This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Canadian church, drawing on the expertise of a variety of researchers and church leaders.
The first article in this series stated that weekly church attendance in Canada has declined from about 70 percent of the population in the 1950s to about 20 percent today. Is this decline due to the immigration of followers of other religions?
The answer is no — or at least only partly.
A changing society
One of the key changes in this area is the source of immigration. According to Statistics Canada, prior to 1971, most immigrants to Canada came from Europe, which has a Christian heritage. In 1971, 61.6 percent of immigrants came from Europe, while only 12.1 percent of recent immigrants were from Asia. That ratio has now shifted in the other direction. Between 2001 and 2006, 58.3 percent of immigrants came from Asia, including the Middle East, and only 16.1 percent came from Europe. About 10 percent each came from Africa and Central America/South America/Caribbean and Africa.
As mentioned in the second article in this series, immigration has helped maintain the position of the Roman Catholic Church, although this is starting to change. Roman Catholics made up 39 percent of immigrants before 1961, 43 percent of immigrants in the 1960s, about a third of immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s and 23 percent of immigrants in the 1990s.
In contrast, Protestants made up 39 percent of immigrants before 1961 but only 11 percent of immigrants in the 1990s.
The recent 2006 census counted 6,186,950 foreign-born people in Canada. That is 19.8 percent of the population, the highest proportion in 75 years. For the first time, the proportion of the foreign-born population who were born in Asia and the Middle East (40.8 percent) surpassed the proportion born in Europe (36.8 percent).
A varied impact
This hardly means that Canada is being swamped by members of other religions. About 80 percent of Canadians were born here, and two-thirds of Canadians still call themselves Christians.
In the 1990s, the number of Muslims in Canada more than doubled, to 579,600, about 2 percent of the population. Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists came close to doubling in that decade and each now make up about 1 percent of the population. Including the 1 percent of the population that is Jewish, this means that other religions now make up about 6 percent of the population.
About 20 percent of immigrants in the 1990s reported having “no religion,” helping to push the proportion of Canadians with “no religion” to 16 percent in 2001, up from less than 1 percent in 1971.
It is this “secular” proportion of the population, more than adherents of other religions, who are driving the efforts to reduce the influence of Christianity in Canada. In fact, on issues such as same-sex marriage, Christians have united with Muslims and other groups in defence of traditional marriage. An Angus Reid poll, reported in the Vancouver Sun last month, revealed that “New immigrants are increasing the proportion of Canadians who are conservative about what is right and wrong — especially about family values and sex.”
Other research suggests that immigrants have a slightly higher rate of attendance at religious services than native-born Canadians.
Potential for conversion
It should also not be assumed that immigrants from other religions will inevitably keep their religion once they come to Canada.
University of Lethbridge sociologist Reg Bibby’s research has revealed that very few Canadians with a Christian background are converting to other religions, but that in 1992, 12 percent of young people whose parents belonged to some other faith had become Christians (Unknown Gods, p. 26).
There are no clear statistics on church attendance by immigrants to Canada generally, but there is evidence that the church is doing very well among some immigrant groups.
For instance, statistics produced by Christian Direction, a Protestant parachurch ministry, show that there are 432 French-speaking Protestant congregations in Quebec, 350 English-speaking Protestant churches and 218 Protestant churches using other languages. Moreover, since 1998, the number of French-speaking churches has grown 8 percent, the number of English-speaking churches has decreased 12 percent, but the number of churches speaking other languages has grown 92 percent. There are 112 Protestant congregations serving the 150,000 Haitians in Quebec and 80 Protestant churches serving the 125,000 Latin Americans in Quebec, as well as 10 new congregations serving immigrants from the Congo. Many of these are nondenominational evangelical congregations.
Similarly, Chinese churches seem to be doing well in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver. On the other hand, church growth is very limited among immigrants from India and the Middle East.
Immigration has made not only a quantitative but also a qualitative impact on the Canadian church. A recent brief by the Protestant Partnership in Education stated, “Immigration to Quebec has brought vigour to the Protestant church.”
Brian Stiller, president of Tyndale University College and Seminary, told CC.com: “In Toronto, the newly arrived ethnic communities tend to be the spark plugs for evangelism. The multiplication of Chinese, Korean, Filipino and black churches is stunning. There is a passion within the community to build churches that serve the needs of people of their own ethnic community; but in the meantime they’re bringing new life to the wider church. Often I find that it’s these newly arrived ethnic groups who evangelize other newly arrived ethnic communities. So the Caucasian church is learning an enormous amount from them.”
While many of the new churches are evangelical, even mainline Protestant churches are attracting some immigrants. David Harris, editor of the Presbyterian Record, observed: “Most churches in demographically mixed areas seem to modestly reflect that demographic and all mainline churches certainly have significant congregations centred on ethnicity — Chinese, Korean, Caribbean, et cetera.”
However, this does not mean that the church has won the battle.
Tim Day, senior pastor of The Meeting House, an innovative church in Oakville, Ont., cautioned: “Aside from the cultural churches, for the most part the Christian church is still white, middle class, rural or sub-urban. I don’t believe the church overall has made any major inroads into urban centers or into cultural diversification.”
Given that the majority of immigrants are settling in large urban centres, where the Canadian church has generally not been doing well, there are some significant challenges ahead. David Macfarlane, director of national initiatives for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, stated: “Growing churches of the future, in the large cities, will either be multi-ethnic (accepting of different groups) or intercultural (intentionally reaching and embracing ethnic groups).”
Gerry Bowler, a historian at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the intersection of religion and popular culture, told CC.com: “Canadian Christianity seems to be very multicultural, though it may wish to have a conversation in a little while about the wisdom of ethnic-oriented churches. Are they a short-term solution or a long-term vision?”
Political scientist John H. Redekop suggested that ethnic congregations may be a good thing: “While increasing effort is being undertaken by some denominations to incorporate a diversity of ethnic peoples in ‘open’ congregations, I doubt if that will work. Ethnic groups, by and large, prefer to be with their own kind. In some cases, linguistic differences are important… In the future the evangelical church must become even more multi-cultural than it is today but this trend may not be expressed very much within individual congregations.”
“Good will, mutual affirmation, cooperation and loving acceptance of differences” are more important than cultural diversity within a given congregation, he added.
Cam Roxburgh, the leading pastor of Southside Community Church, a multi-location church in British Columbia, and an active participant in Church Planting Canada, stated: “The large influx of people from other nations gives us a wonderful opportunity to reach people from other lands with the gospel. However, one of the tragedies is that we are planting churches that not only begin with a specific ethnicity, but seem bent on staying that way. It is true that we need to start somewhere, but we need to be planting churches that cross all kinds of barriers and demonstrate that as the people of God we have been given the gift of unity… It is imperative that we plant and develop intercultural churches that reach all people.”