I recently read The New Canadian Pentecostals by Adam Stewart. I loved this book, so much so that I devoured it. As the title suggests, it describes changes in Pentecostal churches in Canada, specifically in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC).
The book was a joy to read. One of the final chapters was my favorite, which recounts the “testimonies” of individual’s healings and miracles from people that the author interviewed as a part of his research. For example, one lady recalled how at a church service God healed her husband of back pain that he had suffered with for many years. The book isn’t written to be an inspirational book though.
Aside from simply enjoying the read, the book was also fantastic because it offers many things to think about to many readers like myself who might read this book not as sociologists, but as people interested in and/or part of the Pentecostal tradition in Canada.
The Changing Nature of Pentecostalism in Canada
Stewart’s main hypothesis is that “Canadian Pentecostal identity is transforming from traditionally Pentecostal to generically evangelical categories” (p. 20). By generically evangelical, Stewart is thinking of “churches that, above all else, filter their religious content through a therapeutic, individualistic lens, which encourages the purging of traditional, denominational features in favour of a kind of lowest-common-denominator, homogeneous version of evangelical identity, belief, and practice” (p. 85). Many people that Stewart interviewed at PAOC churches were not even aware that they attended a Pentecostal church and, similarly, many weren’t sure what “Pentecostal” meant.
To further illustrate the “generically evangelical” shift, people at the PAOC churches Stewart studied were not committed to traditional Pentecostal understandings of Spirit baptism. Rather than describing Spirit baptism as an experience subsequent to conversion, the majority of interviewees identified Spirit baptism with conversion or water baptism. Even among those who did believe Spirit baptism is an experience subsequent to conversion (only 40% of those interviewed), none of the interviewees believed that “speaking in tongues is the unique evidence of Spirit baptism” (p. 110, 114). Furthermore, most described Spirit baptism primarily in individualistic and therapeutic terms (in keeping with generic evangelicalism), such as contributing to their personal spiritual development, rather than describing Spirit baptism as something to empower believers for witness (p. 129-130).
Questions to Ponder
Since this is a book in sociology of religion, it presented me with many new ways of thinking about how a church looks and runs. However, with respect to the central focus of the book, some questions many PAOC readers will be left asking are:
- Is the shift toward “generic evangelicalism” a good thing or a bad thing? What would qualify this change as good or bad?
- How should people in the PAOC (lay and credentialed) respond to this shift toward generic evangelicalism?
- Should PAOC churches increase emphasis on traditional Pentecostal beliefs and practices at the risk of alienating many of their members?
- To what extent do the people who lead PAOC churches value traditional Pentecostal beliefs and practices? (We actually do have some answers to that question from research Stewart and I have done…see here.)
- In an effort for the PAOC to grow its membership as a part of the PAOC’s “2020 Initiative,” will the PAOC grow primarily by adding more evangelicals from other denominations to its churches, or will it (also) be able to grow by reaching those who are not already Christian?
“But it was Such a Small Sample!”
On a few occasions now, people I have discussed this book with have remarked how Stewart had a small sample (implying, I suppose, that the research might not be that true to the PAOC at large). Indeed, Stewart did field observation, surveys of, and interviews with the attendees of (only) three PAOC churches, all of which were around the region of Waterloo, Ontario.
Stewart is clear that his research does not prove anything about Canadian Pentecostalism “on a national scale” (p. 166). Hence, for example, Stewart never makes the claim that no lay people in the PAOC affirm the doctrine of initial evidence (which was true of the people he interviewed). Rather, Stewart’s research illustrates change.
Stewart is clear that his objective was to “explain the decline in Canadian Pentecostal affiliation recorded by Statistics Canada—nothing more, nothing less” (p. 10). That is, in a time when Pentecostalism was booming worldwide, Statistics Canada indicated a drastic 15% drop of those who identified as “Pentecostals” in Canada between 1991 and 2001 (p. 2). It appeared that Pentecostalism in Canada was declining faster than the mainline denominations in Canada. How, then, is it possible that the PAOC self-reported an increase in members between 1991 and 2001? Stewart is successful in presenting a case study that illustrates the most probable explanation of these seemingly contradictory numbers—many people attending Pentecostal churches in Canada have generically evangelical beliefs and identity.
Overall, Stewart has offered readers much to ponder about the changing nature of Pentecostalism in Canada.
Full book information:
Adam Stewart, The New Canadian Pentecostals (Editions SR, 37; Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015).
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