AS THE FACE of Canada keeps changing due to a steady influx of people from other countries, many churches now find themselves ill-equipped to deal with this reality.
“The first couple of years that they’re here are years in which we can practically reach out to them and love them,” said Tim Nielsen, pastor of City Church, which ministers to the immigrant population of Winnipeg’s inner city.
“And yet I find that a lot of churches are still unaware of how to do it — or are hesitant, or not wanting to disrupt their own congregation in doing that.”
Even the plight of refugees, who have fled their homelands to escape persecution (and worse), and arrive here often in desperate straits, seems to elicit at best an ambivalent response from some evangelicals in the pews.
Not in our backyard?
“People are really willing to open their wallets to help, say, people in Rwanda who are experiencing trouble and trauma. But when they’re here in their backyard, they’re not as quick to respond,” said Jack Taylor, senior pastor of Vancouver’s Faith Fellowship Baptist Church. It helps provide temporary shelter and other assistance to refugees through its New Hope Community Services Society.
An online survey that World Vision Canada conducted earlier this year, of churches in 11 cities with high immigrant populations, underscores this apparent inability — and even hesitancy — of many churches to embrace recent immigrants.
“While there’s a real effort by a lot of churches to do an initial welcoming,” said Hugh Brewster, World Vision’s national manager for Canadian programs, “the welcome was pretty limited.”
The survey was part of the ongoing Welcoming Churches Project, undertaken by World Vision to try to diagnose and remedy the problem. Some 325 congregations from several denominations began the survey, and about 260 completed it. The findings were supplemented with focus groups in September, in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Vancouver; and interviews with key local and national ‘informants.’
Brewster said World Vision believes meeting this challenge is central to its mandate of ending child poverty.
“Refugee families [and] new immigrant families are much more likely to experience poverty than families who’ve been in Canada for a long time. So how could the church be more active in welcoming these folks, recognizing that good integration leads families out of poverty?”
Future of the church
The final report will not be released until next spring. But Brewster said one theme that came through clearly was that this is “a key, critical issue for the future of the church. One key national informant said, ‘Unless immigrants are well-integrated, churches will die.’ There’s that sense that the response of the church could be deeper.”
The challenge is the greatest in Canada’s major urban centres — and it is becoming more urgent, literally by the day. As Statistics Canada forecast in March, immigration and a slightly higher fertility rate are projected to boost the size of Canada’s visible minorities population by 2031 — to the point that they will comprise an estimated 63 percent of the population in Toronto, 59 percent in Vancouver and 31 percent in Montreal.
For Metro Vancouver, this would mean an increase in the size of its Chinese population — the region’s largest visible minority group — from 18 percent of the total population in 2006 to 23 percent (or 809,000 people) by 2031. Second-largest would be South Asians, who are predicted to comprise 14 percent of the population.
Looking for help
World Vision found that the many Christians who are among these new immigrants will often turn to local churches to help them get settled.
“Their primary focus,” said Brewster, “is getting adapted to life here, getting a job, getting their kids taken care of. And often they look toward churches to be leaders in that. We heard that several times, where people look to the pastor and say, ‘Here’s the problem we’re having. Where can I go and who can I trust?'”
“I do not view it as coincidence or a mistake that in these days God has brought the nations to Canada,” Nielsen said. “I think it’s the responsibility of the church to see the opportunity that has come our way — and respond to it out of a sense of hospitality and love, to all culture groups as they come.”
Nor is it good enough to assume that the onus is on the members of a foreign country who are already here to evangelize their newly arrived fellow countrymen, said Afshin Javid, the Iranian-born pastor of Vancouver Christian Fellowship in North Vancouver.
“We should repent of that thought,” he said. “We should come to terms with this. This is God’s blessing. God is blessing us with this great opportunity to share the gospel.”
Indeed, there are many evangelical churches across Canada that are actively — and apparently with some success — reaching out to new immigrants. This was shown in a recent study by sociologists Sam Reimer at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B., and Michael Wilkinson at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.
They found, for example, the Christian and Missionary Alliance to be “the most ethnically diverse.” That, said Reimer, “has a lot to do with the fact that they have a lot of urban churches.”
In second place are the Mennonite Brethren. “They have the youngest churches overall, and those tend to exist in places where the population is growing — i.e., in the cities. And so that gives them an advantage in reaching the immigrants as well.”
Close behind are the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Pentecostals, said Reimer, “aren’t percentage-wise as urban as some of the other groups; but they will attract a lot of immigrants, because some of the people coming over are already Pentecostal.”
Less successful, he added, are Baptists — who have “a lot of churches, particularly here in the Maritimes, in rural areas where the population is shrinking quickly” — and Christian Reformed, “which tends to be a much more historically ethnic group.”
Not the whole story
But for Mark Chapman, a research consultant at the Tyndale Intercultural Ministry Centre in Toronto, which is collaborating with World Vision on the Welcoming Churches Project, the numbers do not tell the whole story.
“This is an issue that many denominations across Canada are trying hard to do something about,” he said, “but there’s not a lot of understanding of how to go about operating in a multicultural context. This would even be true in ethnic-specific churches that are trying to grapple with first-, second-, third-generation issues.”
Wilkinson also noted that making immigrants feel welcome — and whether one group is doing a better job of that than another group — is actually “a hard thing to assess.”
“There may be other things as to why there is more of one immigrant group in one denomination than in another,” he said. “It may be there’s more of an affinity between their theology and their practices. There may be policies as well. Are these denominations developing policies to embrace and work with new immigrants?”
Nielsen added that, for some churches, this can involve more change than people are willing or able to accept. “At times, it can be like new wine in old wineskins,” he said. “An influx of new immigrants can burst a congregation if they’re not careful, because they don’t know how to respond — and they don’t want to stretch in the direction they need to stretch.”
But while some new immigrants can find themselves not welcome, there are others who simply “want to keep to themselves,” said Sam Owusu, the Nigerian-born senior pastor of Calvary Worship Centre, an international church in New Westminster, B.C.
“When I came here, there was no African church in Vancouver. Right now, there are about 12 of them here. And that’s really sad,” he said, “because there are opportunities and advantages of having these immigrants in our churches. They enrich us.”
Owusu added that these ethnic churches are “also missing an opportunity to be a witness to the nations; but they do what comes to them naturally and easily.”
Burmese-born associate pastor Indian Chin of City Church in Manitoba, seen with wife Ceri.
Nielsen is convinced that the best solution is the intercultural model City Church has adopted. “I say that not with any pride, but just because I’ve seen it work. It develops a level of equality that’s really beautiful. That’s really what the church needs.”
The intercultural challenge, he said, is to structure a church in which “ultimately culture groups are interacting and mixing, while still retaining their unique distinction.” Members of City Church, for example, worship together on Sunday — with the aid of translators — and gather separately in their various ethnic groups during the week.
“We actually have a lot of our immigrant families say to us, ‘We have relatives in this city or that city. We wish that this was happening there,'” he said.
A good season
“We would be willing to help however we can in that. I think it’s a good season for the church to rise up and respond to the occasion.”
In March, World Vision plans to release the final report on its findings, along with an eight-page summary. It is also creating a ‘tool kit’ to help leaders assess how welcoming their churches are currently, and find ways they can guide their congregations to become even more welcoming.
“The assumption here,” Brewster said, “is that all churches, whether it’s a traditional Western-based population you’re drawing from or more a newcomer church, they need to be intentional about welcoming new folks in.”
Owusu said he believes the fate of many churches will depend on how they respond to that challenge.
“Some churches will become multicultural by accident. Some churches will die. And the churches that will grow are the churches that are going to embrace the nations. It’s as simple as that.”