Wimber’s visits opened up UK evangelicals to a much more eclectic set of influences than just Wimber himself. Two of these combined to have a lasting impact on HTB (the first one because it catastrophically failed, the second as it met a deep felt need that had been awoken by the failure of the former). This post continues to map out the impact of waves of charismatic movement on HTB and related churches. This final wave in the 1990s released tidal energy through the movement and propelled the Alpha course onto centre stage.


Wimber was hugely influential in the development of HTB as a church planting network, the adoption of church growth strategies and its increasing emphasis on the power of the Holy Spirit. But, if as Hunt has suggested, Wimber’s contributions were most lastingly promoted in the UK nationally and internationally through the HTB Alpha Course it is perhaps ironic that Alpha took off as a movement when Wimber’s own influence was waning in the 1990s. Even more so that this arguably happened through ‘The Toronto Blessing’ [TTB] a spiritual ‘injection of energy’ of which, as will be seen, he did not quite approve. 

Awakening a need: Kansas City Prophets

The highly critical newspaper Prophesy Today considered that by the 1990s there had been ‘an almost imperceptible down-grading of the Bible from its place of centrality within the Protestant tradition.’[1] This they claimed was largely due to restorationist teaching in the house churches (which Prophesy Today saw as elevating spiritual gifts apart from expositional teaching rather than following it), and then through Wimber who was made acceptable in mainline denominations through the endorsement of David Watson, Millar and David Pytches.[2]

Into this mix in July 1990 Millar invited Wimber and the ‘Kansas City Prophets,’ Paul Cain and Bob Jones to run two weeks of meetings at HTB. Millar was himself a leading figure in an impressive array of house church and Anglican charismatic ministers who publicly endorsed the Kansas City Prophets in the build up to Wimber’s Excel Centre October 1990 rallies in the UK.[3] These rallies were expected to be the culmination of a mighty revival breaking out in London as prophesied by Paul Cain in July 1990 at HTB.[4]

Expectations were already high as Wimber had ‘declared that  Cain was never wrong in his prophesies.’[5]They were then heightened with ‘supra-biblical’ teaching from Bob Jones, who Wimber had apparently acknowledged had a ‘demonic problem’ but had nevertheless endorsed as highly prophetic.[6] Jones promised a dramatic increase in signs of wonders for a ‘new breed of men’ and an ‘army of locusts’ who would sweep across the nation in a Holy Spirit revival.[7] 

Tragically the revival never came, and a few months later Wimber contracted cancer of the throat which stymied much of the rest of his ministry. His wife Carol’s post-humous biography of John Wimber tells how many people tried to link his embracing of these prophetic ministries with his illness, but also tells of both of their regrets about endorsing Jones and Cain.[8] Wimber died in 1997 and a year before he gave a retrospective to UK Vineyard leaders saying that:

During the period of the ‘prophetic era’ [Kansas City Prophets] and on into the ‘new renewal’ [TTB] our people quit starting small groups, they quit prophesying, they quit healing the sick, they quit casting out demons, because they were waiting for the Big Bang, the Big Revival, the Big Thing… I thought, My God, we’ve made an audience out of them. And they were an army![9]

John Wimber

Meeting a need: Toronto Blessing

This ‘audience’ had been waiting for the next big thing and then next big thing came in the Toronto Blessing in 1994. In Hunt’s term the Airport Vineyard Church in Toronto where TTB started became a ‘charismatic mecca’.[10] It was a place of huge blessings for many people in the church and it’s legacy lasts till today, but it is a legacy that should not be uncritically glamourised. And yet there were and are incredible individual stories of God impacting people’s lives through this phenomenon.

Richter calclulated that 300,000 guests visited Toronto Airport Fellowship by June 1995, 20% of them clergy profesionals and 10% from the UK.[11] Elsewhere he summarises the phenomenology accompanying TTB as: 1) bodily weakness and falling to the ground; 2) shaking trembling, twitching and convulsive body movements; 3) uncontrollable laughter or wailing and inconsolable weeping; 4) apparent drunkenness; 5) animal sounds; 6) intense physical activity.[12]

HTB’s adoption of TTB was initially helped by Wimber describing TTB as a ‘time of refreshing’. It was emotionally, at least, linked to the Kansas City Prophets unfulfilled promise of revival. Revd Dr Mark Stibbe the influential charismatic Anglican leader and thinker, who had succeeded Bishop David Pychtes at St Andrews Chorleywood, argued in 1995 that TTB is the first sign of a coming ‘fouth wave’ which will result in global revival.[13]

But, 18 months later the Toronto Vineyard was censured by Wimber for making ‘the focus of the revival into revival itself.’[18] In January 8 1996 Christianity Today announced that Wimber had severed ties with Toronto.[19] One common critique of TTB explored below picks up Wimber’s aforementioned concern, that it was an inward-focused and essentially therapeutic event for an ‘army that had become an audience.’[20]

Impact on HTB

Despite Wimber’s initial endorsement within HTB itself the reception was mixed. Jonathan Aitken, (a disgraced senior politician turned cleric who became closely associated with HTB through attending Alpha and Gumbel visiting him in prison)[21]recalls one senior member of the congregation calling this time ‘the unhappy time when Sandy Millar and Nicky Gumbel went off the rails,’ and the Bishop of London’s ‘studiously polite neutrality.’[22] Indeed, both Millar and Gumbel have laterly been careful to distance the phenomena experienced in Kensington from the Toronto Airport Fellowship. For them it was not the Toronto Blessing but a Kensington Blessing that could be experienced elsewhere. As Millar puts it, ‘we continued to pray the prayer we had always prayed, “Come, Holy Spirit!”’[23]

However, TTB certainly had an effect on HTB. Ken Costa’s personal response shows some of the energy associated with TTB. He stated that the Toronto Blessing ‘put us on the rails’ and notes ‘our evangelism became more intense’.[24] In fact interviews in this thesis show that TTB was a turning point in churches engaging with social action, with church planters before TTB having far less focus on local community transformation than those who were impacted by it.[25]Cartledge concurs, seeing TTB as a spur to holisitic discipleship,[26] (contra part of Andrew Walker’s analysis which suggests TTB produced ‘little social transformation,’ and was conveniently eclipsed by the rise of Alpha).[27]

Delivery Agent: Mass Expansion of the Alpha Course

TTB certainly did coincide with the growth of Alpha at a national level. In 1993 the course had 4,600 guests on 200 courses, and this jumped in 1995 to 100,000 guests on 2500 courses and in 1998 to 1.3 million guests on 10,500 courses. It added a million more guests worldwide each year over the following decade following its first national initiative. Hunt’s cynical stance on this is that either the take up of Alpha was partly a mechanism to force the (still) expected revival and fulfil Cain’s prophesy,[28] or that it was initially simply ‘something to do…after the excitement of TTB and its array of ecstatic phenomena.’[29] While Hunt’s analysis has some limited merit, it lacks explanatory power for the shift in momentum, focus and operant theology for the charismatic church following on from TTB.

For many participants their encounters with the Spirit during TTB were every bit as significant as John Wesley’s ‘my heart was strangely warmed’ Aldersgate St encounter on 24 May 1738. Walker subsequently described HTB as a church ‘renowned for its theandrical therapy rather than its theology.’ [30] Following TTB a personal, tangible, warming experience of the Spirit was to become the very core of what it meant to be a Christian for millions of Alpha graduates and it was this ‘strangely warmed’ experience that would become so well marketed to those invited to ‘try Alpha.’[31]

Heard concludes that not only does there seem to be a strong link between TTB and the rise of Alpha, but that the ‘experiential dimension’ of the Alpha Weekend was ‘pitched perfectly’ for the 4000-5500 churches affected by TTB. Gumbel made an explicit link between Alpha and TTB in 1995 in his article The Impact of Toronto, but in the wake of controversy and criticism has been more circumspect now. In 2000 he commented:

‘I don’t talk about it now, it divides people. It splits churches. It is very controversial. But I’ll tell you – I think the Toronto Blessing was a wonderful, wonderful thing.’[32]

Nicky Gumbel

(Of course an alternative take might be that Alpha was the promised Kansas City Prophets revival all along and TTB simply the stimulus for this great movement).

Individual Revivals?

Toronto has attracted a series of well documented academic critiques,[33] as well as considerable criticism even within charismatic circles.[34] Richter notes how the phenomenon was anteceded by Wimber’s power ministry in the 1980s and Charismatic renewal in the 1970s, and that devotees have claimed continuity with the ministry of Wesley and Whitefield in the Eighteenth-Century.[35] Poloma’s review locates TTB in post-modernity, with experience eclipsing the need for propositional truth claims. Martyn Percy, reviewing David Hilborn’s collection of essays Toronto in Perspective, sees TTB within a postmodern cultural context of revivalism where the ‘discreet branding of manifestations created a market hungry for larger and / or powerful spiritual epiphenomena’ which he suggested eventually smothered the movement as people ‘oddly…. became bored and disenchanted with the spectacular.’[36]

However you see it there is clearly an operant theology in TTB of individual blessing with a strongly therapeutic nature. This seems to fit two wider patterns in the contemporary Christian church. The first is described by Mark Noll’s in his 1994 Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and the second is Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton 2004 Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD).

A) In Scandal Noll describes Vineyard churches as weak on tradition, while strong on experience, and argues that an emphasis on experience devoid of the anchor of tradition runs the risk that ‘you, rather than God, will become the centre of religion’. Noll contrasts this with ‘first rate intellectuals’ like Wesley and Edwards who ‘communicated that personal experience of God was a key matter’, while not detaching themselves from historic faith.[37]

B) Moral Therapeutic Deism picks up the theme of ‘you-centred religion’, arguing that a`;

hodgepodge of banal, self-serving, feel-good beliefs’ have replaced traditional Christianity, which in Creasy Dean’s analysis is due to churches proclaiming ‘a bargain religion, easy to use, easy to forget, offering little and demanding less’ instead of a ‘God who calls believers to lives of love, service and sacrifice.’[38]

Kenda Creasy Dean

It is not hard to argue that TTB fits easily into the patterns Scandal and MTD describe. How much those critiques can be seen in today’s HTB network remains to be seen, and we will return to that in later chapters.

Wimber’s legacy?

So Wimber was the great disruptor without whom TTB could not have been countenanced at HTB. But as has been seen it is possible to plot a path within the Vineyard movement from Wimber’s initial call to that wholehearted ‘physically and emotionally bowled over Christianity’ to a much more therapeutic model within a few years of his death. By 2003 ‘its charismatic intensity had begun to fade’, the ‘glory years’ of the 1980s were referred to as when ‘you felt Jesus was moving by your side like a mighty wind, and when the wall between the eternal supernatural and the mundane was tissue thin’, but ‘it doesn’t feel that way anymore.[39] Williams, writing at a similar time, concurs that there has been slippage from Wimber’s vision with one wing ‘committed to the prophetic-holiness of repentance preceding end time revival,’[40] and another wing downplaying overt manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit following the seeker sensitive methodology. Nevertheless, he sees and evidences the Vineyard mainstream as still holding to Wimber’s values.[41]

Within the HTB network Wimber’s values could still be a rallying place – a normative theology – perhaps hand in hand with the theology of John Stott. Whether the slippage into experience centred religion has taken HTB away from Wimber (and Stott’s) core beliefs remains to be seen. Other influences from across the pond will be explored in the next chapter – success culture, purpose driven, seeker friendly imports all with a bearing on development. Wimber made all this possible. It is interesting to ask if he would applaud it.

Writing of the related Vineyard churches Luhrmann concurs that the ‘basic impulse of the [Vineyard]church is still recognizable as the one Wimber founded,’[42]but offers an intriguing, less ‘driven’ more relaxed and certainly ‘therapeutic’ perspective on the Jesus on offer in Vineyard and ‘experientially orientated evangelical churches.’

Their Jesus is deeply human and playful, magically supernatural… [their God is] a deeply human, even vulnerable God, who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend, our best friend, as loving and personal and responsive as a best friend in America should be; … a God who is supernaturally present, it is as if he does magic and if our friendship with him gives us magic too. God retains his majesty but he has become a compulsion, even a buddy to play with, and the most ordinary man can go to the corner church and learn how to hear him speak… this God seems implausible to those raised in the more conventional mainstream, but he is – to some extent – the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark.[43]


[1] See e.g.Blessing the Church? XXVII on https://prophecytoday.uk/study/teaching-articles/itemlist/tag/cain.html [accessed 5.4.2020]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Published also in Renewal, August 1990, See Clifford Hill The Reshaping of Britain, 2018, 166-178 for a full discussion of Hill and Prophesy Today’s critique of Kansas City Prophets, Wimber, HTB and Toronto Blessing. 

[4] Hill, 2018, 174

[5] Hill, 2018, 174

[6] Hill, 2018, 173-174

[7] Elsewhere Jones had ‘prophesied’ that there would be the elect company of last generation believers who would complete Christ’s work and establish a glorious church on earth reigning over the nations  Vineyard Ministries School of Prophecy, Anaheim, 1989, transcript of tape, p10.  

[8] Wimber, C, 1999, 179-181

[9] Wimber C, 1999, 180

[10] S. Hunt, ‘The “Toronto Blessing”: A Rumour of Angels?’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 10, 3 (1995) 257–71.

[11] Richter P. The Toronto Blessing: Charismatic Evangelical Global Warming. In: Hunt S., Hamilton M., Walter T. (eds) Charismatic Christianity. (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1997), 98. Heard and Walker describe its effect on the UK church as ‘startling’, Heard, J and Walker A, Inside Alpha 2012, 15

[12] Richter ‘God is not a Gentleman’ in Stanley Porter and Philip Richter Eds The Toronto Blessing, Or is It?. United Kingdom: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1995, 7-9

[13] Mark Stibbe, Times of Refreshing: A practical theology of Revival for Today London Marshall Pickering 1995, 10, 21-29

[14] Heard… 

[15] Heard & Walker, 2012, 14.

[16] Heard and Walker, 2012, 21; Heard, 2003, 22

[17] See Hunt, 2005,5

[18] Wimber, C, 1999, 181

[19] James Beverley ‘Vineyard Severs Ties with ‘Toronto Blessing’ Church’ Christianity January 8 1996 https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1996/january8/6t1066.html

[20] Wimber C, 1999, 180

[21] The Holy Spirit weekend was a ‘major turning point towards repentance’ see Aitken, Jonathan. Porridge and Passion. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006, 72-72 

[22] Aitken, Jonathan. Heroes and Contemporaries. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006, 240

[23] Millar Interview

[24] Aitken, Heroes, 2006, 240

[25] See Chapter Four 

[26] Mark Cartledge ‘A Spur to Holistic Discipleship’, in David Hilborn (ed.), ‘Toronto’ in Perspective: Papers on the New Charismatic Wave of the Mid 1990s (Carlisle: Evangelical Alliance / Paternoster, 2001) pp. 64-74. 

See also Mark Cartledge ‘Catch the Fire: Revivalist Spirituality from Toronto to Beyond’, PentecoStudies 13.2 (2014) pp. 217-238. 

[27] David Hilborn (ed) ‘Toronto’ in Perspective: Papers on the New Charismatic Wave of the Mid 1990’s. United Kingdom: Acute, 2001, 313. See also Hunt, Stephen. A History of the Charismatic Movement in Britain and the United States of America: The Pentecostal Transformation of Christianity. United States: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009, 571 

[28] Hunt, 2005[?], 6, see also Hunt’s more ‘rigorous’ study The Alpha Enterprise (page needed – ¼ way through on page after sub heading ‘new direction from esoterism to bible study’_ Similar to Percy, in Hilbrun 

[29] Ibid previous page. Warner notes Gumbel’s response to Hunt’s Anyone for Alpha in his thesis https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/2929985/430439.pdf p. 149 [accessed 20.3.21]. ‘Gumbel cited the author’s self-description as an “agnostic sociologist”. While stressing that “there are things that we can learn”, he summed up this book as a parallel to Sanballat and Tobiah’s hostility to Nehemiah. Like Nehemiah, Alpha should not be put off by “sneers, ridicule and opposition”.’

[30] See Hilborn Toronto in Perspective 2001, 313. 

[31] See Heard, 2012, 49-50 for a description of the Holy Spirit Weekend on Alpha and similar conclusion.

[32] Heard, Inside Alpha, 2009, 22

[33] Including Poloma, M (1999) “The Toronto Blessing in Postmodern Society: Manifestations, Metaphor and Myth” in Dempster, M [ed] The Globalisation of Pentecostalism pp.363-85; Poloma, M. (2003) Main Street MysticsThe Toronto Blessing and Reviving Pentecostalism, New York: Altimira Press; P. J. Richter, ‘Charismatic Mysticism — a Sociological Analysis of the “Toronto Blessing”’, in S. E. Porter (ed.), The Nature of Religious Language (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). 

[34] Lloyd Pietersen The Mark of the Spirit? A Charismatic Critique of the Toronto Blessing Paternoster 1998, Clifford Hill The Reshaping of Britain ____ see also Stanley Porter and Philip Richter (eds) The Toronto Blessing – Or Is It? DLT, London 1995 

[35] Richter, 1995, 11; Hunt 1995, 260; see MacNutt 1994,2; Chevreau, 1994, 77 for continuity claims. But see also Kent J ‘Have We Been Here Before: A historian looks at the Toronto Blessing’ in The Toronto Blessing Eds Porter, S & Richter, P, 1995, 86-102 who takes issue with the idea of continuity between TTB and phenomenon associated with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards, not least because the 18C revivalists operated in (and helped create) a culture where there was an ‘existential state of anxiety about future divine praise and punishment.’ 

[36] Cf Percy, Review of Toronto in Perspective: Papers on the New Charismatic Wave of the Mid-1990s, 202

[37] https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2004/04/16/april-16-2004-mark-noll-extended-interview/11416/ [accessed 1/12/2020]

[38] See Creasy Dean, Kenda. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. United States: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.

[39] Luhrmann When God Talks Back P34

[40] A by-product of the Kansas City Prophets

[41] As above

[42] Luhrmann, 34

[43] Ibid 36

 [SCT1]by whom?

 [SCT2]whose operant theology are you describing here?