Immigrants providing a boost to declining church attendance in Canada

December 28, 2017

By Xiao Yu, Globe and Mail |

Eli Wu brought his wife and teenaged son to Vancouver this past summer, emigrating from China in search of a better education for his child. He wasn’t searching for God, but after arriving in Canada he found himself drawn in an unexpected direction.

In China, he said he didn’t pay too much attention to Christianity, although some of his family members attended church. Organized religion was prohibited in China during the Cultural Revolution, but there was a revival of Christianity at the beginning of 1980s, when the government lifted restrictions on religion. Still, the Chinese government maintains some control over worship.

“In China, [things like] getting baptized and accepting legitimate Christianity are controlled by the government,” Mr. Wu said. “When the gospel is discussed in China, because of some political factors, it cannot be [considered] too real.”

The decline in the number of Canadians identifying as Christian is a well-documented and persistent trend. But among the people who will file into the pews for Christmas services are a growing number of immigrants, many of whom have converted to Christianity after arriving here, often from China.

New congregants such as international students come because church offers them support and community and an escape from loneliness. Others, like Mr. Wu and his son, come after experiencing Canada’s religious freedom.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center found the percentage of Canadians who identify as Catholics dropped to 39 per cent from 47 per cent between 1971 and 2011, while the share that identified as Protestant fell even more sharply, to 27 per cent from 41 per cent.

According to the statistics collected and analyzed by Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge and a prominent researcher of spirituality, about half of the immigrants who came to Canada between 2005 to 2010 were either Catholic or Protestant. Churches with large Asian congregations in particular are growing.

“Over time, the [immigrant] churches will look like this,” said Reverend Rich Kao, drawing an ascending line on a white board. Other churches will see declining numbers, he said. Rev. Kao, who founded Five Stone Church in New Westminster, just outside Vancouver, said most new congregants are those who are coming in from East Asia, whether they are South Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, or Hong Kongese.

The Canadian Chinese Alliance Churches Association (CCACA) had four churches when it was founded in 1967. After five decades, the number has grown to 93, serving 22,000 people across the country. The total number of congregants has been rising slower than the organization has expected, “but it’s still growing,” said Aaron Tang, executive director of CCACA. More than 80 per cent of the church members of CCACA are located in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, where the majority of Chinese immigrants live.

In Edmonton, the growth of Chinese churches slowed down when some Chinese immigrants chose to leave the city as the economy declined. Even so, a Chinese church there still receives a few dozen newcomers from China each year.

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