LAUGHING PHENOMENA: Its History & Possible Effects on the Church
PART I: From South Africa To St. Louis To Toronto To Your Church
By Ed Tarkowski
Prepare your hearts, people of God, in the valley of decision.
"You want to know how strong the 'force' of it is, Ed? Even WE came away from it wondering if perhaps we had missed something. To be the only two adults not caught up in this in a crowd of roughly 300 other adults makes you wonder if your own ears have become dull of hearing! At least for a moment or two. You kind of do a double-take."
My friend Debra, a mature Christian apologist of long-standing, well-experienced in debating cult devotees and members of non-christian religions, was describing her encounter with the laughing phenomena now racing across the world. A friend had asked her to see this "new anointing" at her church, and they'd both been taken aback by its power: "Have WE gone utterly mad," they wondered, "or is it them? Is something wrong with US, or is there something wrong with THEM?"
This phenomena, variously referred to as "a time of refreshing," "another Pentecost," "Holy Laughter," and the "Toronto Blessing," is described as manifestations of "the Spirit" uncommon to orthodox Christianity. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been affected by this spirit, some paralyzed in place in various positions, some frozen to the floor for hours on end, and some, unable to walk, having to be carried to their cars following the service. Many feel the "fire of God" within, becoming so hot they are forced to remove some of their clothes. In one report, a person saw an angel pouring hot oil over him as he lay "nailed to the floor," and in another, a man acting as a roaring lion pawed at the chest of the pastor's wife. Even the four living creatures before the throne of the Lamb, as seen in Revelation 4, have supposedly been manifested during a service. In that incident, one man acted like an eagle flying around the room; another roared like a lion; a third pawed the ground and snorted like an ox. The person manifesting as "the man" took the stance of the mighty warrior, crying "Aaaaahhhhh!"
Always accompanying these other manifestations is the hysterical laughter from which the phenomena derives its name. This laughter often pervades the audience to such a degree that it disrupts the traditional portions of the service. It is not uncommon to hear that the hysteria made it impossible for preachers to continue sharing the word of God on serious subjects, such as the death of Stephen or the reality of hell. Another serious consequence, as universal as the phenomena itself, is the division it is causing within denominations, congregations, families and friendships. Many are experiencing deep separation from those they once knew in close fellowship with the Lord.
In spite of these and other grave problems with the laughing phenomena, many church leaders and opinion-makers have jumped onto the bandwagon to help toot its horn. In their new book, well-known authors Charles and Frances Hunter praise the movement:
"The Spirit of God is swiftly moving in breathtaking and sometimes startling new ways, and people of every tongue and every nation are letting out what is on the inside of them. . . . they are running at a fast pace to 'Joel's Bar' where the drinks are free and there is no hangover! . . . one of today's signs 'in the earth beneath' is the 'holy laughter' which is supernaturally overcoming people in services all over the world!"(1).Apparently the Hunters see the laughing phenomena as one fulfillment of Acts 2:17-21, in which Peter quotes the prophet Joel: "In the last days, God says, . . . I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below." But is it? Does it matter where this movement originated and who started it? Is the divison it's causing really so serious that there will be permanent ramifications?(2) Is it possible that the force behind these manifestations is intent on leading the Church in a new direction? Many Christians think so. One of these, my friend Debra, wrote me:
"This 'thing' is unlike anything else I've ever seen, Ed, and it's not like I've never attended charismatically-oriented churches with friends before. . . . After what I saw 'up close 'n personal' last night, where DO we, that is, the 'church universal' GO from wherever it is we are NOW?"
"THERE ARE MANY PEOPLE THAT JUST THINK THESE ARE LAUGHING MEETINGS, WHEN REALLY, IN REALITY, WE HAVE MORE PEOPLE FALLING DOWN THAN LAUGHING. THEY WANT TO CALL ME THE LAUGHING EVANGELIST. WHY DON'T THEY CALL ME THE FALLING EVANGELIST?" - (RHB)(3).
The person most responsible for the global laughing phenomena is 33 year-old South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne. In 1979, the man who would become known as the Holy Ghost Bartender "spent hours praying for a deeper experience with God"(4). Browne describes his resulting experience with "God's fire" in his book, The Touch of God:
"Suddenly the fire of God fell on me. It started on my head and went right down to my feet. His power burned in my body and stayed like that for three whole days. . . .
"My whole body was on fire from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Out of my belly began to flow a river of living water. I began to laugh uncontrollably and then I began to weep and then speak with other tongues.
"I was so intoxicated on the wine of the Holy Ghost that I was literally beside myself. The fire of God was coursing through my whole being and it didn't quit. . . . Because of that encounter with the Lord, my life was radically changed from that day on"(5).
Two years after this encounter, Browne helped pioneer a RHEMA church (Hagin/Word of Faith) in Johannesburg, and in 1987, he made two trips to the United States. While speaking at an Assemblies of God church in April, he prophesied that God would send missionaries to America for revival, which he has defined as manifestations of "supernatural signs and wonders."(6) He announced that the Lord told him to return to America to stay, and in December of that year Browne began his evangelistic ministry in Orlando, Florida. Bill Randles, author of Making War in the Heavenlies, describes the first signs of the manifestations now seen during all of Browne's services:
"In April of 1989, Browne's traveling ministry had him in Albany, New York, when an unusual manifestation occurred. As he was preaching, he and others in the service felt a 'sensation like a heavy blanket coming over him. . . .' People began falling out of their seats; some were laughing and others were crying. The noise got so loud that Browne had to interrupt his sermon. 'Lord, you're ruining my meeting,' the evangelist complained. He says God replied, 'The way your meetings have been lately, they deserve to be ruined. I will move all the time if you will allow me to move.'
"From that time on, Browne increased in demand as a speaker. The greatest turning point occurred in the Spring of 1993. Browne held a four week meeting in Lakeland, Florida at Carpenter's Home Church. The 10,000 seat auditorium was filled almost every night. People were reported to have been drawn from as far away as Africa, Great Britain, and Argentina. What were they drawn to? The unusual phenomena of laughter. As Charisma Magazine reports, 'No matter what Howard-Browne did or said, hundreds who attended the daily sessions always ended up on the sanctuary floor in helpless laughter. When the services were broadcast on the radio, more curious seekers showed up to join the fun'(7). Curious? Fun? The article goes on to report that the church added 800 new members, and its income went up 30%. They baptized 2,200, according to the Pastor Karl Strader"(8).
Browne now holds over 500 meetings per year in the United States, and has scheduled numerous meetings in other countries. Furthermore, some of his videotaped services are run on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), reaching a potential 60,000,000 viewers. Those who attend his meetings or tune into the broadcasts encounter a ministry like they've never seen before. Rodney Howard-Browne paces heavily around the sanctuary, sometimes mumbling in tongues. He waves his arms at a section of seats and all the occupants fall down. Sometimes he stands in place, chuckling to himself. He makes his way between rows of fallen bodies, and on at least one occasion stopped to have a conversation in tongues with a woman flat on her back beating her arms frantically on the floor. He deliberately asks questions of people struck by the spirit, holding the microphone to their mouths for agonizing minutes while they stutter and stare glassy-eyed into space. Invariably, the audience is convulsed by hysterical laughter at the sight, and Rodney Howard-Browne chuckles. Pointing to a group of people, he announces that the "fire of God" is on them, and they obediently go forward into the sanctuary where most fall down. Sometimes Howard-Browne has to work at opening people up to the power. During a videotaped service in England, when the congregation hadn't yet responded in the usual manner, Browne resumed his pacing and commanded them to "look at me!" Eventually, the spirit had its way and the meeting proceeded according to the pattern.
1994 was a very good year for the spirit promoted by Browne. It managed to emigrate into Canada and from there, to skip over oceans. The catalyst for this movement was a man named John Wimber, currently Pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship (VCF) in Anaheim, California. Wimber also heads Vineyard Ministries International (VMI), and The Association of Vineyard Churches (AVC). In a recent newsletter, Wimber reported that on 27 occasions God confirmed to him that he should go to the nations in what would be "a season of new beginnings." He believes God was saying, "I'm going to start it all over again. I'm going to pour out my Spirit in your midst like I did in the beginning"(9). He writes,
"But I looked at myself (suffering from cancer), and I'm out of energy. In my spirit I was just murmuring "Oh God, oh God." And at that point (mid January) the Lord gave me a word. I heard myself say: Shall I have this pleasure in my old age? The very words that Sarah laughingly said to herself when she overheard the LORD say she was going to have a son from her 90-year-old womb by her 100-year-old husband. (Gen. 18:10). This was a word of life from the Lord, and it touched me deeply.
"I had brought this message of new beginnings to our AVC National Board and Council meeting in November of 1993 at Palm Springs. Then the Lord confirmed this word in the hearts and minds of our national leadership. They laid hands on Bob Fulton and me and they blessed us to go, and stir up the church.
". . . the Holy Spirit had recently powerfully renewed and refreshed Randy Clark (VCF St. Louis) in a meeting conducted by evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne in Tulsa, Oklahoma. . . . Randy began seeing similar outpourings of the Spirit [laughter/manifestations] in his home church and elsewhere as he had occasion to minister. It was as if the 'times of refreshing' had begun.
"So John Arnott [Toronto Vineyard Fellowship], knowing that a season of new beginnings in the Vineyard was near at hand, and hearing about Randy Clark's transformed ministry, invited Randy to come to Toronto to minister in his church, as well as those folks from the surrounding area that would like to attend. This occurred on January 20, 1994. Four days of meetings turned into five months of almost nightly meetings in numerous locations in Ontario. It has since poured out through those who have visited there into similar renewal meetings all over the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and even Europe"(10).
From South Africa to Florida to St. Louis to Toronto, the spirit was on the move - one just had to go to the Toronto Vineyard church to "get IT" and take "IT" back to one's own congregation. As of this writing, so many have come to get "IT" that it's obvious the phenomena isn't something that will rise and then fade away into the pages of Church history. It is now a global experience, with manifestations being reported in churches in Canada, Britain, Ireland, Argentina, Cambodia, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and China. With new countries being touched every month, it seems that Vineyard's John Wimber is finally seeing his promised "new beginnings."
Unlike traditional services in which the pastor conducts the liturgy and preaches and the congregation partakes in an orderly manner, there is little order in these meetings, and pastors are as susceptible to the spirit as those in the pews. Rodney Howard-Browne attributes the disorder in his services to God taking control of the service, bypassing the minister assigned:
"Order for some is control. [Some say,] 'The meeting is out of order,' meaning, 'I cannot control the meeting anymore. I'm not the head honcho in this service anymore. Someone bigger than me has come into the service and caused a disruption, taken away the attention from me, and I don't like it and I want order back in the service so that people will look at me rather than what God is doing.'
"I remember one service where I just went and sat down for an hour and a half. I just went and sat down. Well, there was nothing else I could do. Total pandemonium - people falling off of their chairs, people crying, people laughing and some were wailing - some were shaking. So, I just said to the people, I said, 'Look, just come up when you're ready and lift your hands and God will touch you.' I was sitting on the platform - just sat there and watched them for about an hour and a half. People came right up, got to the front, lifted their hands - BAM! - on the floor. I just sat there. I didn't even pray. You say, 'What'd you do?' I just sat there and twiddled my thumbs. I thought, 'Lord, I wish every meeting was as easy as this.' Now I had preached the word already and taught the word of God, and then I went and sat down. And they came walking up, got to the front, lifted their hands - BAM! - under the power of God"(11).
The idea that God would take control away from the minister whom He Himself put in charge of maintaining proper Biblical order in a meeting seems in itself to be out of order(12). In this case especially, Browne admits the meeting ended in "total pandemonium" with "people falling off of their chairs, people crying, people laughing and some were wailing - some were shaking"(13).
This becomes even more perturbing when we consider a recent report in The 700 Club Fact Sheet that in some areas, pastors from just about every denomination are allowing the phenomena into their church:
"Since January 20, 1994, Airport Christian Fellowship, a small Vineyard church in Toronto, has had services six nights a week for the last 10 months that have sometimes lasted until 2:00 a.m. Over 100,000 people have attended, and nearly 40,000 of those have been visitors from all over the world who come for what is being called the 'Toronto Blessing.'
"This Spring, the 'Toronto Blessing' hit the Holy Trinity Church in London, one of the largest Anglican churches in England, and England's Stoneleigh Bible Camp, an annual event sponsored by 'New Frontiers' ministry which oversees 100 churches in England and around the world.
"'It's not confined to any one denomination or any one person,' says Sandy Miller, Vicar of Holy Trinity. 'Quite the reverse. It's happening across the board - free churches, house churches, Church of England, established churches, all over the place'"(14).
During an October 1994 pastor's meeting in Toronto, it was reported that 6,000 of the foreign visitors were pastors from all over the world, who had most likely taken the phenomena back to their own churches. Also reported during the same meeting was that 2,000 churches in the United Kingdom, and the same number in the United States, have been affected.
The Hunters describe a typical Rodney Howard-Browne meeting during which the church's pastor and an internationally known ministry leader were affected:
"Pastor Karl Strader of the Carpenter's Home Church in Lakeland, Florida, started excitedly calling us and telling us about this most unusual sign and wonder which was occurring in his church. . . . He . . . said that he had spent six weeks on the floor of his church laughing. . . . Marilyn Hickey had been there and he said that Marilyn had spent the entire time on the floor laughing. Then he shared with us how Rodney had called Marilyn to the microphone and she just laughed and laughed and then fell under the power of God without saying anything! . . . We saw demonstrations of power with Rodney just pointing at people who would then fall under the power of God. We saw people trying to crawl away from the power, but they couldn't get up off the floor" (15).
In an article in the Spiritual Counterfeits Project newsletter, Warren Smith relates how the "revival" came to Oral Roberts University. Richard Roberts, son of Oral Roberts and President of ORU,
". . . explained how he had canceled classes for two days so that his four thousand students could personally experience the 'joy of the Lord' and receive the 'gift' of 'Holy' laughter. I was not surprised to learn that the 'revival' Roberts was describing had come through the person of Rodney Howard-Browne"(16).
Roberts also shared his testimony in The Word of Faith magazine: "[I] went to preach in a church where revival had broken out in laughter and the joy of the Lord. Ever since that service, I have also been laughing, engulfed in the joy of the Lord." Well-known teacher and writer Kenneth Hagin (RHEMA) preaches this "joy of the Lord" too, and writes that "the Spirit" brings about similar manifestations at his meetings(17).
Frances Hunter describes her own encounter with the power:
"We went to a Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship banquet in Houston. . . . The man [the speaker] said, 'Well, Jesus, bless Frances!' Down I went faster than you could blink an eye, followed one second later by my precious husband! ... I tried to get my hands off of the floor, but nothing happened. I couldn't believe what had happened to me, because it was physically impossible for me to move. ... I felt as though someone had given me a divine alka seltzer because way down deep in the very center of my being I began to feel a most peculiar type of `bubbling.' ... then it abruptly came out of my mouth in the form of the loudest laugh I have ever heard. ... no pressure on my mouth could keep the laughing back. I laughed, laughed, laughed and laughed. ... I stopped laughing just as quickly as I started, and suddenly I was released from the bed of Holy Ghost glue in which I had been resting!"(18).
Obviously, influential ministries are being overtaken by this spirit. Other supporters of the Laughing Revival are Paul and Jan Crouch (TBN), and Pat Robertson and Ben Kinchlow of The 700 Club, who we will discuss later. Newsletter publisher Tricia Tillin of Great Britain reports that Kenneth Copeland has also spoken out in favor of the "great move of God" occurring today. But instead of focusing only on "the Lord's joy," Copeland predicts ominous future ramifications for the Church. Tillin writes,
"Toronto is rapidly becoming a test of loyalty and doctrinal orthodoxy. Kenneth Copeland, for instance, has suggested that those who resist God's move could fall over and die! 'One of these days, you may just be talking to someone, asking them how things went at church last Sunday, and they may say, Oh it was great! The glory of God was so strong it healed ten cripples, opened the ears of thirty deaf people, cured seven cases of cancer and killed Brother Bigmouth and Sister Strife'(19). A Christian have a vital choice to make, Copeland says:
"'When the fire of God begins to burn and the rivers of the Spirit start to flow, he'll have to do one of two things: he'll either have to yield to the Spirit and let go of that sin by repenting, or he'll have to resist the flood of God's Spirit and be swept away.'
"What is this sin that puts Christians in danger of death? It is resisting the move of God! Those who unite one with another in revival power can 'have a wonderful time' Copeland tells us. After telling the story of Ananias and Sapphira, Copeland says that the Christians in that meeting 'were having such a glorious time that even when Ananias dropped dead right there in front of the preacher, they just went right on worshipping.' The sin of Ananias, in fact, was not lack of submission to his elders or quenching the Spirit, but 'lying to the Holy Spirit' - see Acts 5:2-6 'And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? . . . You have not lied to men but to God." Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.' Not much sign of a Toronto-style meeting in progress there! However, Copeland nonetheless teaches from this passage that those who resist the last-days outpouring are in mortal danger. The message seems plain. Yield or die!
"This sort of teaching about judgement upon opponents has been building up for some time. It was prominent in the prophecies and teachings of the Kansas City Prophets, probably because of their connection to the Manifest Sons doctrines which taught that denominational Christianity was Babylon, and that only the perfected saints of the New Order would emerge in the endtimes as the Chosen of God, while Babylon suffered defeat and death during the Tribulation to come. However, any doctrine that brings a certain elite group into prominence as World Saviours, will inevitably have to tackle the problem of dissenters"(20).
Kansas City Prophets? Manifest Sons of God? Christians being swept away by the judgement of God? Babylonian denominations? All this may seem strange to you, but these ideas have been aorund since the 1940s and are not new to some of the leaders in the laughing movement. Tillin recently stated that, "Very little is being said about the doctrine, origins, purpose and goal of the 'new move. It is my belief that most churches and leaders do not know those things. Some leaders, however, are promising an escalation into world revival, but are cagey about how the transition will take place. Others hint at 'something being birthed in the Church' and 'God is raising up an Army.' The truth is, the present events and the way they are being handled by leaders points unerringly in the direction of the Latter Rain teaching."
Never heard of Latter Rain, either? Then most likely are not familiar with the Passion & Fire Conferences now being held internationally. But all of these various and sundry beliefs and factions within the universal Church are beginning to coalesce. We will discuss this aspect next month.
IS HOLY LAUGHTER A DELUSION?
The word DELUSION is used only once in each Testament:
* NEW TESTAMENT (used once): 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12:
9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and wonders, 10 and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 And for this reason God shall send them a STRONG DELUSION, that they should believe a lie; 12 that they might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
DELUSION Defined: 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12:
Strong's Greek 4106: fem[inine] of 4108 (as abstrac[tly]; obj[jectively] "fraudulence;" subj[ectively] a "straying" from orthodoxy or piety:-deceit, to deceive, delusion, error (quotes originally in italics).
Comments regarding Holy Laughter: all the manifestations of Holy Laughter have certainly strayed from orthodoxy and piety.
* OLD TESTAMENT (used once): Isaiah 66:3-4:
3 He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog's neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine's blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yes, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. 4 I ALSO WILL CHOOSE THEIR DELUSIONS (compare with 2 Thess. 2:11), and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear; but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not.
DELUSION Defined: Isaiah 66:3-4:
Strong's Hebrew 8586: from 5927; "caprice" (as a fit "coming on"), i.e., "vexation;" concr[etely] a "tyrant":-babe, delusion (quotes originally in italics).
"Caprice": "a sudden change of mind without apparent or adequate motive; a whim; also, mere fancy; susceptibility to various or freakish impulses; freakeshness; also, a fantastic production (New Century Dictionary).
Comments regarding Holy Laughter: many experience the laughter on a whim, going to the meeting "just to check it out." No need to even comment on the freakish impulses that hit people while they are doing so. Many of the manifestations could easily be labeled "'caprice,' as a fit 'coming on.'"
In both usages, God had a hand in either sending or choosing delusion for those who would not hear and walk by His word.
(1) David W. Cloud, "Happy Hunters Ministering Holy Laughter," O Timothy magazine Volume 11, Issue 9-10, 1994 citing Charles and Frances Hunter, ["Holy Laughter"], (pp. 5-7).
(2) See 1 Corinthians 1:10-12 and 11:17-19 on Paul's viewpoint on divisions in the Church.
(3) TBN video-taped service, broadcast May 1994.
(4) Warren Smith, "Holy Laughter or Strong Delusion?," Spiritual Counterfeits Project newsletter (SCP), Fall 1994, p. 5 citing Charisma magazine, August 1994.
(5) Pastor Bill Randles, "Making War in the Heavenlies: A Different Look At Spiritual Warfare," Appendix One, "Rodney Howard-Browne: An Analysis of the Laughing Revival," p. 91 citing Rodney Howard-Browne, "The Touch of God," RHBEA Publications, pp. 73-74.
(6) Christian Television Network (CTN - Clearwater, FL), "The Good Life" program. Hosted by Bob and Molly DeAnrea. Guests: Rodney and Adonica Browne, 2 hour video, broadcast April 20, 1994. (7) Randles, p. 92-93 citing Charisma, p. 24.
(8) Randles, pp. 92-93.
(9) Because this "move of God" is so vast, it's important to note that Jesus called the Holy Spirit's coming at Pentecost "the promise of the Father" (Acts 1:4), and "another Counselor [Comforter] to be with you forever" (John 14:16). The central purposes of His coming were to guide us into all truth, glorify Christ Jesus (John 16:12-14), and "convict the world of sin, and righteousness and judgement" (vv. 8-11). These necessitate the Holy Spirit being active in a consistent manner in the world and in the Church throughout the entire Church age, and negates the promise of another outpouring of the Spirit.
(10) John Wimber, "Seasons of New Beginnings," File NEWBEG.TXT, 23879 Bytes, Compuserve, CIN-4, Lib 2. Originally published in the May/June 1994 edition of Vineyard Reflections newsletter published by Association of Vineyard Churches. John Wimber, Publisher; Bill Henderson, editor.
(11) TBN video-taped service, broadcast May 1994.
(12) Such action by the Holy Spirit would nullify the purpose of Christ establishing ministries (Ephesians 4:9-14), and the responsibilities of overseers in the Church (1 Timothy 3).
(13) We must judge, not the minister, but whether such manifestations fit the criteria of Scripture. Paul told the Corinthians that "God is not a God of disorder, but of peace" and to "Let ALL things be done decently and in order" during meetings (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). In discerning the source of such manifestations, we must consider God's wisdom (James 3:15-18).
(14) The 700 Club Fact Sheet, "HOLY LAUGHTER: Bringing Revival To The Church?" as featured on the 700 Club Newswatch, October 27, 1994.
(15) O Timothy, Cloud, citing ["Holy Laughter"], pp. 35, 38.
(16) Smith, p. 4 citing videotaped local TV program.
(17) The Word of Faith magazine, October 1994, p. 11.
(18) O Timothy, Cloud, citing ["Holy Laughter"], pp. 21-23.
(19) Tricia Tillin, Mainstream newsletter (Banner Ministries - U.K.) citing The Voice Of Victory magazine, October 1994.
(20) Tillin, Mainstream.