Not really new news: Immigration has affected churches in Canada (and elsewhere) for years


"There is no new thing under the sun," the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us in chapter 1, verse 9. While it's doubtful that said author was also a newspaper editor, it's a handy point for editors to remember, I believe. Too little of what is reported as "news" is, actually, "new."

These thoughts came to mind as I read a story in the Globe and Mail, Toronto's flagship paper whose reporters cover the whole of Canada as well as the rest of the world. "Immigrants providing a boost to declining church attendance in Canada," the headline reads.

Take a look at this longish excerpt to get a flavor of the piece:

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.

Here's the journalism problem: The fact of churches welcoming and accommodating immigrant populations is nothing new. You could argue that the past 150 years of religious history in the United States and Canada have shown, time and again, the impact of such migration on various churches, from Roman Catholic parishes to Salvation Army outposts that served specific communities, such as Slavic or Swedish immigrants, to name just two groups.

(When discussing this via email with the GetReligion team, the formidable Bobby Ross, Jr., recalled a story he'd written for The Christian Chronicle some eight years ago discussing -- yes -- the new life immigrants in British Columbia, including those from China, were bringing to Churches of Christ in that part of the world. I'd imagine this wasn't the only such report available online.) 

While it's likely the latest Chinese newcomers to Canada are, indeed, experiencing a religious liberty not easily found at home, that wasn't the headline or the promised thrust of the story. Every example of church growth and membership development is centered on the Chinese population. That's fine -- but again, there isn't only ONE group of newcomers to Canada, is there?

We get a tantalizing hint that there may be more afoot, but after this one sentence, there's no follow-up in the article:

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.

It would have been helpful for the reporter to have asked Professor Bibby, or for the editors to have requested the reporter to ask, what the country-of-origin breakdown was for these incoming "Catholic or Protestant" immigrants. Such detail would bring more depth to the story, I'm sure.

It's a shame -- from this reader's perspective, at least -- that there's no discussion of other immigrant communities and their impact on the Canadian church (and synagogue and mosque) scene. A bit more shoe-leather #journalism would have made this an even more insightful report.

A PERSONAL NOTE: After a second engagement of 13 months with this merry band of bloggers, my time as a GetReligion contributor ends with this post. I'm grateful for the privilege of contributing here, and for the attention of and comments from our readers. I hope some of these posts have been useful. Please keep reading this site, and keep an eye on the media.

(Initial image: Millenium Gate, Vancouver's Chinatown National Historic Site of Canada West Pender Street at Taylor Street, Vancouver, British Columbia -- photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

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