowledges that possibility, noting that whatever work the Holy Spirit might do, it nonetheless is being done among fallen humans. "I'm always on the lookout for someone who would have a 'we-have-it-and-you-don't' attitude."
While a new interdenominational group has formed in the city as a result of the Airport Vineyard meetings, some observers question why most of those visiting the church are not from Toronto. Peter Moore, rector of downtown Toronto's Little Trinity Anglican Church, a historic evangelical congregation, says: "I think there is more talk about the Airport Vineyard in England than here in Toronto."
Justin Dennison, pastor of the nearby Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada (FEBC) Bramalea Baptist church, says: "There have been countless Christians, laypeople, leaders, and pastors, who have been touched and transformed by God in a truly remarkable way" at the Airport Vineyard. Nonetheless, he says, "some of the phenomena that occur I sense are of the flesh and not of the Spirit."
Another FEBC pastor, Richard Long, was at the January meeting that started everything. He says he and his church, Runnymede Baptist, have been blessed. "It's been a new holiness that comes out of a new first-love relationship with the Lord," Long says. "I am personally challenged that everything that I do and say is out of love for the Father."
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