No Laughing Matter

Rodney Howard-Browne walked slowly down the aisle in my direction. He was a a bull of a man, short, thick-necked and tremendously broad across the shoulders.

He pointed at the man sitting in front of me, “Dear brother, come here. Stand up and come right here. Raise your hands and close your eyes.” The man did as he was told. Mr Howard Browne stretched out his hand towards the man. “Oh yes, here it comes. Wadeh cuma ho ho shayim (or words to that effect). Right now!” The man collapsed backwards, was caught by some waiting attendants and gently lowered to the floor. I looked at his face. It was calm and smiling, as if he were having a pleasant dream.

What would I do or say if he pointed next at me? Everyone else he had called upon in the last 20 minutes had gone down. Some shook. Some collapsed before they had made it out of their seats. One man swayed towards the floor several times but did not go down, like a punch-drunk boxer trying to make it to the end of the round. Mr Howard-Browne was not interested in a points decision. “Don’t fight it. Let go. Hit him again, Jesus. Now!” Down he went. Others were lying on the floor in groups where they had fallen, some laughing, some just smiling, others making groaning noises. One man quite close to me was lying flat on his back laughing uncontrollably, as if being tickled by some invisible agent. Mr Howard-Browne returned to him and with a grin put his foot on the man’s chest. The man grabbed his ankle and laughed all the louder, as did all those around.

Another thought also disturbed me. What if I swoon or go into a trance like the lady down the front on the left? She had stood motionless with eyes closed and arms raised for 30 seconds before going down, and Mr Howard-Browne had taken a camera from someone nearby and taken a family snap for her to remember the occasion. What if he did that to me and published the photographs? My credibility would be in tatters.

I looked slowly up from the man lying on the floor beside me. My heart was pounding. It was 1:30 pm. We had been in the meeting since 10, and I had not eaten since breakfast. It was hot. I felt slightly giddy and lightheaded. Despite my intentions otherwise, I feared that if l was called upon to stand up, close my eyes and raise my hands I too would be a goner.

I frantically tried to think what I would say. A strong “No thank you” perhaps? Or “No, I’m feeling rather tired. You sit down here if you want to talk to me.” Rodney Howard-Browne looked at me, and then turned slowly and headed back down the aisle. For the first and only time that morning I said quietly to myself, Thank you Lord.

THIS CLOSE ENCOUNTER of the pentecostal kind took place on February 7 at a meeting organized by the Christian Life Centre at Brookvale in Sydney. The visiting speaker, Mr Rodney Howard-Browne, is a prominent exponent of the ‘Toronto blessing’, a phenomenon of alleged spiritual revival which has Christians talking in Canada, the US and Britain.

It all started in January of last year in Toronto, Canada, (hence the name) at the John Wimber affiliated Airport Vineyard Church. An outbreak of very demonstrative and widespread physical manifestations (such as falling down, shaking, and, in particular, uncontrollable laughing) convinced those present that God was giving them a special anointing or time of revival. People flocked to see what was happening and to taste the blessing for themselves. It spread. Evangelists like Rodney Howard-Browne now take the ‘blessing’ with them to churches all over the world.

As with the Wimber brouhaha of a few years ago, evangelicals are being divided over what is happening. In England, the ‘blessing’ has been greeted with some enthusiasm, one prominent Evangelical Alliance pastor going so far as to say: “I believe we are on the edge of what could be the greatest thing to hit our nation this century”.[1]

Others are not so sure. The Evangelical Alliance thought it necessary to call a special consultation in December of last year to discuss the phenomenon, and to issue a cautious joint statement about it.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what is new about the Toronto blessing and what we are to make of it all.

What’s new

The meeting opened with a lengthy, expertly led and superbly accompanied singing session. The band was without doubt the best I have heard in a Christian meeting. The songs were musically very good—exciting, fast-moving, and singable—and flowed seamlessly from one to the next, with times of informal worship in tongues happening between some of them. Judging by the faces and bodily attitudes of those around me, the effect of 45 minutes of this, all standing, and most of it with arms raised, was quite intoxicating.

The singing was followed by a 50 minute talk from Rodney Howard-Browne on the importance of financially supporting itinerant evangelists, although he denied repeatedly that he was after money himself. There was some more singing.

So far, nothing new—a common or garden pentecostal meeting.

There followed, however, something that was new—a second sermon, lasting nearly an hour, which contained trenchant criticism of a number of pentecostal sacred cows. The practice of daily ‘putting the armour on’; the obsession of some churches with ‘territorial spirits’; the fascination with casting out demons and putting the angels out over our loved ones and possessions; the importance of all-night prayer as the precursor to revival—all were lambasted by Mr Howard Browne as part of our ongoing obsession with finding the ‘secret’ to the anointing. He insisted that there was no formula, no secret, no set of things that one had to ‘do’ in order to receive the anointing. “The anointing is not a formula; it is a relationship.” (Cheers. Amens.) If God really was alive, and ready to bless (more Amens) , then all we had to do was yield to him. We had to relax, not take ourselves so seriously, and let the Jesus in our bellies come bubbling out. It’s up to God. He’ll do it. We need to be freed from the bondage of trying to get it to happen by our own techniques. Just let it happen.

All this was cleverly done, with plenty of humour and self-mocking. The sad irony, of course, was that the whole meeting, and particularly the ‘ministry time’ that followed the sermon, was nothing but another example of this ongoing search for the secret of the ‘anointing’. Mr Howard-Browne, and the Toronto blessing, are nothing else but the newest and best technique for being ‘touched by the Spirit’.

As the meeting proceeded, and people started being laid out, nothing happened that hasn’t been well-documented in pentecostal movements throughout the world during this century. Indeed, John Wimber is quoted in Christianity Today as saying that the Toronto manifestations are not particularly new to the Vineyard fellowship: “Nearly everything we’ve seen-falling, weeping, laughing, shaking-has been seen before, not only in our own memory, but in revivals all over the world”. I certainly saw nothing at Brookvale that I had not seen (and participated in) in charismatic meetings in Lismore in the late 70s. It was a reprise of good ol’ fashioned Holy Ghost revivalism, 90s style. There were the usual techniques-long meetings, plenty of singing, plenty of standing, an engaging speaker who persuaded you to like and trust him, the expectation that things would happen, the suggestion that things would happen, seeing things happen to other people, the standing with eyes closed and arms raised before receiving the ‘touch’ .

It was all so carefully managed and so artfully staged, that I wondered how anyone could possibly believe that this was a spontaneous activity of the Spirit of God. I wondered how anyone could imagine that there was no ‘technique’ or method involved (as the sermon protested), and that it was simply an example of God ‘doing whatever he wanted to do’ (an oft-repeated phrase). Why did the anointing not fall in the middle of the sermon? Or at the very beginning of the meeting? Why did the Spirit not slay the musicians in mid-song, or Mr Howard-Browne himself in mid-gesture? Why did it all happen after 3 hours of preparation and mediated only through Mr Howard-Browne?

Indeed, when he first took the podium approximately one hour into the meeting, Mr Howard-Browne was quite explicit about the time it took for it to ‘happen’. “This is not a one hour photo lab”, he explained. “We need longer than that to deal with your negatives. It takes time. But trust me. We know where we’re going. We’ll get there.” It seems God could do whatever he wanted to, so long as you were prepared to wait the three hours.

There is unfortunately something else that is not new about the Toronto blessing—and that is that evangelicals are being taken in by it.

What are we to make of it?

The quest for the New is one of the abiding characteristics of pentecostal movements everywhere. The very theology of pentecostalism requires that God keep doing new things. Fresh and exciting ‘moves of God’ must keep occurring, for pentecostalism draws its life from what God is doing now, here, in me, rather than on what God has revealed and done, for me, in Jesus. This explains Mr Howard-Browne’s criticism of existing pentecostal techniques. The old must be demolished to make way for the new.

If we look back over pentecostalism’s recent history, God begins to appear like a good marketing manager. He needs to re-launch his product every few years, with some new packaging and some new improved features—first as the ‘Baptism in the Spirit’ with tongues, then as ‘the healing ministry’, then as ‘the healing of memories’ (remember that?), then as ‘power evangelism’, then as ‘words of knowledge’ , and now it seems as the ‘Toronto blessing’.

The charismatic or pentecostal alternative is ever-present and ever-changing. It presents itself under new names and guises, and will always do so, for its very nature is to relentlessly pursue the New. Underneath, however, there is nothing new. It is the same theology, mystical and Arminian in its structures, focusing on us and our experience rather than on God and his work, and distracting us from proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified.

The new packaging is invariably attractive. Why would we expect it to be otherwise? In the mid-80s, it was John Wimber, coming to us as a self-proclaimed evangelical, promising a new lease of life to tired, rationalistic preachers. Now in the mid-90s, we have an outbreak of physical manifestations which are being marketed under the Jonathan Edwards’ brand name. The Toronto evangelists quite explicitly claim that their experience is in a direct line of descent from the revival that broke out in New England under Jonathan Edwards nearly 200 years ago. Again, the message is subtle but clear. “This may look like just another push by pentecostalism, but really it is Jonathan Edwards again in your midst. Jonathan Edwards—great reformed and evangelical theologian. He had strange things happen in his meetings. So do we. We’re true blue. Climb aboard.”

The Jonathan Edwards connection is distant, to say the least. In this issue’s Published Abroad we reprint an article from Evangelicals Now examining just this question. We won’t repeat those conclusions here.

One question remains however. If we recognize the ‘Toronto blessing’ as simply another pentecostal incarnation, what are we to make of the physical manifestations? Is that not a worry? Should we deny that these things are taking place? Are they of God or the Devil? How are we to explain them?

So that we know what we are talking about, let us list the kinds of phenomena involved. When the anointing falls, participants report the following:

  • feelings of weighdessness
  • feelings of heaviness
  • a feeling of being stretched
  • catalepsy (being unable to move)
  • shaking
  • repetitive movement of body parts
  • rapid eye movement
  • changes in breathing
  • tinglings
  • alleviation of pain and diseases (such as migraines, stuttering, back pain, dyslexia, bursitis, and so on)
  • a feeling that body parts are changing in size
  • or swelling
  • a feeling of being detached from your body
  • a powerful feeling of energy or electricity
  • coursing through the body
  • hearing a buzzing noise
  • changes in hearing
  • smelling a sweet aroma, like flowers
  • seeing a bright light
  • being aware of hot and cold areas on the
  • body
  • feeling drunk
  • feeling washed clean
  • a distortion in the awareness of time passing
  • age regression (vividly recalling and even
  • acting out childhood incidents)
  • uncontrollable laughter.

Most of these phenomena are being experienced under the Toronto blessing, and all of them have been reported as regular occurrences in pentecostal meetings when people are ‘slain in the Spirit’. [2]

What is really interesting is that all of these phenomena are also well-documented as being the common results of hypnosis.[3] Subjects undergoing mass hypnosis regularly exhibit precisely these manifestations, sometimes by auto-suggestion and sometimes spontaneously. Equally interesting is that the conditions that produce such hypnotic phenomena show remarkable similarities to the average pentecostal meeting—the strong control of a central figure, an atmosphere of intensified emotion, a strong motivation and expectation in the participants, and the opportunity to imitate others so affected.

Moreover, apologists for these manifestations of the Spirit readily admit that certain sorts of people seem more susceptible (more ‘open to the Spirit’) than others. As Francis MacNutt observes in his book Overcome by the Spirit 

People determinedly self-controlled are not nearly so likely to be overcome by the Spirit … people with compressed lips and tight jaws … I have noticed that artistic, creative, intuitive people seem more likely to fall than rational, intellectual types … In general, more women than men seem to experience resting {‘resting’ is one of MacNutt’s phrases for falling over or being slain in the Spirit}. The most likely to rest would be a young woman of Latin American or African ancestry, of artistic bent ... whose childhood has been filled with games and laughter … If I could characterize the kind of person least likely to fall … he would be an elderly man of Anglo-Saxon or Germanic ancestry who had a hard childhood and very little play.

It is instructive to compare this with the findings of Hall and Grant concerning susceptibility to hypnosis [4]:

The key to successful hypnosis is motivation. The Latin people, the Spanish and the Italians in particular, are usually thought to make better subjects than the less emotional and more suspicious AngloSaxons; and near the bottom of any list would be the Teutonic Germans. Scientifically minded people generally make rather poor subjects because they are so analytical … Women seem to be more susceptible when they are hypnotised by men … There is a clear link between mood and susceptibility, and creativity and susceptibility. Dark moods mean poor subjects, bright moods good subjects; and fantasy and adventure in childhood mean hypnotisability as an adult.

That the Toronto meetings are examples of mass hypnosis is supported by the verdict of five English doctors who attended very similar meetings conducted by John Wimber in the late 80s. Having witnessed the phenomena (trance-like states, trembling, laughing, shaking, falling and so on), all five doctors attributed them to hypnosis. According to one of the five, a leading English psychiatrist, “It was a very expert performance, containing all the textbook characteristics of the induction of hypnosis”. (See ‘A medical view of miraculous healing’, Briefing #33, p 2).

All this raises serious and important questions, both psychological and theological, which we will have to save for another article. We are not accusing Mr Howard-Browne and others of deliberately engaging in mass hypnosis, but it seems likely that this is what they are doing, even if unwittingly. They have discovered that if you run a meeting a certain way, and the conditions are right, then certain things happen—strange things, inexplicable things. They have discovered, for example, that you need to allow several hours for it all to happen, and readily admit to this. When the strange occurrences finally present themselves, they are then attributed to a powerful and immediate working of God’s Spirit.

This is a terrible deception. These occurrences are being sought by good-hearted believers all over the world as the key to an ongoing close walk with the Lord. We must gently but firmly warn our brothers and sisters of the danger that they are in. Ultimately, only spiritual harm will result when we confuse orchestrated hysteria with the life of true joy and self-control that comes through keeping in step with the Spirit.


  1. Gerald Coates quoted in Evangelicals Now, Oct 1994, 8.
  2. For details, see N. Mikhaiel, Slaying n the Spirit, (Bruised Reed Publications, 1993), ch 2.
  3. Again see Mr Mikhaiel’s book for all the references.
  4. Timothy Hall and guy Grant, Superpsych (Methuen, 1976).

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