Margaret M. Poloma
Department of Sociology
The University of Akron
Akron, OH 44325-1905
*Do not cite in publications without permission from the author*
Table of Contents
Sociology represents a particular perspective or way of viewing the world. It includes a focus on how our societies and cultures are socially constructed by the people who live in them and how, in turn, these social constructs (institutions, laws, norms, etc.) "act back" on their creators to shape and define their identities. Sociology thus assumes that the social order (including our religious beliefs and institutions) is created by people whose thought and behavior is shaped by that which came before them and who help to shape what comes after them.
This paper uses a sociological approach with its strengths and its limitations to assess the effects of the so-called "Toronto Blessing". It is outside the sphere of the sociological perspective to call upon either God or the demons to explain what is happening at the Toronto Airport Church. Nor can sociology as a scientific discipline proclaim judgment about whether a given outcome is "good" or "bad." (Often what is "good" for one person or group may be "bad" for another.) It strives for objectivity and the information it gathers must be empirical (i.e. capable of being measured and remeasured). It is subjective only in that sociology relies on respondents to tell their stories (which are, of course, based on their personal experiences). This methodology is both its strength and its weakness in any attempt to discuss the ongoing Renewal. Using a scientific perspective does not permit the researcher to expound on the basis of personal opinion, philosophical presuppositions, or theological beliefs. (Footnote 1) Although sociology can provide an objective analysis of certain facets of the Toronto Blessing, it clearly lacks the sensitivity to deal with the deep mysteries of the Holy Spirit.
What sociology can do is to contribute to the assessment of the effects or "fruit" of a social phenomenon, including what has been happening to those who visit the Toronto Airport Church. Although its canons warn practioners against proclaiming what is "good" and what is "bad," the sociological method can be used to measure the impact of the Toronto Blessing on individuals and on groups. Topics for investigation can include perceptions of spiritual and emotional well-being, changes in interpersonal relationships, and behavioral activities that may effect the larger society. Sociology can thus provide a tool to determine whether individuals perceive their lives to be better as a result of the Renewal, whether their relationships with family and friends have changed, and whether their experiences have empowered them to reach out to others in the larger community.
As Jesus (Matt. 7:16-18) wisely instructs us: "By their fruit you will recognize them. . . .A good tree cannot bear bad
fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit." Sociology, as briefly described above, does offer a method to study the
tree and its fruit, leaving the reader to make the judgment about whether the "fruit" produced by the Toronto Blessing is
in fact "good" or "bad". It offers a way to break the deadlock between defenders and critics of the Renewal by
presenting evidence about the impact the Toronto Blessing is having in the lives of thousands of people who have
themselves tasted of its fruit and judged it to be good.
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Although sociology cannot replace spiritual discernment, it can be a useful aid in the discernment process. Its methods of collecting data include surveys, interviews, participant observation, and other forms of self-reporting--all of which I am employing in this study. This report is based on the responses of a survey completed by over 850 persons (with survey responses still being completed and returned), participant observation in Toronto and other renewal sites, and written testimonies provided by visitors to the Toronto Airport Church. (Footnote 2) Using these data, I am seeking to answer a simple research question: "What are some of the effects of the Toronto Blessing?"
The questionnaire was first included in the August, 1995 issue of "Spread the Fire," a magazine sent to persons who have visited the Toronto Airport Church to keep them informed of activities and to provide testimonies/teachings relevant to the renewal. It was also included in the October, 1995 "Catch the Fire Again" and November, 1995 "Healing School" programs. At the time of this writing, 866 completed questionnaires have been received. Although the survey instrument was structured to allow for easy computer analysis, respondents were encouraged to send additional information if they wished. (Nearly one in four--24 percent of sample--included supplemental data). The letters, diary pages, and testimonials that accompanied many of the questionnaires will be used to illustrate and to help explain the "hard" data reported in response to the survey questions.
Questionnaires were returned from seventeen countries, with the majority of responses coming from the United States (54%), Canada (26%) and England (11%). Although these three countries do supply most of the visitors to the Toronto Airport Church, other countries--especially non-English speaking Asian ones--are noticeably missing from this sample. Visitors represent over 40 denominations and sects, with more than one in four (27%) indicating their church is either independent, nondenominational, or interdenominational. Seventeen percent (17%) of the respondents are members of pentecostal denominations or sects, 15 percent are either Anglican (Canada and England) or Episcopalian (U.S.), 11 percent are members of Vineyard Christian Fellowships, and 6 percent are Baptist (of one kind or another). Seventy-four percent reported that their pastors had visited the Toronto Airport Church. The profile of the "average" respondent thus far is that of an American (most likely to be from California, Colorado, New York, Ohio, or Pennsylvania) who belongs to a non-denominational church, which is likely to be a charismatic Christian.
The demographic profile of the respondents is skewed toward being married (71%), female (58%), middle-aged and
having a college diploma. The average age is 45 years (with a median of 43), and the mean education is 15 years of
formal schooling, with a median and mode of 16 years. Eighteen percent (18%) of the respondents were church
pastors and another 4 percent were the spouses of pastors; 30 percent indicated that they were church leaders. The
demographic profile indicates that those who completed the questionnaire tend to be well-educated and mature
individuals, the majority of whom are involved in church leadership--persons who would appear to be in a good
position to evaluate the Toronto Blessing. It is least likely to represent the one-time visitor who spends an evening
observing but never returns.
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A series of questions were included in the survey that directly and indirectly asked respondents to self-evaluate the
effects of their visit to the Toronto Airport Church. (Many of these questions were developed after listening to scores of
testimonies given at the Toronto Airport Church and at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio.) For reporting
and discussing purposes, they are being grouped into four categories: personal spiritual refreshment, holiness and
healing, evangelism and outreach, and social relations. Each of these categories will be assessed in terms of survey
responses and illustrated through letters and testimonies that were included with 24 percent of the questionnaires. It was
difficult to select quotations from the over 200 written testimonies received, some of which were ten or more
single-spaced pages in length. For each quotation included, I could have found scores of others to make a similar point.
I trust that I have selected quotations that are both representative and that clarify the meaning of the numbers derived
from the "hard" data.
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In listening to verbal testimonies while in the process of constructing the questionnaire, I was struck by how many persons indicated that their spirituality was at a low ebb before they first visited the Toronto Airport Church. A woman in my congregation, who was the first person to tell me about the Toronto Blessing, related how she had cried out in prayer again and again, "God, there has to be more!" After her first visit to the Toronto Airport Church she shared jubilantly with me, "When I was prayed with, I went down under the power of the Holy Spirit and just wept for joy. I kept saying 'I knew there was more--I just knew there was--thank you--thank you.'" It appears that one in two of the respondents found themselves in positions similar to my friend. Fifty per cent (50%) indicated agreement with the statement: "When I first came to the Toronto Airport Church, I was experiencing spiritual dryness and great discouragement." And judging from their response to another question, they received some kind of lasting spiritual refreshment. Only 9 percent of agreed with the statement that read, "I felt the power of God while visiting the Toronto Airport Church, but this feeling is now only a memory." Most believe they had been touched by God and this touch in some way remained viable.
A young woman (Maria) (Footnote 3) in her early 30s from the heartland of the U.S. writes the following:
Maria then shared of the prayer and prophetic words she received when someone came and offered to pray for her, but confessed to "remain(ing) reticent and apparently 'untouched' physically, which was fine with me." (Footnote 4) The next evening she sought out prayer from two teenaged boys on the prayer team and commented: "I felt I could justify not being touched by God because it would have been kids who had prayed for me." She added:
Thirteen months have passed since Maria's initial visit to the Toronto Airport Church. It has been a time during which
she has become "incredibly free." She reports in closing how this ongoing experience of God has changed her: "In these
13 months I have a greater burden/desire for evangelism, have stepped up into greater prophetic anointing, and feel
freer to serve God by serving my church."
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Responses to other questions provide some additional insight into the nature of the refreshment commonly experienced by Toronto Airport pilgrims. The most noteworthy "fruit" of the Blessing is a deeper love for God and a deeper sense of being loved by Him. Eighty-nine percent (89%) reported an affirmative response to the statement "I am more in love with Jesus now than I have ever been in my life." More than nine out of ten (91%) persons reported that "I have come to know Jesus or the Father's love in new ways."
A 39-year-old pentecostal pastor (Pastor John) shared a moving account of how God had touched him during a conference he attended at the Toronto Airport Church. This pastor had been sexually assaulted, when he was 11 years of age, by a group of homosexuals shortly after his father died. In his letter, Pastor John shared his struggle as follows:
He confessed to having particular difficulty with the image of being the Bride of Christ and Jesus being the Bridegroom. "I have told many people it was a 'macho' thing, when it really wasn't. It was shame and fear of intimacy with God." Pastor John then went on to share what had happened during one of the times of worship during the conference:
Pastor John reports that this experience has not left him and there seems to be a new tenderness that has come from it. "Opening my heart to Him is much easier," he shared, "and the concept of the Bride is now a blessing. That sense of shame and fear is gone."
As a careful reading of the accounts of both Maria and Pastor John indicate, the refreshing appears to go much deeper
than experiencing the much-talked about physical manifestations of this Renewal or otherwise feeling warm "fuzzies".
The deep effects of the Blessing become even more apparent as we look to the responses to questions dealing with
holiness and healing.
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The words for "holy" and "whole" are reported to have the same etymological root. Certainly the two were intertwined
in the healing ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as he went about forgiving sins, casting out demons, and healing
diseases--making persons whole spiritually, mentally and physically. Answers given by many respondents to survey
questions reflected an increase in both holiness and in health as a result of what they perceived to be a divine encounter
at the Toronto Airport Church.
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Although the vast majority of those who come to the renewal services are already born-again Christians, repentance is a theme that runs through many testimonies. (Footnote 5) As men and women encounter a holy God, many (like Isaiah) are left "undone." Clifford, a policeman from England shares how he was repeatedly touched during a Toronto Airport Church conference that he had attended:
Most probably not all experiences were as intense as Clifford's, but sixty-eight percent (68%) of the respondents did report a fresh recognition of their sinful condition. One percent (1%) percent made a first-time commitment to Jesus and another 29 percent recommitted their lives to Him. These men and women, however, did not remain wallowing in what the famed social psychologist William James referred to as a religion of the "sick soul." After recognizing their sinfulness, these individuals (together with others, for a total of 81%) reported an experience of a "fresh sense of God's forgiveness."
Malcolm, a 48-year-old British Anglican, is one of the respondents who reported recommitting his life to Jesus while participating in the renewal services. Malcolm had accepted Christ as his Savior 30 years earlier and had gone on to have a successful Christian ministry--one that he felt God told him to "throw it down and to pick it up again only at His instruction, for it had become an abomination in His eyes." Malcolm goes on to share:
Malcolm's initial contact with the Blessing occurred in London through Ellie Mumford whose ministry had been torched by an earlier visit to the Toronto Airport Church. As he reports:
When John Arnott, pastor of the Toronto Airport Church, came to London several months later, Malcolm accepted the invitation of friends and went "to hear what this bloke had to say." When John preached on the story of the Prodigal Son, Malcolm reports that he "actually walked out at one point," but he did return for prayer. Malcolm goes on to describe what happened:
Malcolm's story points to another survey question that attempts to tap into the issue of holiness and healing; namely that
of deliverance. Unlike some charismatic and pentecostal churches, specific prayers for deliverance are not encouraged
during Renewal services. The intent is to "bless" rather than to "deliver" persons from demonic forces. Despite this shift
in emphasis, 55 percent of the respondents indicated that they had been delivered from Satan's hold on their lives as a
result of prayer at the Toronto Airport Church. The anecdotal data accompanying the questionnaires indicate that
many, like Malcolm, believe they have been delivered from various addictions, suicidal tendencies, irrational fears, and
"curses" of previous generations.
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Conversion, repentance, forgiveness and deliverance were part of the experience of many during the renewal services, providing a kind of foundation for mental, emotional, and physical healing that often followed. A holistic process pointing to an interdependence of spirit, mind and body appears time and again in the testimonies of visitors to the Toronto Airport Church. These testimonies provide some flesh for the skeletal statistics which show 78 percent of respondents had experienced "an inner or emotional healing," 5 percent had "experienced a healing from clinically diagnosed mental health problems," and 21 percent reported "physical healing" as a result of the Toronto Blessing.
The most common reports of healing were emotional in nature--accounts of healing of inordinate fears and anxieties, sexual abuse, and depression were frequent. Diane, a 41-year old widow, shares one such account:
While only a few of the accounts I reviewed are alleged to be as instantaneous as Diane's, the reported results are similar. It is as if healing begins slowly and goes on to deeper and deeper levels. Many, however, believe the process has been accelerated due to prayer at the Toronto Airport Church. A 40-year old woman (Toni) told how she had been going to a Christian counseling center before coming to Toronto for the purpose of "dealing with severe trauma I suffered as a child." Her counselor's reaction to the change she observed in Toni was one found in other reports:
Margo, a Canadian woman in her mid-forties, tells a story much like Toni in that she can specify instances prior to her first visit to the Toronto Airport Church when she was experiencing healing -- in her case of problems stemming from sexual abuse. Her repeated visits, by her account, have taken the healing process to new depths. Margo reports, "Sometimes I don't even know what I'm being healed of but pain surfaces, I fall under the power and weep deeply." An unusual happening occurred during one of Margo's more recent visits to the Toronto Airport Church when the guest speaker "asked people needing salvation, those with diabetes, and with back fatigue to come to the front for prayer ministry." Since Margo had been "diagnosed with having degenerative disc disease," she went forward. She never does report further on her back problem, but this was a moment when she believes she was able to see her father in a new light. As she recounts it:
Further demonstrating the so-called "trinity of mind, body, and spirit," reports of physical healing are often imbedded in reports of improved emotional and mental health. A middle-aged, married woman provides a succinct report of her healing that reflects this interrelationship:
It wasn't always possible for respondents to sort out the spiritual from the psychological or the physical. A fifty-year-old American Lutheran pastor (Pastor Martin) reported that "things got quite complicated" during his stay at a healing conference, and he left feeling devastated, depressed and angry. On the way home he had what turned out to be an "anxiety attack" that took him to the emergency room of a hospital on the way home. That hospital visit turned out to be his epiphany that brought change into his life.
As Pastor Martin concluded his written testimony:
As I have reported elsewhere in research done on the Assemblies of God, (Footnote 6) charismatic experiences are related to evangelistic activities. Those who scored higher on a scale of "charismatic activities" (including speaking in tongues, resting in the spirit, experiencing divine healing, etc.) were more likely to be involved in evangelistic activities. I contended that those who have such experiences often have compelling stories to tell, and these accounts are important media for drawing others into pentecostal and charismatic churches. (Maria's account presented earlier included her increased desire to evangelize; and Malcolm's life-changing visit, it may be recalled, was precipitated by the invitation of friends.)
The overwhelming majority of the respondents believed that they had in some way encountered God and that He had changed their lives. One of the statements in the survey read: "I cannot honestly say that I have observed any significant changes in my life that I would attribute to coming to the Toronto Airport Church." Ninety percent (90%) disagreed with that statement, confirming the changes reflected in other statements are ones which they would attribute to their pilgrimage to Toronto. They report themselves to be more loving, more free, and more joy-filled.
Most respondents have a story to tell, and they are willing to share it. One way of telling it is to encourage others to visit the Toronto Airport Church, and nine in ten respondents (91%) said they have done so. Often testimonies will begin with accounts about how reluctant the person was to come to the Toronto Airport Church but came (as did Malcolm) after continued prodding by a relative or friend. Like the woman at the well in John's Gospel, the vast majority who believe they have had a special encounter with God at the Toronto Airport Church go out and encourage others to "come and see." The responses of these sometimes reluctant visitors are similar to the Samaritans of old who replied to the woman: "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves" (John 4:39-42).
The evangelistic outreach is not limited to encouraging others to visit the Toronto Airport Church. Given the demographic profile of the sample, many of the respondents were probably evangelistically oriented even before being touched by the Renewal. As a result of what happened to them through the Toronto Blessing, this desire to share the person of Jesus seems to have been intensified. Most of the survey respondents (83%) acknowledged that "talking about Jesus to my family and friends is more important to me now than it has ever been before." As Malcolm exuberantly expressed it:
The mission statement of the Toronto Airport Church can be found on a large banner stretching across the back of an auditorium wall: "That we may walk in God's love and then give it away." The message of this Renewal, as I have noted elsewhere, is about experiencing the personal love of God. (Footnote 7) The overwhelming majority of the respondents, as we have seen, have been refreshed by the "Father's Blessing" (as Toronto Airport Church pastor John Arnott prefers to call the Toronto Blessing). As men and women have experienced a new sense of God's love, forgiveness, and healing, the survey findings suggest that they do pass the blessing on.
Of those who are married, 88 percent claim that they have more love for their spouses as a result of the blessings they received at the Toronto Airport Church. A forty-four-year old man who describes himself as "a francophone from the province of Quebec" begins his letter apologizing for his English. He then went on to share in a simple language that all can understand how his marriage was transformed through the gift of "holy laughter":
Often respondents make special note of the fact their spouses could attest to the changes in them. A western-european pentecostal husband in his mid-forties writes:
The majority (69%) claim that "my friends and my family have commented on changes they have observed in me." A young woman from Maryland expresses it as follows:
In addition to changing the quality of relationships among families and friends, respondents believe their experience of the Renewal has blessed their churches. Seventy-one percent (71%) of the respondents assert that "my church has experienced positive benefits from my visit to the Toronto Airport Church." Some of these benefits may be found hidden in between the testimony lines, as men and women note how they have been given gifts of prophetic encouragement, intercessory prayer, and evangelism. (Footnote 8) A 39-year-old pastor's wife from South Africa devoted much of her written testimony to the changes in their church:
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As may be seen from both the quantitative (survey results) and qualitative (anecdotal testimonies) data collected from over 850 visitors to the Toronto Airport Church, there is substantial evidence that the Toronto Blessing has had a decided impact on the lives of the majority of those who responded to the survey. (Footnote 9) I would like to summarize some of what I regard as the major findings reported here before presenting a conclusion as a Christian sociologist.
The data I have presented tell us a good deal about the spirituality of the pilgrims to the Toronto Airport Church. Most seem to have come as seekers--sometimes reluctant and skeptical, but still as seeking more of God. In their quest they found the words of Jeremiah 29:13 to be true: "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all of your heart." The overwhelming majority felt they had experienced an unusual touch of God that has lasted beyond the spirited time at the Toronto renewal site. Most of the visitors were already committed Christians. Although there are many reported first-time conversions and recommitments, the Renewal seems to be more about an equipping and empowering of already committed believers than making new converts. Through deep experiences of God's love, people claim to be healed of emotional wounds and are now capable of reaching out to family and friends.
Love is a much overused term, almost trivialized in contemporary society, but it is the love of God and love of others that is the heart of this Renewal. As we have seen, those touched by the Toronto Blessing believe significant changes have taken place not only in their relationship with God but with that of family, friends, and co-workers. In the words of Toronto Airport Church pastor John Arnott, "Love is the bottom line."
It is often suggested that the search for religious experiences can be carried to an extreme, spawning a kind of religious narcissism. That does not appear to be a particular problem among most of these respondents. As I have found in my earlier research with George H. Gallup, Jr., intense experiences of God during prayer appear to be a catalyst of social action for many. (Footnote 10) The same process seems to be at work for religious experiences that stem from the Toronto Blessing. Although a slight majority were already heavily involved in pastoral and leadership roles in their churches, many others recounted an increased involvement with their churches as a byproduct of their visit to the Toronto Airport Church. A significant minority (34 percent) also reported becoming more involved in works of mercy (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, etc.). And the overwhelming majority revealed through responses to questionnaires and in narrative accounts an increase in evangelistic fervor that seemed to burn within them.
As a sociologist looking at these overall findings, I see benefits of the Toronto Blessing that go beyond the ones that are easily measured by surveys and interviews. The "fruit" has implications for the very survival of Christianity in the western world. Religious beliefs and practices were once at the center of societies, providing a kind of "sacred canopy" against the calamities of life. In modern times, however, religion has been seemingly rendered powerless by rational thought and the rapid growth of science and technology. For many people the "sacred canopy" is pierced with holes. Harvard University theologian Harvey Cox writes the following about the "traumatic cultural changes" in the modern world and religion's response to them in his recent book Fire from Heaven :
In other words, modern thought has tended to disparage and to deny religious reality, and those who believe must find ways maintain their religious beliefs in a highly skeptical world. One way is the way of the fundamentalists (whether Islamic, Christian or any other traditional religion) where religious reality is simply affirmed as being true. ("The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it," reads the bumper sticker reflecting Christian literalism.) Another approach taken by many mainline church leaders is to "demythologize" the scriptures. ("The Bible is a book of stories; miracles, including Jesus's resurrection are to be understood symbolically," say these liberal theologians.) There is a third alternative to the two diametrically opposed intellectual routes--a path that some social scientists say is the only truly viable one in the long run. This is the path of religious experience. Religious experience is the "third way" noted by Cox in the above quotation--and it is the path of the Toronto Blessing. The experiential spirituality reflected in this study is one that is balanced: a healthy sense of personal sin in the face of God's holiness, a willingness to forgive and to be forgiven, and an ability to accept God's love and the love of others. It is a spirituality that is postmodern in that it reflects the wholeness of the human being--an integration of the human spirit, soul (mind and emotions) and body.
The Toronto Blessing, however, is not just about any spiritual experience. It is not about the physical manifestions that
fixate the attention of many newcomers, nor is it primarily about extraordinary spiritual gifts. The Renewal is about
satisfying the desire of the human heart. It is about human beings encountering a God of love whose love empowers
them to share what they have been given. It is that love--love as described by the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13--
which has the power to transform lives, families, churches and societies.
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