1994 and All That, 30 Years On image

1994 and All That, 30 Years On

Ten years ago I wrote an essay reflecting on the events of twenty years before that: the ‘Toronto Blessing’, or ‘Present move of the Spirit’ of 1994. And here we are, ten years on from that essay and thirty years from 1994. (I appreciate there will be many readers of this blog too young to have any idea of what I am talking about!)

In that previous essay I raised questions as to the extent that our spiritual experiences are conditioned by the culture in which we live. To what extent were the phenomena of 1994 a reflection of wider cultural currents of the time? Ten years on from those questions and observations I can both still detect traces of what happened in 1994 in the ‘ministry shape’ of churches with which I am involved; and if anything I am more convinced of the influence of the wider culture in our spiritual experience.

Way back, in December 1993, I read Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield. This two volume biography of the great 18th century evangelist was very shaping in my life and ministry but it has only been recently, more than thirty years later, that I have picked it up and read it through again. It was only a few months after first reading it that the Toronto blessing swept through our churches and we were laughing, weeping, and falling over. I’m not sure to what extent I connected the dots with Dallimore’s descriptions of phenomena accompanying revival in the 18th century but it is fascinating to read his account and make those connections now.

Wesley, and others, seem to have encouraged the same kind of external manifestations that we saw in 1994 – viewing them as evidence of God’s working. On the other hand, Whitefield, and others, discouraged them – viewing them as a fleshly distraction from the true work of God that risked bringing the revival into disrepute.

A standout moment in Whitefield’s ministry was the revival at Cambulsang, Glasgow, in 1741-2. This provides an interesting mirror against which to hold the events of 1994. As John Arnott wrote at the time of the Toronto blessing, “The fruit produced in a person’s life is the…way to evaluate a spiritual experience.” What was the fruit of Cambulsang? And what the fruit of 1994?

At Cambulsang, and nearby Kilsyth, were two faithful but uninspiring ministers, William McCulloch and James Robe. These men had laboured in the gospel for years but with little result. They were known for being dull communicators but in 1741 something changed. A fresh anointing fell upon these two men and a new spiritual hunger came upon their congregations. Central to this awakening was a conviction of sin. Robe reports, “bitter cries, groans, and the voice of their weeping.”

Whitefield appeared on the scene in July 1742, preached three times in the space of ten hours and reported, “For about an hour and a half there was such weeping, so many falling into deep distress, and expressing it in various ways…Their cries and agonies were exceedingly affecting.”

The following Sunday came the famous Cambulsang communion service. Services were conducted over the whole weekend, culminating on the Monday, with constant preaching by a relay of ministers, and communion served on the Sunday. All this took place outdoors. Those wanting to take part in the communion were personally examined by a minister and if their ‘conversion and manner of life’ was deemed sufficiently genuine they were issued with a small metal token that gave access to the communion table.

A month later Whitefield returned for another communion service. Thirty thousand were in attendance but only about three thousand were admitted to the table: “Worship began at 8.30 on the Sunday morning, and the last table was being served at sunset.”

Dallimore states that there were two kinds of ‘emotional phenomena’ displayed during these services, “the outcrying and trembling among the unconverted and the ecstatic rejoicing among believers.” Not everyone was so affected though (Robe thought it to be one in five of the congregation) and Dallimore concludes,

The bodily distresses were not encouraged, but when they occurred they were considered of value only inasmuch as they arose from a sorrow for sin so intense they could not be restrained.

And what of the fruit? An accounting of the revival, written in 1871 relates,

This work… embraced all classes, all ages, and all moral conditions. Cursing, swearing and drunkenness were given up by those who had come under its power. It kindled remorse for acts of injustice. It won forgiveness from the vengeful… It bound pastors and people together with a stronger bond of sympathy. It raised an altar in the household… It made men students of the Word of God and brought them in thought and purpose and effort into communion with their Father in heaven.

True, there was chaff among the wheat, but the watchfulness of the ministers detected it, and quickly drove it away.

And for long years afterwards, humble men and women who dated their conversion from the work at Cambuslang, walked among their neighbours with an unspotted Christian name, and then died peacefully in the arms of One whom they had learned in the revival days to call Lord and Saviour.

What happened in Cambulsang in 1742 was of a different order to what we experienced in 1994. To be fair, this is why we described what was happening as a blessing rather than as a revival, but it does seem that we placed far too much emphasis on the phenomena. Rather than one in five displaying strong emotional phenomena we looked for everyone to do so. This made it difficult for the few who did not – I remember some individuals becoming very disillusioned because they were untouched amongst a sea of flailing and falling bodies.

With hindsight, my perspective is that the focus on phenomena was a mistake: there was a great deal of chaff among the wheat. And, as I remember it, conviction of sin was almost entirely absent. There wasn’t any great turning of the unconverted to God.

I concluded my 2014 essay with an observation about how culture affects our spiritual responses and then a question,

An obvious question that arises for us out of this observation is at what point our cultural envelope becomes a hindrance to actively receiving the Spirit. Arguably some cultures are more open than others – would a 1970’s style charismatic renewal have been possible in the more straitlaced 1950’s? At the least, we should be alert to the importance of ‘discerning the times’ and aware of the impact of the wider culture upon us. Over the past few years there has been a lot of conversation about the church ‘impacting the culture’. It seems to me that the impact is rather more likely to be the other way around, and most of the time we do not even realise it. That is how culture works, even when we think of ourselves as charismatic.

Over the past ten years there have been some cultural shifts that wash into our expectations and practices in the church. The therapeutic worldview has become increasingly dominant. Technology has more and more impact in peoples lives. There has been a growing suspicion of leadership. To what extent do these cultural realities affect and condition any move of God among us? In our current climate of individualism and leadership suspicion it is very hard to imagine a context in which ninety percent of a congregation would tolerate being kept from taking communion, or in which pastors would have the courage necessary to enforce it!

Thirty years on there are things I am grateful for that came out of our experiences then, as well as things I would do differently now. But oh for a move of God that cuts through all our cultural realities and causes trembling among the unconverted and ecstatic rejoicing among believers.


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