The Common Good
May-June 1999

Beyond Signs and Wonders

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | May-June 1999

With hoots and hollers, the pentecostal 'Toronto Blessing' invites us to celebrate a love affair of faith. But what's missing from this party?

unlike less welcome church burnings of the 1990s, this torching is celebrated and the congregation revels in the fact that the fire is spreading. The "fire" that fell January 20, 1994, upon what is now known as the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship was what adherents call "The Father’s Blessing"—an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that has sparked a renewal in pentecostalism reminiscent of the original Azusa Street outpouring in 1906.

This pentecostal revival has been felt around the world, with hot spots in Argentina, Great Britain, South Africa, and South Korea. In the United States, powerful renewals are taking place in Baltimore, Pasadena, Pittsburgh, and Pensacola, Florida.

Yet at Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF) where it all began, there are signs that the renewal is waning. While Sunday morning services still draw about a thousand people, many of them look more rehearsed than revived. TACF is known for its relaxed worshiping style inherited from its roots in the Southern California-based Vineyard church—yet some may find it almost lackadaisical. From its flowing pop hymns to the tender, friendly style of pastor John Arnott, a lot of attention has been placed on softening the edges of this revival. TACF is sweet, pleasant, and comfortable. That is, until the "sounds" start.

Proverbs notes that "where no oxen are, the crib is clean." It’s safe to assume that the same goes for dogs, lions, and roosters. Of all the incredible manifestations of the Spirit at TACF—speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, tearful conversions—the cleanliness of its crib has been most disturbed by the controversial animal sounds made by some of its worshipers. The revival has also been characterized by wild bouts of "holy laughter," "slayings in the Spirit," and the shaking, quaking, and prophetic words that are experienced at other pentecostal and charismatic services.

Reports of abnormal manifestations are somewhat exaggerated. Those who have attended pentecostal services are familiar with such free-form expressions of praise. Margaret Poloma, a sociologist who has studied the Toronto Blessing, regards the unusual physical manifestations associated with the revival to be "’normal’ responses to intense emotional reactions that may occur during spiritual, inner, and physical healing." Yet these signs have caused many to question the biblical legitimacy of the revival. As one critic put it, "How can Christians barking like dogs be an expression of Christ in us!?"

In his book The Father’s Blessing, TACF’s pastor Arnott wrote that he has spent "disproportionate amounts of time discussing and explaining" these signs. "One day I said to God," he wrote, "’This has been such a wonderful renewal, Lord. If only You hadn’t brought in these animal sounds and this strange prophecy.’ The Lord responded, ‘Would you like me to take them away?’" Arnott thought about it and replied, "No, Lord. I want all that you have for us—even what I don’t fully understandà.You are the sovereign Lord, not me or my understanding."

Despite the controversy, pentecostalism—with more than 450 million adherents—is the fastest growing Christian movement in the world. For many, the pentecostal experience of spirituality that transcends reason is a fitting prescription for a faith that has often been dominated by doctrinalism and other characteristics that emphasize the mind over the heart. "We have tried so hard to be men of God and women of God and never really learned to be children of God," Arnott wrote. "We have emotional needs, and we need to be loved emotionally. Emotions came from our Creator. God has them; He is emotional, and we were made in His image. He wants us to love Him emotionally with all our hearts, our souls, as well as our minds."

The Miracle of Azusa Street

NEARLY 100 YEARS ago, the signs and wonders growing out of a small chapel on Azusa Street in Los Angeles were just as controversial as those occurring through the "Toronto Blessing"—though for different reasons. In 1906 the miracles that caused the greatest uproar weren’t those that transcended reason as much as those that surmounted the worldly categories of race, gender, and class. Though eyebrows may still be raised in some churches, racially mixed worship, women fulfilling leadership roles, and the welcoming of people regardless of their background or class isn’t too unusual today. Both church and society have come a long way.

Because of the color of his skin, the one-eyed black pastor William J. Seymour had to peek through a window of a 1901 Kansas prayer meeting as Agnes Ozman became the first known modern person to speak in tongues. Five years later, Seymour took that experience to Azusa Street where he presided over a revival that is still going strong after nearly a century. Seymour’s experience in Kansas helped him to realize that speaking in tongues and other signs didn’t guarantee that a person was open enough to God to transcend the tendency of the human fallenness that discriminates according to what is seen rather than what is unseen. Seymour understood that love was the only true indicator of whether or not a person has received the Holy Spirit.

At Azusa Street, it was the release from established social roles that most foreshadowed the new heaven and new earth. Seymour wrote in the congregation’s newsletter, "Tongues are one of the signs that go with every baptized person, but it is not the real evidence of baptism in everyday life." For Seymour the real mystery was how the work of the Spirit brings all believers together in one accord. "Pentecost...brings us all into one common family," he wrote. But sadly this heavenly unity didn’t last very long. Tired of the contempt of mainstream society, by 1923 white pentecostals had abandoned the standard of multiracial worship to form their own denominations. The unifying power of the Holy Spirit, which was said to have "washed the color line away in blood," was overcome by more worldly conventions.

In the decades that followed the Azusa Street revival, "social miracles" such as equality, unity, and justice weren’t considered by white pentecostals to be as important as the individual gifts of tongues, healing, or prophecy. Though they disagreed on some doctrinal issues, white pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God found the fundamentalist movement to be a more comfortable ally than their Spirit-filled African-American, Latino, and Asian brothers and sisters.

For much of the rest of the 20th century, pentecostal believers worshiped with those of their own race, focusing on the personal spirituality and holiness that distinguishes the movement. Yet despite their zeal to set their hearts "on things above," the values of secular culture seeped in and affected the pentecostal movement. The tragic discord of a group that was once "of one accord" was starkly revealed during the civil rights movement, when black and white pentecostals took opposing sides in the struggle.

However, by the 1990s several prominent groups of pentecostals awakened to the sin of racism, publicly repenting and dissolving denominational affiliations that had been erected between believers of different races. The Promise Keepers, which included the participation of many pentecostal men, also helped to spread the understanding of moving one’s relationship with God into the arena of public witness. But while these highly publicized moments of repentance and reconciliation were sincere, they had their strongest impact at the leadership level. The awareness of racial equity and other justice concerns among pentecostals have come a long way in just a few short years, but there remains much to be done.

Life in the Comfort Zone

LIKE SEYMOUR, PARTICIPANTS in the Toronto Blessing movement identify love and not signs and wonders as the defining characteristic of the presence of the Spirit. However, in the exhilaration of the blessing many have lost sight of love’s social significance. Their profession to follow the "full gospel," including the gifts of the Spirit noted in 1 Corinthians, has somehow overlooked more numerous citations such as 1 John 3:17: "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?" For the most part, the river of revival seems to have bypassed the poor and their thirst for the needs of both body and spirit.

The challenge of the Toronto Blessing to have a "love affair with God" is an important admonition to our goal-oriented society and church. But after five years of revival, one wonders when this romantic liaison will make its debut in the public sphere. Though the Toronto Blessing has deeply touched numerous people, in the lives of many North American pentecostals the Spirit seems restrained by the dominant culture of materialism, consumerism, and a one-dimensional moralism that fixates on personal sins to the exclusion of those of society. For the majority of middle-class pentecostals and charismatics, life remains reflective of their class, race, and culture—a very different spiritual experience than that which led the congregations at both Jerusalem (Acts 2) and Azusa Street to upset traditional categories and share "all things in common." Again, it seems, the values of secular culture threaten to pollute the pure experience of the Holy Spirit.

Although their mission statement is "to walk in God’s love and then give it away," worshipers at TACF, like many North American pentecostals, seem content to savor one mountaintop experience after another. Their obsession to confront "the enemy" in their own personal spiritual lives seems less concerned with working where the enemy’s destructive power is most evident—among the poor, oppressed, and others living in the valley of the shadow of death. This life in the comfort zone has given credence to the charge that American religion is "three miles wide and one inch deep"—and led to what Poloma calls a "stadium and conference Christianity" whose participants are "easily lured from one ‘hot spot’ to another." With their emphasis on personal aspects of spirituality, charismatics and pentecostals often open themselves up to the charge of living in "a culture of narcissism," a characteristic of North American culture, in Poloma’s words, "hardly reflecting the kingdom of God in the scriptures."

However, this current stream of revival is slowly starting to challenge presumptions that have been shaped more by North American secular culture than the new life of the Holy Spirit. At a recent TACF service, John Arnott warned the congregation that for some people persecution means prison; but for others, perhaps it is "being surrounded by affluence and to have your heart drawn away by it." This may be stretching the definition of persecution, but Arnott’s point hits right at the heart of TACF’s middle-class congregation. Yet while classical pentecostals—with their roots among the poor and disenfranchised—remain somewhat suspicious of contemporary society, the desire of some charismatics to reach the mainstream population "where they’re at" has sometimes diluted the radical nature of their message. According to Poloma, this has always been a tricky issue for the charismatic movement, "whose solidly middle-class followers had already been fully integrated into the culture and values of the larger society when they experienced Spirit baptism."

In the area of women in ministry, the pentecostal/charismatic movement has traditionally been more open-minded than many denominations. The 1906 Azusa Street revival was noted for its inclusion of women in leadership roles, and pentecostals have continued to show appreciation of the gifts the Spirit confers upon women. At TACF, pastoring is shared by husband and wife ministry teams and women have played a substantial role in spreading the Toronto Blessing around the world.

In the TACF monthly magazine, Spread the Fire, Don Rousu questions the traditional exclusion of women from public ministry, asking, "Why have women in the church been restrained? In large part, it has happened because men dominated the church for hundreds of years. We brought a male bias to the translation and interpretation of scripture." You can’t find enough Christian men quick to say that! Yet the same article defines women qualified for leadership as being "maturing women who have a strong foundation in the Word of God...women of vision, continually being filled with the Spirit...women of integrityàwomen who are anointed initiators" and "women who are devoid of feminist traits and agendas." For many North American women called to leadership, the last qualification may be the hardest to meet.

More than Tongues

WHILE AFFLUENT North American pentecostals are highly visible, around the world the vast majority of those in the movement are poor by North American standards. It is among these believers that the power of a pentecostal spirituality has perhaps had the most impact and shows the most signs of hope.

Pentecostalism has done for poor people what the liberal theologies that have traditionally advocated on their behalf could not. The intensity of pentecostal spirituality has transformed and empowered people by helping them overcome personal vices, teaching them to respect themselves and their families, even if the world did not, and offering them a new life in this world that other denominations were less able to do.

While less affluent pentecostals are just as interested in enjoying "The Father’s Blessing" as other worshipers, they have much less disposable time to revel in it. Rather, these small congregations are busy responding to the spiritual and material needs of their communities by pioneering the development of faith-based urban ministries. These soup kitchens, drug and alcohol programs, women’s shelters, and other ministries started by Spirit-filled believers aren’t slick or flashy, but they are getting the job done in ways that outside or secular efforts cannot. While churches like TACF are located on the edge of urban areas and require a car to get to, pentecostals and charismatics of more modest means gather to worship in small storefront churches in their own neighborhoods. While these houses of worship often may be not much to look at, their visible presence within inner-city neighborhoods provides a sanctifying effect that blesses the entire community.

Many Christians have allowed their judgment of pentecostals to be clouded by the dramatic aspects of the movement, which seem alienating, frightening, and unsophisticated. While signs and wonders may not be part of every Christian’s spiritual life, the pentecostal movement consists of much more than speaking in tongues, slayings in the Spirit, and bizarre animal sounds. With a strong presence around the world, the pentecostal message of equal access to the life of the Spirit has an incredible potential to meet both the spiritual and material needs of those who suffer.

Instead of eyeing pentecostalism and the charismatic movement with suspicion, there may be much that believers from other traditions can learn from it. Similarly, the movement of Spirit-filled believers can benefit from a deeper relationship with more established denominations that have long worked to express their faith by advocating social justice for "the least of these." Working together, we may find that it’s not so bad to have your head in the clouds—if you keep your feet on the ground.

Why Did the Spirit Choose Toronto?

A recent CNN report noted that "Toronto’s name was once synonymous with dull." Yet in the last several decades, Canada’s largest city has come to occupy a social space very similar to Los Angeles during the era of Azusa Street. Much like 1906 Los Angeles, Toronto at the end of the century is undergoing a powerful transition on the wave of technology, global politics, and the values of a new, diverse generation. As the paradigms and institutions of the 20th century dissolve before our eyes, global forces of consolidation are bringing together communities of people almost unimaginable a generation ago.

Toronto is now home to 80 different ethnic groups; about two-thirds of the city’s 3.8 million people were born and raised elsewhere. In this city, just as in many throughout North America, it isn’t uncommon to find neighborhoods and classrooms filled with people from South Korea, El Salvador, Bosnia, India, Ukraine, Poland, Ghana, Mexico, Nigeria, Iran, and many other places around the world.

These dramatic changes are challenging to everybody involved. Older Torontonians are struggling to adjust as "their" city transforms around them. The newcomers miss their country of origin and long for the social contexts where they had a place to belong. For many, this border between the "old" and "new" worlds is a place of deep spiritual reflection and re-evaluation.

The social context of Toronto is perfect for the growth of the pentecostal movement, which thrives in times of social and physical dislocation when people are trying to grasp a sense of familiarity and stability. Offering a solid worldview, a dynamic expression of family, and a sanctified mission, pentecostalism is an attractive alternative for those caught up in the massive alterations of the world order. Because the pentecostal church is as fluid as today’s post-industrial, post-modern population, they can respond to the spiritual needs of those faced with the often difficult realities of the global village. Coupled with a "last days" theology that sees everything harsh the world has to offer as signs of the imminent return of Christ, the pentecostal movement is rapidly drawing believers to join them "in the river."

AARON McCARROLL GALLEGOS, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a writer living in Toronto. Years after leaving the pentecostal church, from time to time he still enjoys wading "in the river."

For more on the pentecostal revival, see these sites:

  • The Spirit Speaks. Celebrating the power and importance of Pentecostalism. Aaron Gallegos. September-October 1995 (Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 30-33). Features. Especially for those pentecostals based among the poor, the healing of social diseases such as racism, poverty, and substance abuse is an integral part of the work of the Spirit today.
  • Turning the World Upside Down. Who's evangelizing whom in Latin America? Aaron Gallegos. September-October 1997 (Vol. 26, No. 5, pp. 28-32). Features. The challenge brought to us by new evangelicals in Latin America is just this: To recover our original joy and calling, to spread the love of God, and to make disciples of all the nations -- starting with ourselves first.
  • Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. Find out about the revival from the official site.

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