Revival is a hard word to pin down. In some churches it’s the historic outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon a community or nation leading to conviction of sin, repentance and widespread conversion. Recent UK examples include Wales 1904-1906 when an estimated 150,000, came to faith and The Hebrides islands, off the coast of north west Scotland, in 1949-1952 when an awakening touched many of the inhabitants. For others, ‘revival’ conjures up images of rapid church growth in sub Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, as the global west supplants the ‘west’ as the centre of world Christianity.

But revival has a different meaning in some Charismatic churches. While acknowledging these other meanings, they would also want to speak of the reviving work of the Spirit in renewing His people. Such thinking has been in the DNA since the birth of the Charismatic movement in the 1960s and the heralded expectation that God was restoring the kingdom to his church in the latter days ahead of Christ’s return for his bride. Although most have moved on from that notion, many see examples of revival in the thousands of churches affected by the so called “Toronto Blessing” in 1994, and more localised times of refreshing that came to the UK. They believe when God acts in renewing work in people, in healing, in the miraculous, it is part of his revival work.

In Britain today, there are churches and groupings that have made revival and a desire for revival an increased priority, with new alliances separate from old style denominational and New Church stream splits. A website, Spirit Body Soul (SBS), lists some 94 churches from across the UK where ‘revival’ is the central focus.  So why has there been this increased interest and is this part of a genuine sense of God moving or merely wishful thinking? This article looks at three major influences.

The Toronto connection

Many churches trace their interest in revival to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Toronto Airport Vineyard Church. The ‘Toronto Blessing’ as it became known by some, began on January 20th 1994 during a  3-day conference led by Randy Clark, a self confessed ‘unknown’ pastor from St Louis, and by the summer, you couldn’t book a hotel room in Toronto for British visitors, keen to see what God was doing. Many spoke of unusual encounters with God including joy filled laughing or crying, prophecy, shaking, speaking in tongues, and an ecstatic or intense awareness of God’s presence often accompanied by falling to the floor. Others received miraculous physical and emotional healing. Much was made at the time of the more odd manifestations such as people barking like dogs and roaring like lions, though the church’s pastor, John Arnott, says that in the six million that visited over the 12 years, this happened just a few times.

Those who flew in from the UK were not disappointed. Churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), Holy Trinity Cheltenham, Kensington Temple, Queen’s Road Baptist Church and many churches from New Church streams, including The Vineyard, Newfrontiers, Pioneer and Ichthus, enjoyed the touch, including in particular being ‘falling in the Spirit’ but also joy filled laughter. Manifestations at HTB were even reported in The Times newspaper. In some cases the Spirit fell on congregations even before the person who had returned from Toronto said anything at all. Roger Forster, the leader of the Ichthus network of churches estimated that maybe 2,000 churches in the UK had been touched in some way, others believe it may have been as high as 7,000.  Although some churches saw significant conversion fruit during these years few regarded it as full blown ‘revival’. Indeed not all Charismatic observers were at all sure that the Toronto blessing was a ‘classic revival’, or that this was necessarily of God at all, and the phenomenon led to a spate of books arguing both ways. God causing people to laugh? Surely not!

Whether it was revival or renewal mattered little to those whose lives were profoundly and permanently changed. Many would concur with the research of 850 visitors by Margaret Polma which said that around half visited Toronto because of spiritual dryness with nearly 90% saying ‘they were more in love with Jesus than before’ and ‘82% more in love with the Bible than before’.

Today’s legacy

It was clear that whatever it was called, there is a strong impartation of the blessing to others, not dissimilar to stories from the Welsh Revival, where people ‘took the revival’ back to their home church. The leaders of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, as it became known distilled what God was doing in four values, built around the acronym F.I.R.E.  and though they initially resisted pressure to church plant, have now created a structure for developing churches around the world based on the values. One church specifically planted in 2009 with the oversight of John and Carol Arnott (the church’s original leaders) is Catch the Fire, Wembley, led by Stuart and Chloe Glassborow. Chloe had been wonderfully healed of five conditions when at a conference led by John Arnott at Bath City Church in 2003, causing Stu, a former sceptic, to realise that God was very much at work, even if he was uncertain about some of the manifestations. They visited Toronto, were trained at the Leaders School of Ministry in Toronto and are now keen to communicate the values.

‘In our church and in our conferences we seek to promote and explain the core values that came out of the move of God at Toronto,’ explains Stu. ‘These include:F: Father’s love revealed through Jesus Christ; I: Intimacy and hearing God’s voice;  R:Restoration of the Heart and E: Empowering people through the Holy Spirit. And, they also add the word, ‘Fun’.  We do not especially seek “manifestations” as such just that people meet with God in whatever ways are necessary. We have a number of people who visit from other churches, just seeking to be blessed.’

Other churches wishing to identify with the movement and staying with their own denomination became part of Partners in Harvest Europe(PIH). Rick Oldland ,is team leader of PIH alongside serving as senior leader of Well Church, a multi-congregational church in Blackpool and Lytham and St Anne. He says: ‘We are a group of churches that unite around the values. Knowing the Father’s heart towards us gives an extraordinary peace, and security in who we are. You no longer need to “compete” with other churches. PIH comprises over 10,000 churches (of which there are around 50 in the UK.)’

Many revival centred churches see God at work in their midst in similar ways to in Toronto, not with the same manifestations, but with a manifest sense of God’s presence.UK Christians do not need to merely read about the Toronto Blessing as a historical phenomenon, but can learn the values and encounter God through conferences and workshops offered in various venues in the UK.

Revival in his bones

If one influence has been a desire to see God continue what he started in the Toronto blessing, another has come from an American leader who embraced all that God was doing in Toronto and has seen a form of revival come to his own church.  Bill Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church, Redding, California travels extensively by invitation of local churches and groups to export something of what God has been for the last 16 years within the church he serves north of San Francisco. The regularity of healings and miracles had led them to appoint someone part-time to chronicle what God is doing. He was invited to speak at New Wine in 2007 and 2008, plus at their Leaders Gathering in Harrogate, and has visited both local church gatherings and larger conferences in the UK. Gerald Coates, former leader of Pioneer said: ‘Bill is certainly flavour of the decade, there really is no one else quite like him.

Bill Johnson lives for revival and has seen God work in ways which increase people’s faith that can do the same.  Having seen Bill Johnson minister in his home church at Bethel and in the UK he is the antithesis of the prima donna healer preacher, preferring instead to encourage those attending his conferences to pray for those who stand following words of knowledge given by him and his team.

The church he serves in Redding, 200 miles north of San Francisco has become a magnate for those keen to explore the many ways in which the Holy Spirit is at work in and through the church, with many attending conferences from the UK. Some have stayed for a week, others a few months and some enrol in the School of Supernatural Ministry – a year long course in the miraculous.

Johnson’s enthusiasm for revival has inspired many to make it a focus for their lives too. Pete Carter is lead pastor of North Kent Community Church: ‘Here was someone who believed John 14:12 (Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father) He actually believed this was true and demonstrated it in his ministry. I wanted to learn all I could and my church encouraged me and my wife to make a trip to his church. We ended up going for three months.’

Asked to outline what he learned especially he replied: ‘The unconditional love, learning the importance of sonship and an approach to ministry that transcends denominations. They are not wanting to plant churches as such, but serve the agenda of the local church.’

This attitude to the body of Christ has been pivotal in creating an approach to ministry that transcends denominational/or stream party lines. Johnson says: ‘If your unity is based on truth, then when you disagree over truth, you have to divide. But if your unity is based on friendship in the Spirit, then you can stay friends and work it out.’ Bethel have been happy to support churches in the UK in any way they can.

His approach challenges even those who believe in healing and not everyone is comfortable with his approach. His first book, ‘When Heaven Invades Earth’ sums up his belief that all believers as followers of Jesus can see God work in them as He did the apostles commanded by Jesus to heal the sick and cast out demons. Resolutely opposed to any sense that God might bring or allow sickness (what father would allow their child to get sick?) his approach is a belief that God is in a good mood, ask him and see what he does.  He was quoted in Charisma magazine: ‘We’re alive for one reason—the outpouring of the Spirit of God on everything He’s given our hands to touch—family, city, my nation and the nations of the world. We’ve not been assigned to hang out until He returns—we’ve been given a message and a power that completely revolutionises life. Why would anyone want to get up in the morning and not shape the course of world history?’

Johnson agrees that God is sovereign in revival but that our openness to God, and willingness to trust him for the miraculous can attract God’s presence. His study of revivals has led him to conclude that revivals came to an end because of human failure, not because God stopped blessing. Johnson wants the ‘revival’ in his church to be continuous.

It was his church at Bethel that pioneered a form of healing prayer known as Treasure Hunting. A team prays and asks God for clues prior to going out onto the streets and shopping mall. This may include physical characteristics, areas of need, names, illnesses. They write down the ‘clues’ and this becomes a conversation starter when they see someone who fits the description.

Kings Arms Church, Bedford is one of a number of UK churches who have adopted the approach as part of a whole range of ways of reaching unbelievers. Simon Holley, the senior leader tells Christianity: ‘in around three years on the streets we have seen well over 250 people say that something considerable has changed when we have prayed for them. This often means the pain has gone or decreased or other symptoms have improved. We wouldn’t say all have been healed, just that something significant has happened in many, many cases. It has especially helped us to live supernatural lives equipped to demonstrate God’s kingdom wherever we are.’  Reflecting on the influence of Bethel he says:

‘The Treasure Hunting has been terrific for us because it helps believers overcome two of their greatest fears; talking with unbelievers and praying for the sick.

‘We’ve learned so much from Bill Johnson and Bethel church and their influence has been so significant for us. Of course they don’t get it all right but our approach is to learn from everyone we can and to chew up the meat and spit out the bones!’

Not everyone is equally enamoured by Bill Johnson. Some believe that he is expecting too much now this side of Christ’s return. Others have been critical of his involvement in counselling and helping evangelist Todd Bentley. Bentley behaved inappropriately with a female intern during the ‘Lakeland, Florida, Outpouring meetings, has remarried and many regard his reinstatement to ministry as unseemly hasty and have criticised Johnson for not retracting his support of Bentley.

A significant gathering

The influences considered thus far were brought to a sharp focus in September last year when John Arnott (Spread the Fire Ministries) and Bill Johnson were some of the speakers at Marsham Street, Westminster, London. between September 1st – 3rd 2011.

Around 1000 senior leaders drawn from churches, charities and businesses from across the UK (and parts of Europe) gathered to host a meeting of The Revival Alliance. They had gathered to hear a number of prophetic leaders address the issue of revival in Britain and seek a fresh visitation of Gods Holy Spirit on the UK. The speakers were Bill Johnson, John and Carol Arnott, Che Ahn, California, Georgian Banov from Bulgaria and Rolland Baker of Iris Ministries.

Those convening the meeting believe this was a significant time for the revival in the UK:

  • The September gathering was planned on November 24th, 2010 by a small number of UK leaders. Christen Forster, one of the leaders of River Church, a network of churches in the Thames Valley area, had been led to Ezra 4 which speaks of resuming the building of the temple 14 years previously. A fellow convener Pete Carter had been led to that very same passage a few years back in relation to the ministry of his church in North Kent. Unknown to the conveners it was 14 years to the day since revival meetings held at Marsham Street, had ceased (September 1st 1997). These meetings were linked with the outpouring of the Spirit in Toronto, and it is believed that God is looking to do something in Britain once again.
  • The location at Marsham Street had been selected by one of the organizers Christen Forster. Christen had been instrumental in seeing a special gathering of around 40 leaders at Windsor Castle in 2008, which had included Bill Johnson, John Arnott and Che Ahn (all at the Marsham Street meeting), together with a number of British leaders. It was only later that Christen realised the significance of Winsdor Castle, representing the monarchy and the Marsham Street location in Westminster ,representing Parliament. He told Christianity: ‘Windsor has been the centre of the British monarchy for nearly 1000 years. The monarchs used to pray for people to healed. During the last 500 years there has been continuous worship and prayer in the castle for the nation.’
  • The September meeting included times of heartfelt repentance from some Charismatic leaders concerned that their attitudes in the past towards other churches.
  • The meeting included what observers described as ‘a special sense of the presence of God’.
  • Prophetic words were given suggesting that something was about to shift in Britain.  Bill Johnson said:  ‘There’s something about September 1st, I believe you can write it down. I believe that you can write it in your journal, that: Everything changed September 1st, 2011 I feel like it’s a prophetic word over this country. September 1st everything’s different.’ Those close to Bill Johnson say it is very rare that he would give this kind of prophecy.
  • Christen received three further words from people unconnected with the gathering who believed that September 1st was a significant date.

You can read the prophetic words and reflections at Supranatural Life.

Cynics would doubtless put little store on a meeting of The Revival Alliance predicting ‘revival’. What else would they do?! But those who spoke to Christianity magazine were merely concluding that God may be up to something.

Pete Carter, one of the organisers of the Revival Alliance meeting says: “There was a sense around 1996/7 that the Toronto Blessing was a phase that Christianity had passed through, and that it was time to move on, and that to stay in that phase would almost be immature. Looking back I believe that in the UK, generally speaking, we missed the heart of what God was saying and doing, but now we are being given another chance.”

Christen Forster was reticent about claiming revival is coming but does believe that something is shifting and that God has made him a witness to things which in hindsight will be seen as significant.

The Marsham Street gathering was by invitation and relatively small. A larger event is planned in Birmingham 30 Aug 2012 – 01 Sep 2012.

Is Revival coming?

The Toronto Connection, Bill Johnson’s ministry and The Revival Alliance are just three selected revival influences on the UK church. Others may list other men and women known within their networks. In addition to Treasure Hunting many see people healed through ‘Healing on the Streets and the numbers attending and converted through Alpha courses remain high.  Assessing anyone who says ‘God told me…’ is of course a fraught business and we would be wise to be circumspect in weighing words that are given and connections that are made. What is clear is that there are an increasing group of churches that are expectant, that are looking to God to move, seeing God move in conversions, in healing and the miraculous and seeking to unite with anyone looking for the same thing.

Whether you call it revival, renewal or an outpouring, and whatever you believe about what’s predicted, at a time when British churches are declining numerically and the divisions with the Protestant church remain wide, the revival focused churches represent one of the most buoyant elements of the church in Britain.  Some will doubtless write it off as emotional hype, but for many these churches and groupings give a glimpse of what can be and their heart for God is surely a challenge to those for whom it’s been ‘business as usual’ for rather too long.

Revival Alliance is a name given to six couples:

  • Bill and Benni Johnson,
  • John and Carol Arnott Che and Sue Ahn of Harvest Rock Church
  • Randy and DeAnne Clark of Global Awakening,
  • Rolland and Heidi Baker of Iris Ministries
  • Georgian and Winnie Banov of Global Celebration.