Tony Cummings got on a plane to Canada so he could see in the New Year at the TORONTO VINEYARD CHURCH. Here is what he saw, heard and experienced.
Ian Ross, one of the Toronto Airport Vineyard leaders, prays, "Lord, thank you for throwing this party that has lasted 710 days."
Ian, a bespectacled, casually dressed man with a laconic sense of humour and a deadpan delivery speaks from the platform of possibly the most famous and certainly the most widely visited local church in the world. The statistics are staggering. Since January 20th 1994 when the wave of spiritual renewal which the world has dubbed "the Toronto blessing" broke out in the church, over 700,000 people have visited the Toronto Airport Vineyard, including 25,000 pastors. Tonight, it's almost a full house with the cavernous auditorium (built as a convention centre and a perfect building to house the throngs since the (originally) 300 strong fellowship were forced to move from their humble building on the edge of Toronto airport) seethes with 2,500 people.
It is December 31st and the church is running a Watchman Service to see in the New Year. Worship leader Jeremy Sinnott with a tight, cooking band has already led us through a rousing time of worship - David Ruis' "Let Your Glory Fall", Graham Kendrick's "Shine Jesus Shine" - and now it's time for the notices. Thanks to Ian Ross's drollery they're not without interest. "Welcome to the Toronto blank church...whatever we are." The congregation chuckles.
It has been less than a month since the shock announcement that the Toronto Airport Vineyard has been "disengaged" from the Association of Vineyard Churches. Four members of the Association, including its leader John Wimber, had visited Toronto on December 5th to announce the decision to withdraw the endorsement of the wider Vineyard movement from the Toronto church. At the heart of the tension between the parent church and the Toronto congregation was how precisely the Toronto fellowship conducted their ministry. In John Wimber's letter of 13th December to the Vineyard pastors, copies of which were available to all visitors in the church's reception, the veteran charismatic pastor wrote, "Though we understand that when the Kingdom is manifest among us there may be phenomena that we do not understand, it is our conviction that these manifestations should not be promoted, placed on stage, nor used as the basis for theologising that leads to new teaching." It is thought that one of Wimber's chief objections was to the practice of having public testimonies in the middle of Toronto Vineyard meetings -such testimonies often being punctuated with unusual phenomena. So it is tonight.
After the exhortation "It's not about shake, rattle and rolling, it's about a transformed life." Ian Ross calls out some names and three people nervously come up from the crowd. The first is Katherine from Maryland. She begins her testimony, "I was expecting hype and glitz. But there was none. There was no pressure, no one expected me to react in any particular way. The leaders here are pretty regular guys." Ian makes a corny joke about laxatives. The crowd laughs and Katherine's nervousness begins to wane. "I've had a pretty terrible church experience, trust has been an issue for me, especially trusting church leadership. But as I've soaked in God's presence here over the last few days I've come to see that the real issue is trusting God. By God's grace I'm learning to trust God. I was half expecting some brutal spiritual surgery. But there was nothing like that. There was such gentleness, such tenderness from the Lord here. In view of your reputation that's pretty amazing." She laughs and so does the crowd.
Ian asks if he can pray for Katherine and within seconds of being prayed for she is resting in the Spirit having been caught by a catcher who's come onto the platform. As Carol Arnott (the Toronto Vineyard pastor's wife) kneels down and continues to pray for the now prostrate Katherine, the next lady to give her testimony, Sharon from Illinois comes forward. She delivers her whole testimony in convulsions of laughter. Her first line reduces the congregation to laughter as well. "I'm Sharon and believe it or not I used to be so depressed." In between bursts of mirth Sharon gives testimony of how she'd come to a meeting. The speaker had called for those who felt a call to evangelism to come and stand on the left and those who needed healing to stand on the right. As Sharon had felt a pull towards evangelism and was suffering from the flu she decided, quite logically, to stand in the middle. There she watched as a three-year-old girl was being prayed for. The girl kept looking at Sharon and afterwards came up with her mother and asked to pray for Sharon. Kneeling down to the little girl Sharon was soon prostrate on her face. "There was such an anointing on that little bitty girl," Sharon gushes.
Next up is Fred from New York, a huge bear of a man who looks like a bespectacled version of Hoss from Ponderosa. Fred was visiting the Toronto Airport Vineyard for the second time with his wife and two lady friends with whom he was meeting regularly for prayer. Fred admits, "I felt I didn't need anything, I had just come along to see my friends blessed." Fred had gone to a prayer line (one of the parallel lines marked on the carpet by red sticky tape at the back of the hall - there to stop the potential of people falling on top of each other when they were prayed for). While resting in the Spirit Fred had suddenly heard a loud snapping noise. Something had "happened" in his spine and after 30 years of ever-increasing pain Fred found, much to his amazement, that all pain had disappeared. "When I get off that carpet, I really go up," enthuses Fred. "I feel like a 22 year old - so watch out!" Ian Ross prays for Fred, interjecting his prayer with seemingly involuntary grunts. Suddenly with a particularly loud grunt Ian thrusts out his arm towards Fred's chest. Although his hand hasn't touched Fred it seems to act like a spiritual electric shock and Fred collapses as if pole-axed. Ian prays over the prostrate Fred, "Lord, I believe you're going to equip this man for a specific work. Do that deep work in him!" Getting back to the centre of the platform Ian, his face as impassive as ever, acknowledges the extraordinary sights of the bodies now littering the platform with a "Wow!, it's hot up here." He prays, "Lord, lift this sopho...this soph; I can't say it, sophistication... (the crowd laughs) off us and allow us to be like little children."
He tries to carry on the announcements about a forthcoming meeting with R T Kendall and Randy Clark to celebrate the anniversary of the second year of the Toronto Renewal but is momentarily interrupted by the rapidly kicking feet of Sharon still lying behind him on the platform. "Thank you for the drum roll," he quips.
The worship begins again. "Spirit of the Bride, Spirit of the Bride, Spirit of the Bride, now come Lord Jesus," sings Jeremy as the buckets for the collection are passed around. Jeremy prays at the climax of the song, "We say yes to your Kingdom, yes to your rule and reign."
The speaker tonight is Scott Holtz, a Messianic Jewish preacher from New York. His prayer is full of memorable phrases, "Get me out of the way", "barbecue us, Cajun style", "trim the turkey tonight Lord", "Holy Spirit I can do nothing without you", "thank you for killing me"... He explains that at midnight he's going to blow the shophar. The shophar is the ancient Hebrew trumpet made out of a ram's horn referred to regularly in the Old Testament. His message begins with an introduction. "I'm not a musical person, the Lord handed me a shophar so to speak, nine months ago when I left the pastorate. Wherever I go now I blow the shophar. It says in Zechariah chapter 9 that the Lord himself will blow the trumpet, blow the shophar. And in times and seasons the Spirit comes upon me it's as if the Lord himself is blowing the shophar. The shophar is a tremendous instrument that God is resurrecting in the arsenal of New Testament warfare. It's an instrument of proclamation. It's an instrument of judgment. We have blown the shophar before and people have died. We have blown the shophar and climatic changes have happened, ice bergs have split before it, fog has lifted, rain comes. We have blown the shophar at the New York City Stock Exchange, February 15th, two days later the Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up to 4,000, now it's past 5,000 still going up. But before God can use you he's got to send you to Gethsemane first. My wife and I have been to Gethsemane and I think there's another Gethsemane heading. Hallelujah There's a wave coming; there's coming a monsoon. It says in the Bible, the shophar or the trumpet will be blown during the year of jubilee; the shophar is to be blown at the first day of the year of jubilee. 1996, if your faith will reach out tonight, will be your jubilee. Hallelujah!"
The congregation is agitated. A great heaving, welling of emotion comes up from them. Immediately in front of me a lady stands and her hands raised in the air as if in worship. Beside me a man shouts, another is crying softly. Scott reads some verses from Numbers, chapter 10, then continues, "The last nine months we've been blowing the alarm, as watchmen on the walls, it's the sword of revival."
The congregation erupts. All around people are cheering, clapping, laughing. Scott tries to continue with his prophetic word but only one sentence penetrates, "I want the leadership here to hear this - the ark is moving!" All around the hall cries ring out. Two rows over a 'roaring lion' lets out a loud sustained shout. Scott, sweating and grinning, continues, "I thought it was absolutely foolish, walking around blowing the shophar. But that's what I've been called to do." He picks up the brown shiny shophar leaning behind him and gives several long blasts. The eerie sound, like a hunting horn from heaven, drifts out into the hall. Then putting down the horn Scott begins to sing prophetically, "Oh yes Lord, you're calling us higher by going lower. Oh, I feel a fresh wind a blowing. Mmm, I feel a fresh wind for '96, I hear the alarm to pitch the camp and follow the ark, arise, arise and let your enemies be scattered."
"I don't know if it's going to happen tonight or six months from now but get ready." Scott believes revival is coming and so does everybody in the hall.
Steve Holtz makes an appeal for the unsaved to come forward. 40, maybe 50, trek to the right hand side of the stage to be prayed for. Then the time is open to general ministry and the lines at the back of the hall begin to fill with people. The ministry team, 200 or more this night with their distinctive orange badges, move along the lines. Many of those prayed for fall down, some shake, quite a number laugh uproariously, one or two shout. Lying on the floor next to me a white haired man, a pastor from Ontario, sobs uncontrollably. By now 90 per cent of the congregation are either praying or being prayed for but still Jeremy Sinnott's worship band plays on, "Refiner's Fire" drifts across the hall followed by "Father Me". At 11pm the ministry, or most of it, stops and a long queue forms outside the church cafeteria for the free hot chocolate. At 11.30 Jeremy Sinnott and band members return to the platform and the band breaks into David Ruis' "Whom Have I But You". Towards the end of the song the pretty girl on the platform in the maroon dress who until then has been ably providing back up harmonies starts to jerk uncontrollably. Jeremy seems unperturbed and the worship continues. The band break into Brian Doerksen's beautiful "Faithful One" ("Faithful one so unchanging/Ancient one you're my rock of peace/Lord of all I depend on you/I call out to you, again and again/I call out to you again and again.")
All around me faces are upturned in worship. Here are hundreds luxuriating in the embrace of God. The tempo is picked up for "Lift Your Name", a Jeremy Sinnott praise song with a retro 50s rock 'n' roll beat. The mix isn't right, the drums are inaudible, but the keyboard player still delivers a pumping piano solo as Jeremy sings out the questions, "Who is the Saviour of the world? Who is the Lamb of God?" and his wife, the maroon-clad girl and the entire congregation shout back "Jesus!!". The computerised words of the songs which have been projected on two giant screens either side of the main platform are suddenly superimposed with a time check. It's 11:55pm. The band cracks into Andy Park's "River Of Life" and every hand in the place claps along. Behind me a pretty little black girl in a peach blouse dances excitedly beside her mother. At the front a white haired elder spiritual statesman does a sedate shuffle. "We rejoice for the river is here," goes the song followed by Jeremy's gruff exhortation, "give him praises from the depths of your being." The roars of applause are thunderous. It's midnight and Scott Holtz and his wife blow shophars heralding in the New Year. The noise is deafening as people cheer, shout and clap. "We ask for a mighty wave of prophetic release over your church", "Let that river flow bringing life to everything it touches", "We believe there is an open door of utterance coming in 1996." Now onto the platform comes John Arnott, the Toronto Airport Vineyard's pastor. His prayer resonates with faith, "Let the earth be filled with your glory, let there be an impartation of faith for abundant blessing, for souls, for miracles, for cities to come to Christ. Release intercessory prayer on your people, release evangelism upon us this year. Let there be a great harvest like the world has never seen."
The band starts to play again. 1996 has begun.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.