Romancing Jesus: an anatomy of renewal

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Romancing Jesus:
An anatomy of renewal


Revd Canon Dr Martyn Percy


Dating from 1994, ‘The Toronto Blessing’ is the name for a phenomenon that is associated with the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. From its very foundation, the Vineyard Christian Church in Toronto had experienced many of the things that would be typical for Christians within the fundamentalist-revivalist tradition: miracles, healings, an emphasis on deliverance, speaking in tongues, and a sense of the believers being in the vanguard of the Holy Spirit’s movement as the millennium neared. However, what marked out the ‘Toronto Blessing’ for special consideration were the more unusual phenomena that occurred. A number of followers trace the initial outpouring back to ‘Father’s Day’, the result being that some prefer to call the movement ‘the Father’s Blessing’ (Chevreau, 1994). There was an unusually high reportage of people being ‘slain in the Spirit’. A number would laugh uncontrollably, writhing on the floor (the leaders of the movement dubbed this ‘carpet time with God’), make animal-like noises, barking, growling or groaning as the ‘Spirit fell on them’. Others reported that this particular experience of God was more highly-charged than anything that had preceded it (Hunt, 1995; Poloma, 1996; Percy 1996a; Percy 1996b; Percy 1998, pp. 281-289; Richter & Porter, 1995; Smail, Walker & Wright, 1995).

Thus, the ‘blessing’ became known by the place where it was deemed to be most concentrated. To date, around two million visitors, or ‘pilgrims’, have journeyed to Toronto experience the blessing for themselves. Many of these pilgrims report dramatic miracles or supernatural interventions, substantial changes in their lives, and greater empowerment for Christian ministry. More unusual claims have included tooth cavities being miraculously filled with gold, and ‘dustings’ of gold on the hair and shoulders of believers, indicating a specific spiritual anointing. Some have even claimed that children born to believers will have supernatural resurrection bodies. A small number of other women of child-bearing age claimed to have had spiritual pseudo-psychetic experiences.

In spite of the extraordinary success of the church, John Wimber (1934-1997), founding pastor of the Vineyard network, excommunicated the Toronto fellowship for ‘(alleged) cult-like and manipulative practices’. Some evangelical critics of the ‘Toronto Blessing Movement’ cited the influence of the Rhema or ‘Health and Wealth’ movement, through the Toronto Fellowship’s own connections with Benny Hinn and Rodney Howard-Browne, as another reason for Vineyard-led secession (Hillborn, 2001, pp. 4-10). In January 1996, the Toronto Vineyard became independent. But under the leadership of its pastor, John Arnott, it has flourished, and continues to exercise an international ministry in the fundamentalist-revivalist tradition.

The Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship still meets in a converted trade centre on an industrial estate that is less than a mile away from the main city airport. Contextually, it is conveniently located in a matrix of highways that criss-cross downtown Toronto. There are no residential areas remotely near the fellowship, and members or visitors need a car to travel to meetings – but this is not unusual in North American church-going. Local hotels that are linked to the airport and conference economy also enjoy a good reciprocal relationship with the fellowship and its ‘pilgrims’. The fellowship building is functional, compromising offices and meeting rooms, and a large sanctuary area for celebrations. It is a spacious, adaptive building. For example, there was once a large area at the back of the church that was segregated into track lanes. This is where worshippers, at the end of a service, could stand waiting for individual ministry to take place. A minister stood in front of the worshipper, and a ‘catcher’ at the back. When or if a worshipper fell to the ground - ‘slain in the Spirit’ - they were caught, and the minister moved on to the next worshipper on their track, leaving the previous one on the floor to ‘marinade in the Spirit’. Worship or revival meetings can last several hours, but pilgrims can also avail themselves of café facilities if they need physical rather than spiritual refreshment. Yet as a cultural creature of its time, the ‘Toronto Blessing’, in spite of its claims to represent a pre-eminent type of pneumatological power, ironically seemed to place lessemphasis on aggressively reified spiritual power (a particular feature of John Wimber’s teaching in the 1980s – e.g., ‘power evangelism’), and through its distinctive grammar of worship, put more accent on concepts such as the ‘softness’ and ‘gentle touch’ of God, and the desirability of acquiescence in the believer. The popular worship song ‘Eternity’ (by Brian Doerksen, 1994, Vineyard/Mercy Publishing) perhaps captures this best, sung many times over by followers, and set to a soft melody:

I will be yours, you will be mine. No more tears of pain in our eyes;

Together in eternity No more fear or shame.

Our hearts of love will be entwined. For we will be with you,

Together in eternity, Yes, we will be with you,

Forever in eternity. We will worship,

We will worship you forever.

It is through this distinctive grammar of assent that the fellowship continues to configure its life. The motto of the fellowship is ‘to walk in God’s love and give it away’, and the life of the congregation emphasises this in its ministerial distinctiveness. Thus, there are programmes for single parents (e.g., ‘Just Me and the Kids – Building Healthy Single Parent Families: a twelve week program for single parent and their kids’, etc), a conference entitled Imparting the Father’s Heart (‘Are you called to minister the Father Heart of God? This course will take you deeper into the Father’s love…giving you the tools to give it away…topics include the need to be fathered, hindrances to receiving the Father’s love, shame, Father issues, prodigal issues, orphan heart…’, etc), and various schools of ministry or programmes that centre on spiritual-therapeutic approaches to brokenness, abuse, neglect and failure. There are also some social and welfare programmes that reach out to the poor and homeless.

More generally, we should also note that the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was one of the first revivalist movements to be promoted through the internet, and to a lesser extent on television networks such as CNN. (Indeed, in 1996, I debated with John Arnott, live on the BBC 2 Newsnight programme). Through skilful marketing and public relations, the ‘Toronto Blessing’ spread its message and testimonies quickly and easily; it developed speedily into becoming an ‘internet-ional’ movement. But with the benefit of hindsight, the net result of the ‘blessing’ seems to have been individual and atomised in its beneficence, rather than galvanising for the world of revivalism. Indeed, the epi-phenomena associated with the ‘Toronto Blessing’ succeeded in dividing many constituents within the world of charismatic renewal, with some declaring that the manifestations of spiritual outpouring (e.g., laughter, howling, animal noises, etc) were Satanic, whilst others proclaimed them to be a pre-eminent sign that this was the prelude to the greatest revival ever. In retrospect, neither side – promoter or detractor - could claim an interpretative victory (see Hillborn, 2001).

Perhaps all that now can be said is that the experiences of those attending Toronto Blessing meetings since 1994 seem to have been primarily cathartic; one could almost describe the effect of the ‘blessing’ upon worshippers as having been something like a cleansing spiritual enema. However, the influence of the Toronto Blessing has steadily waned since the late 1990’s, and its position and prominence within global revivalism and the charismatic market place quickly forgotten. The movement, after a period of intense etiolation, has been subject to some serious atrophy. There are now comparatively few visitors to the fellowship in Toronto, and the phenomenon is now rarely mentioned in revivalist circles. Scholars such as Festinger (1957) might see this as a simple matter of cognitive dissonance – the process whereby a belief or expectation, having been disconfirmed, is nonetheless adhered to (and perhaps even more strongly). In this scenario, the much anticipated fruits and blessings of revival are usually deemed to have arrived as promised and predicted, but just not widely perceived and reified. Margaret Poloma pays some attention to this perception in her analysis of the Toronto Blessing (1996). However, the majority of churches that were initially supportive of the Toronto Blessing seemed to have moved on quickly, redeveloping their focus, and also their interpretation of the Blessing. For some, the promised revival is deemed to be ‘manifest’ in the phenomenal success and growth of Alpha courses (see Hunt, 2000). Only a few Christian fellowships and churches have persisted with a focus on exotic spiritual epi-phenomena, such as miraculous gold fillings occurring in tooth cavities, or dustings of gold on the shoulders and the hair, indicating a special anointing. (Suffice to say, and in spite of the claims made for these miracles on various websites, the evidence for such miracles remains circumstantial and uncorroborated). We should also note that a small number of Vineyard churches have become more liturgically-orientated in the wake of the Blessing: spiritual experience has led to an embracing of tradition and order.

In my return to the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, I wanted to see how the fellowship was dealing with the decline in demand for its conferences, and how it was coping in a post-millennial climate - in which the rhetoric of a much-anticipated global charismatic revival had patently receded. The added grist for such a study was that, strictly speaking, many scholars for the past twenty-five years have only been predicting uniform growth for conservative churches, especially those with a charismatic flavour (see Kelley, 1972; Tamney, 2002; Cox, 1994; Miller, 1997, etc; c.f. Weber 1946, pp. 295ff). Only a small minority of scholars have predicted the very opposite of this in relation to charismatic renewal and revivalism, especially in relation to the ‘Toronto Blessing’ (see Walker, 1998, pp. 313-315 and Hunt, Hamilton and Walter, 1997). In this micro-study, I wanted to explore how participants now understood the movement of which they were still a part – one that had witnessed stunning but ultimately unsustainable growth, followed by ‘wilting’; a process that biologists know as etiolation. Or, and put more colloquially in the rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s that partly constructed the language and vistas of ‘power evangelism’ and ‘power healing’ programmes, adherents have lived through the ‘boom and bust’ years. So how did they now interpret the apparent atrophy of revivalism? Of course, pilgrims and members tend not to construct their self-understanding in these terms, and this immediately raises some sensitive questions about appropriate methodological approaches within the field, and participant observation. Yet there can be no substitute for being there. As James Hopewell notes:

‘the fullest and most satisfying way to study the culture of a congregation is to live within its fellowship and learn directly how it interprets its experiences and generates its behaviour…participant observation…as the term suggests [involves the analyst] in the activity of the group to be studied [whilst] also maintaining a degree of detachment…’ (Hopewell, 1987, p. 86).

As a general guide, three distinctive but closely related tactical trajectories have conditioned my reading and re-appraisal of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ some six years after my first visit. The first is drawn broadly from anthropology, the second from ethnography, and the third from ‘congregational studies’. Each focus their attention upon first-hand accounts of local practices and beliefs, rather than solely being concerned with ‘official’ texts (see Geertz, 1973; Geertz, 1983; Dey, 1993; Maykut & Morehouse, 1994; Hammersly & Atkinson, 1995; Atkinson, 1990; Mishler, 1991; Burgess, 1984, etc). In this regard, the disciplines are more ‘behaviourist’ than ‘functionalist’. The distinction is important, for it moves research away from concentrating on the primary claims of ‘pure’ or ‘central’ religion (or its analysis) towards the grounded reality of praxis (e.g., it might assess a number of Roman Catholic congregations and their practices – not ask the Vatican or theologians what such churches should be doing or believing). Or, put another way, the focus shifts from ‘blueprints’ about the way the church or congregation could be or should be to that of ‘grounded ecclesiology’ – discovering how and why Christian communities are put actually together in their localised context (see Healy, 2000). It is through a matrix of conversation, interviews, observation and the savouring of representative vignettes that one can begin to piece together a more coherent picture of what it is like to belong to a group, to be a pilgrim, and to believe (see Harrington-Watt, 2002; Bramadat, 2000, Dempsey, 2002).

Immersed in the River of Revival : Returning to Toronto

Given the context of atrophy – the pretext for this short study – one might ask how the stories of faith within the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship are beginning to change? Given that the much-hyped and predicted global revival has not taken place, what kinds of narratives do ‘pilgrims’ and members now use to describe their ongoing commitment to a fellowship whose influence and popularity has manifestly waned (c.f Festinger, 1957)? Interestingly, there is both some continuity and development to focus upon here, but it is the latter which highlights a theme I had not fully developed in my earlier study. In my original research based on my 1996 visit, I had especially registered the romantic metaphors and motifs in worship, teaching and testimony that seemed to shape the overall horizon of belief and possibility. There was a super-abundance – almost an overwhelming – of appeals to the romantic nature of God, and the desire of the believer for intimacy and oneness with God, and the reciprocal desire of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit for the heart and soul of the believer. Much of this was constituted in a grammar of paternalism and passionate (or quasi-erotic) intimacy (see Percy, 1997, pp. 71-106; Heather, 2002, pp. 28-38).

Yet during my visit of 2002, I was struck by just how little the appetite for this faith-world had abated. There had been some routinization of charisma, in the Weberian sense. There was less spontaneity and more order; there were signs that a charismatic movement was evolving into a young church. But there were also factors that pointed to a sustained and original vibrancy. ‘Pilgrims’ and members were still hungry and thirsty for God; and God was, apparently, still hungry and thirsty for them too – the rhetoric of passionate and romantic intensity remained buoyant. That said, the numbers of attendees were a fraction of what they were, and the rhetoric that anticipated (and to some extent hyped) the possibility of global charismatic revival had all but disappeared. How then, I wondered, did members and ‘pilgrims’ understand the failure of God to slake their desire for global revival? Given that ‘intimacy with God’ had been (and still was) advocated as the path to ultimate individual spiritual empowerment, which would then pave the way for the pre-eminence of charismatic renewal throughout the world, surely followers of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ would have a theological narrative that dealt with the growing sense of dissonance?

The answer to these questions lay in paying closer attention to narratives that emphasised a spiritual theme that is closely related to the romantic worldview, but which I had underestimated in my earlier research. I speak, of course, about adventure, and the idea that ‘pilgrims’ and members are caught up in God’s own narrative of involvement in the world, which in revivalist and charismatic worldviews is often understood as a form of adventure, of which romance is but only one type. In focussing on narratives of adventure, the language and actuality of atrophy could be located and understood, but read not in terms of dissonance, but rather understood as a vindication of ‘the ongoing story of struggle’.

But before reflecting further upon the theme of adventure and its relation to charismatic atrophy, it is first necessary to describe the present situation of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship in a little more detail. Turning up for a regular nightly revival meeting, which begins at 7.30pm and normally ends about four hours later, I was greeted at the door by a smartly dressed woman who introduced herself: ‘Hello - tonight will be your night for a miracle’. All revival and prayer meetings commence with intense times of corporate worship. Participants sometime dance to the music, but most make gestures with their hands or arms, either raising them high (and then keeping them still), but with some also moving them in a slow sweeping, encompassing or wiping fashion, as though polishing an invisible giant globe.

Some of the gestures seem to be more eccentric than this, at least to an observer. As I stood amongst the worshippers, a woman near me clapped her hands haphazardly around her body, as though swatting a fly, and cried out ‘Ho!’ or ‘Hah!’ (loudly) with each clap. A man in front of me raised his hands during the sermon at points where he was in intense agreement with the speaker, and cried out words such as ‘transformation!’ and ‘change!’. During praise, some women danced around freely, twirling brightly coloured flags and ribbons. A male member of the ministry team moved along rows of seats, and prayed with people by blowing on them forcefully and loudly, making a wind-like sound. As he did so, the supplicant, normally already standing with arms raised, buckled, and fell to the ground, where others then gathered around and prayed. As the worship continued, the songs proclaimed that believers are ‘dancing on the mountain top with God’; another song announced ‘God of the Breakthrough…all things are possible through you’. Still another worship song declared that:

You are my health

Your are my hope

Your are my help,

So I’m gonna lift You up…

On my return to Toronto, I had expected the distinctively romantic and mildly quasi-erotic accent of the movement that permeated the worship to have subsided. But if anything, the romantic genre had become even more explicit and intense than before. The structuring and grammar of worship made overt use of sexual analogies that were drawn from biblical and Christian tradition, but then intensified as they were interpreted. One worship leader explained that ‘worship means “to kiss towards” – to come into His tender presence; so let Jesus respond to your loving…’. There was a real sense in which worship regularly progressed through three distinct phases: (1) wooing or courting Jesus; (2) ‘mystical foreplay’ – often accompanied by heightened use of musical instruments, but with little singing [i.e., delicately stroking or touching the chords of a guitar or keys of a piano – brushing them so lightly yet intensely; an erotic and suggestive sequence of notes rather than ‘music’.]; (3) relational consummation – which could include signing in tongues and other activity, sometimes leading to cathartic responses. But is such an interpretation fair, or merely tendentious?

The key is to recognise the way in which the encounter with Jesus is understood in specifically romantic terms. Thus, recent praise compilations (available on CD, tape and in books) offer ‘Intimate Bride – gentle worship for soaking in God’s presence’; ‘Warrior Bride’ (with a picture of a young woman in full bridal regalia holding a large sword); and ‘Passionate Bride – songs of intimacy and passion for soaking in God’s presence’. These products are illustrated with pictures of a bride embracing or encountering Jesus; the biblical analogy of ‘marriage’ to Jesus having been literalised and individualised. Other collections of songs include ‘How Big is He?’, ‘I Can Feel the Touch’, ‘Take Me’ and ‘Soaking in Glory (in the River)’.

It would appear that this worship continues to appeal more to women than men. At the daily meetings in the morning (‘Wake Up Call for Revival’, 10.30-12.30), close to 95% of the attendees were women, with an average age of 57. These meetings are far smaller but no less intense than those I encountered six years ago, and attract around fifty people. But the format remains almost identical, with worship songs beginning the meeting that suggest a unique, tactile intimacy with Jesus:

Lord, Show me your face,

So I can touch your brow

Lord, show me your face

So I can see your smile…

These prayer meetings are led by women - and are mainly for women, and the rhetoric reflects the desires and concerns of the dominant age-group (50-60 plus). Prayer is offered for those who have anxiety or sleepless nights. Women are advised to try and create a prayer room in their homes: ‘tastefully decorated in colours that help you to relax’. Other advice includes, to ‘keep a “Dream Journal”, and share them with your Cell Group leader’. During ministry, the value of ‘resting’ was frequently stressed; resting with Jesus would combat stress, alleviate anxiety, and also bring stillness and strength back into the family home. Sometimes this counsel would extend into vivid analogy: ‘reach out your hand – can you sense the fragrance of the Lord here? This is a place of peace, and it feels like velvet…’. In the bookshop and resource centre belonging to the fellowship, customers can buy fragrant oils for the house, and also scented candles with names such ‘Rose of Sharon’, ‘Myrrh’, ‘Frankincense’ and ‘Lily of the Valley’.

The morning meetings tend to contain a smattering of teaching drawn from the bible, but are mostly distinguished by a constant resort to ‘folk wisdom’, stories and aphorisms that seem to engage the audience. More often than not, the talks are aimed at giving handy and homely hints for living a distinctive Christian lifestyle. Again, this thematic approach to teaching is reflected in the fellowship’s resource centre. Adherents can buy books on Christian approaches to parenting, family life, marriage, health and healing, devotion, revival, leadership and ministry. There also books on men’s and women’s spirituality, and books for children and teenagers. Books on doctrine or theology would be a rare find. Furthermore, there is no neglect of the watery or liquid analogies to remind adherents that they are part of a ‘wave’ or ‘river’ of revival. Several letters in Spread the FireMagazine now include endings such as ‘yours in the flow’ and ‘yours, in the river’. One article headline states bluntly: ‘Power Conference Leaves Everyone Saturated’.

The worship in the larger revival meetings also shows no sign of being less intense than it was six years ago, although the numbers of participants are also smaller. But worship continues to be central; one leader proclaims that ‘as we bless the Lord, his presence begins to fall’. If I may make an aside here, the study of the theology of worship is interesting at the Toronto fellowship, because it effectively marks out the activity of intimate worship as the primary mediator between God and humanity. Worship becomes the conduit for encounter with God; an agency and catalyst that manifests the ‘I-thou’ relationship. Performative worship is therefore elevated to a high sacramental status (i.e., God is ‘reified’ in this activity – not simply inferred, described, remembered or represented). This observation is also borne out by close attention to the numerous slick aphorisms that pepper presentations. Thus, ‘God is looking for a reason to come to you, not a reason to leave you’, and ‘God is looking for a reason to bless you, not a reason to punish you’ sound fairly reasonable, and to some extent comforting. But deeper reflection on the phraseology might suggest that these aphorisms create a sense ofdistance between God and the individual (an accidental trope), which only intimate worship can bridge. In other words, the rhetoric implies a doctrine of conditional grace, in spite of appearing to say the very reverse of this.

But some aspects of the fellowship continue to produce surprises. The novelty of a ‘spiritual car wash’, in which the congregation pass through a ‘tunnel’ of pastors who ‘spray and brush’ each individual with the ‘anointing power of God’ is a typically innovative form of ministry that combines a theology of immediate and reified divine power with a contemporary mechanistic cultural construction of reality. Equally, some worshippers bring their own musical instruments to meetings. One evening when I was present, a woman had brought a giant rams’ horn with her, and the speaker, when he saw this, insisted that she blow it hard to announce the presence of the Lord in the ‘Holy of Holies’. ‘Let the horn proclaim Zion!’ he cried, and the people joined in with whoops of delight and loud acclamations of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Praise God’ as the horn was blown loud and long. On another evening, one visiting speaker from South Africa, who appeared to be at complete liberty to address the congregation, prophesied at length in rhyming couplets, albeit in a fairly rudimentary way:

‘thus the Lord says,

I am with you until the end of days,

and though you may have striven,

know that you shall be forgiven…’.

The slightly ‘corny’ or ‘retro’ language of revival that is spoken in meetings is perhaps a surprise, but speakers are probably doing no more than trying to link the present to the past. Inevitably, as the movement wanes, a ‘tradition’ is being appealed to in order to sustain momentum and provide a historical repository for memories that can re-contextualise the dramaturgy. There are often allusive appeals to previous Great Revivals (and their leaders, such as Smith Wigglesworth, George Whitfield, etc), presumably in an attempt to establish a sense of historic continuity (or rapport?) for ‘pilgrims’ and members. References enhance the sense of spiritual adventure for believers, underlining the requisite pioneering and tarrying identity that is so endemic within revivalism.

There is also plenty of audible praying in tongues, which is encouraged and orchestrated from the stage by speakers and worship leaders alike. In the midst of the congregation, worship continues to be punctuated by individuals crying out loud sporadically, groaning or moaning loudly, and letting out involuntary yelps of agreement, occasional piercing cries of ecstasy, or offering loud interjectory words of encouragement. Many people in the congregation twitch and shake, with some appearing to have their legs regularly buckle, as though being oppressed by a great weight. Many who are prayed for fall backwards, apparently ‘slain in the Spirit’. But the numbered tracks and lanes that used to filter and organise believers for this ministry have now been replaced. More ambiguous thick green lines or bands which are woven into the pattern of the carpet, and which run in several areas of the sanctuary, now demarcate where believers should stand before they fall during times of ‘soaking’ ministry. Here again we should note that where there was once one large area for this ministry, there is now a range of much smaller areas scattered around the sanctuary, marked out in the carpet, only a few of which are used in any one evening.

But the types of people coming forward for healing ministry have altered little in six years: caucasian, middle-class and (late) middle-aged. The list of diseases and ailments cured is also a familiar canonical litany that reflects the needs of the congregation. Thus, there are ‘suspected cancers’ said to be healed on the spot, with ‘depression’, ‘nightmares’, ‘back pain’, ‘angina’, ‘urinary tract infections’, ‘cancer of the ovaries and colon’ and ‘persistent headaches’ all dealt with by Jesus, immediately. Naturally, each of these complaints is internal, usually unverifiable, and not normally linked to any social cause such as malnutrition or poverty. But to make such an observation is simply to point to the fact that the ‘healings’ are part of the overall performative experience within the revivalist context. Their efficacy lies not in being ‘proved’, but in their power to persuade and perform within the divine dramaturgy that unfolds each day within the sanctuary.

So far, these reflections suggest that the life of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship remains buoyant and continues to evolve, albeit centred on fewer participants who are concentrating more intensely on some of the core themes that marked out the fellowship for attention and research in the first place. But given that a process of atrophy is also underway (we have noted the declining numbers and waning influence of the fellowship), how does a charismatic movement such as the ‘Toronto Blessing’ and its parent fellowship come to understand itself? How does it reconcile its belief in a global revival, with a steady decrease in its own popularity? I want to suggest that part of the answer to this question lies in repositioning the romantic genre (that dominates the worldview and worship of the fellowship), and seeing romance as being derivative of a theology of adventure, which in turn can make space for atrophy.

Adventure and Atrophy:

According to Hopewell ’s congregational studies, based on participant observation and thematic analysis and interpretation, charismatic Christians and revivalists configure their lives and meaning through a primarily romantic genre:

‘…the charismatic narrative is a more frightening and thrilling place…souls are eternally damned in it, yet God does not fail those who trust in him…the world in which the charismatic lives is fundamentally equivocal and dangerous, challenging the believer to seek its blessings amid the peril of evil forces and events. God’s steady providence, however, accompanies the self who launches out toward God in an exciting romantic adventure…’ (Hopewell, 1987, p. 76).

The romantic worldview generally eschews mundane reality in favour of witnessing supernatural signs. It deliberately ventures into a world of uncertainty; it is the world of the ‘perilous journey’. But this search or spiritual quest is rewarded, for, as Hopewell points out, ‘the romantic journey ends in the triumph of God’s love’: ‘the hero becomes the home of God’s Spirit’ (Hopewell, 1987, p. 78). In a romantic worldview (i.e., a congregation’s perception of how things should or could be), the primary motif is adventure. Individually, the response to weakness is tarrying, and the resolution is empowerment. Corporately, conventionality is overcome by charism, which leads to transformation. Cosmically, perpetuity is usually addressed by signs and wonders, which will then lead to the coming of the day of the Lord. In the world of adventure, authority is discovered in the evidence of God’s immanence, the continuity of God’s providence, and the recognition of God’s blessings. Critically, a romantic worldview understands that spiritual adventure is the context in which the strength of the romantic relationship with God is discovered, tested and refined. The ‘heroes’ of romantic stories are those who persevere through trials and tribulations, and who remain constant and faithful in the midst of adversity. In this respect, the underlying romantic theology of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ movement depends, to some extent, on ‘reading’ Jesus’ life as part of God’s adventure with humanity. Just as it is an adventure following Jesus, so Jesus himself is often portrayed as the proto-adventurer, and as the ‘pioneer of faith’. In talking to individuals at the Toronto fellowship, and in listening to speakers and their talks and sermons, one is continually struck by the emphasis on blessing – those who receive it are those who venture beyond conventionality. Furthermore, the adventure to acquire blessing only becomes possible when one has been pre-empowered and equipped with some kind of anointing, divine charge, or what some describe as being filled with ‘the liquid love of God’.

In a Christian community that mainly configures its life through the romantic genre, there is a close relationship between ethos andworldview. The ethos of a place is the palpable experience and tone of a place – the very character of the culture that is encountered. A worldview, in contrast, is a philosophy of life that indicates how the world could or should be. In the romantic genre, ecclesial reality, no matter how imperfect, is normally regarded as a significant foretaste of what is to come; heaven is already partly revealed. The perceived experience of divinity within the worshipping community is regarded as an aperitif; the banquet is to follow. Correspondingly, the sense of adventure that both sources and governs the romantic genre tends to take on elements of dramaturgy and narrativity that stress exploration and pioneering. This might sound like a mundane remark, but it is in fact crucial. Adventurers not only pass over and through boundaries – they also return to the worlds from which they claim, with new stories, fresh revelations and novel perspectives from afar, which change the environment of their homecoming.

Furthermore, an adventure is not, strictly speaking, quite like a vacation, pilgrimage or ordinary journey. An adventure is something that happensto someone. People seldom opt to go on adventures; adventures are events, dramas and stories upon which individuals and communities aretaken – it is event-driven, with no obvious plot. In the course of an adventure, there is no control over the beginning or end of the drama (one can only choose to see it through, or to opt out). Furthermore, because the outcomes of adventures are seldom known, there is no point at which a conclusion can be naturally reached. Necessarily, an adventure engages its subjects; it is packed with risk and reward, uncertainty and vindication, threat and promise. As Georg Simmel suggests, adventure is ‘defined by its capacity to have necessity and meaning: [there] we abandon ourselves to the world with fewer defences and reserves than in any other relation’. In other words, the adventurer can be characterised as having ‘daring…with which [the adventurer] continually leaves the solidities of life’ (Simmel, cited in Levine, 1971, pp. 187-190).

The motif of adventure, then, allows a threefold cyclical sequence of movement for believers: leaving the present life and its conventionality; encountering the new world; returning home, and then transforming the homeland from which one has come with the tales of the new world. But critically, the motif of adventure also begins to offer some clues as to how a charismatic movement might begin to cope with apparent atrophy. In the world of adventure, the romance (with God or Jesus) may remain constant, or even steadily intensify, but that does not prevent setbacks. When these occur, they only serve to test the quality of the adventurous romantic relationship, and underline its fundamental importance to the believers. So adventure allows for the negotiation of atrophy – it is only a ‘blip’ or test in the longer, bigger divine drama. The prevalence of charismatic authority – ‘resting on devotion to…exceptional heroism’ (Weber, 1968, p.24) – provides further support for the worldview.

Similarly, a reappraisal of sermons at the Toronto Airport fellowship also suggests that the ideal ‘model’ Christian that is being promoted is the ‘Pilgrim-Adventurer’. The highs and lows of Christian living are sustained by a deep, romantic, passionate and intense relationship with Jesus. But it is this foundation that creates the context for coping with apparent atrophy and setbacks. In a world where the horizons of possibility are shaped by the promise of adventure – including rewards – tarrying for revival is a duty and a joy. Correspondingly, the biblical archetypes of heroism that are most frequently appealed to in sermons tend to be Old Testament figures who are reconstructed as pioneers. Characters such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Noah, and even Jonah, are represented as proto-Pilgrim-Adventurers who set an example for believers today. This is intriguing, for in my original research on the Toronto Blessing in 1996, I suggested that, strictly speaking, visitors to the Toronto Airport fellowship were not really ‘pilgrims’ at all, because the location of the church was immaterial to receiving the blessing. I now accept that this view needs modifying. Visitors to Toronto are unquestionably pilgrims, but not in any conventional anthropological sense. For the believers, the pilgrimage is entirely internal – a thrilling adventure that takes place within the rugged and breathtaking interior spiritual landscape of the individual, in which adversity and reward combine within the overall ecology of the broader spiritual adventure that constitutes the divine drama for each individual visitor or member.

To some extent, this observation can be verified when one talks to individuals about how they now understand the term ‘harvest’. Six years ago, references to ‘harvesting’ peppered many talks and sermons. The Toronto Airport fellowship launched ‘Partners in Harvest’, an umbrella term for other North American and Canadian churches that wanted to belong to a network that linked revivalism to evangelism. ‘Harvest’ was suggestive of produce and growth, and had clear a clear resonance with gospel imagery and analogy. But the use of the term now seems to have evolved into a cipher for the spiritual fruits within the lives of individuals. The ‘harvest’ is less ‘out there’ – whole ‘fields’ of potential converts, as it were – and has become something that is concerned with the growth, development and the interiority of the individuals’ spiritual life. Of course, this means that the phenomenon of atrophy is much more difficult to assess, since ‘growth’ is still always being claimed, in spite of appearances to the contrary. In an interview with one member of staff, she explains to me that the cell meetings that produce the most growth are those for men or women only. When I gently press the question: ‘does that mean numerical growth?’ the reply is modest and temperate: ‘Oh you know, growth takes many forms; like it could be spiritual growth, or growth of another kind. It could be evangelism, yes, I suppose. It depends.’

The cellular structure of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship is something that has been with it from the beginning. This involves small groups of people meeting in specific localities for prayer, worship and fellowship. Cell groups meet in one another’s homes on a weekly basis, for perhaps an hour or two. The numbers involved in cell groups are perhaps the best indication of the present size of the Toronto fellowship; by their own estimation there are 150 groups with perhaps one thousand members. There are cell groups for families, young adults, men, women and couples. The fellowship believes that the most popular cell groups are single-sex. The advocacy of the cell structure is not unusual in a North American church context, but its promotion at the Toronto fellowship tells us something about its direction and development, namely that it is leaving its ‘movement identity’ behind, and on the way to becoming a church. Being a committed member of the fellowship is now constituted through belonging to a cell. This also helps the fellowship differentiate between members and attendees; the leadership’s estimates are that there are about 2000 regularly coming to meetings, but ‘core’ membership is around a 1000 – a noticeable reduction in numbers from the figures I collected in 1996.

Naturally, the fellowship does not see this picture in terms of atrophy or decline. The language of harvest and the ‘Pilgrim-Adventurer’ worldview ensures that any notion of fallowness is only read as part of an overall narrative of growth. Thus, one of the noticeable changes from six years ago is the more intense concentration on youth work. There are about 250 children in the youth programme, approximately 100 teenagers, and around 50 in the ‘young adult’ category (20-30). Part of the main sanctuary has been partitioned to create a giant ‘walk-in’ Noah’s Ark, in which some of the youth ministry can take place. For older youths, it is also interesting to note that the Toronto fellowship now practices ‘Christian Bar Mitzvah’ with its children, in which the passage from childhood to adulthood is marked with a ceremony of blessing (by pastors and parents), which also includes walking across a makeshift bridge as part of the symbolic ritual. Here again, there is a ritual of pioneering and journeying to complement the movement to childhood to adulthood. The ritual creates a sense of freedom fused with security: a safe journey in life - with the Lord.

What the new focus on youth and children’s work indicates is that the adults who have settled in the church are now raising the next generation of revivalists: routinisation is settling in, and the fellowship moving quickly away from a movement identity into an ecclesial one. Six years ago there was little youth work to speak of; now it is essential to ensure the future of the fellowship through organic growth, as it seems not to be occurring in other ways that are numerically significant (i.e., evangelism). But the new rituals, and the character they foster, seem to inculcate the youth into the ‘Pilgrim-Adventurer’ and pioneering identity that so intensely flavours the Toronto fellowship. It is here that they learn that the true meaning of being a pioneer – they are both travellers and settlers, doing something wholly new, yet totally familiar.


The apparent atrophy of a charismatic movement – in this case the ‘Toronto Blessing’ – is indeed a complex phenomenon. For adherents within the movement, the decrease in numbers attending the fellowship, and the overall waning influence of the movement as a whole, means little. Thus, a conversation with an administrator at the fellowship reveals that they ‘are cutting back on [staff] numbers at the moment, because we don’t want to be, like, well you know, top heavy’. But this is not interpreted as being indicative of decline. The Pilgrim-Adventurer travels lightly. There is no real narrative of deterioration in the romantic adventure – only temporary setbacks, and the embracing of leanness, so travel may be swifter and more reflexive. Romantics are incurably positive and optimistic about their future: in the arena of adventure, the faithful pilgrim always prevails. In such a worldview there are times of abundant harvest to look back on and cherish, and there are times to look forward to when the harvest will be plentiful again. Living between the lands of sowing and reaping (to borrow a well-worn phrase from Pentecostalism) only serves to consolidate the identity of the fellowship, and invites the faithful to cease travelling (for the time being), and begin settling. Indeed, such consolidation may turn out to be the Promised Land - the harvest of plenty that was promised.

So strictly speaking, adherents would regard any apparent routinisation as merely temporary, since the culture of revivalism requires believers to be ready, at any point, to become restless pilgrims and adventurers once more. Meanwhile, the fellowship dwells within that unique hinterland of adventure and security; being neither a church nor a movement, but as afellowship (settled, yet reflexive, etc), they know that their time will come again. Adherents have no need of theories of cognitive dissonance to explain themselves (they do not, in any case, really apply here), and nor do they perceive themselves to be in decline. In the mind’s eye of the faithful, God ‘is doing a new thing’ each day, and the temporary lull in revivalist intensity is simply regarded as a period of waiting, during which time the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship continues to hone and intensify its distinctively passionate grammar of assent and quasi-erotic spirituality.

In my final twenty-four hours at the fellowship, I listened intently to a talk given in the morning by a woman who told her small congregation (perhaps forty?), that she thought ‘Jesus really wanted us all to just rest at the moment’. ‘We were battle-weary’, she added, ‘and Jesus was longing to just let us rest with him, soak in his presence, and be still’. We were, in effect, being offered a cipher for the temporary hibernation of revivalism. In the romantic worldview, a period of rest for the warrior bride or pilgrim adventurer is naturally only a precursor to a new quest, or perhaps even a fresh battle. As the time of ministry began (more ‘carpet time’, ‘soaking’ and ‘marinating in the Spirit’) several women simply stretched out on the floor and relaxed. And as I tried to slip out of the main sanctuary meeting that same night, where the prayer and praise had been as exuberant as ever, lasting for more than four hours, a woman seated on the ground near the doorway beckoned me over. ‘You look tired’, she said. ‘I am’, I replied. ‘We’re all tired’, she added, ‘and I feel the Lord is just using me to tell you that what you need to do is go home and rest. I think the Lord is telling me to tell you that. It’s a word of encouragement for you. We all need rest – we all need to rest with Jesus. He’ll take good care of us’. I nodded in agreement. Every good adventure story ends with a well-deserved rest for the hero and reader alike. The Pilgrim-Adventurers were now having their respite, for the time being, at least. Perhaps it was still too early to close the story, and utter the words.


© Revd Canon Dr Martyn Percy, Gresham College, 10 May 2005


This event was on Tue, 10 May 2005


Revd Canon Dr Martyn Percy

Martyn Percy is Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford. He is also visiting Professor of Theology and Ministry, Hartford Seminary, Connecticut; Professor of Theological Education...

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