Growth in Vancouver’s Asian-Christian communities represents the changing face of Christianity in Canada.
This summer my friends and colleagues in ministry Albert Chu and Jason Byassee and I published a book based on interviews with Asian Christian lay people in Vancouver.
This research project flowed out of an earlier work entitled Better Than Brunch: Missional Churches in Cascadia. Jason and I completed the field work for that in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland just prior to the 2020 pandemic.
We visited impactful missional congregations across the Pacific Northwest (also known as Cascadia) and identified characteristics in common in those faith communities. One of the commonalities we noticed was how many of the vibrant congregations had ‘pan-Asian’ membership.
Yes, there are vibrant ethnic-specific congregations such as Chinese Baptist or Korean Presbyterian, but there was a growing number of churches with people from a variety of Asian backgrounds. This seemed to create a space for those of 1.5 or 2.0 generations to feel at home.
Our first project focused on interviews with clergy, and so on this follow up project we tightened the scope to include only Vancouver (helpful during a pandemic when we couldn’t cross the border!). We also invited our friend Albert Chu, founding pastor of Tapestry Church – a Christian Reformed church plant in Richmond – and Director of the Centre for Missional Leadership at St. Andrew’s Hall, to join our research.
Together, we interviewed over 40 Asian Christian lay people in a variety of professions from newscasters to politicians, surgeons to stay-at-home parents, real estate agents to lawyers. All of those interviewed could tell a compelling story of both immigration/integration into the Vancouver context, as well as how their faith in Jesus Christ (often begun after arriving in Canada due to the kindness and evangelistic witness of others) impacted their daily living and vocations.
An example of that is Vancouver’s CTV news anchor Mi-Jung Lee. A recognizable face on local television, Ms. Lee told us about how their neighbours offered to take Mi-Jung and her sister to Sunday School at their tight-knit German congregation.
The gentle evangelistic work of that older couple soon introduced not only Mi-Jung and her sister to the gospel, but even more of the neighbourhood’s diverse (mostly Asian) children over the next few years. As Mi-Jung recalls, the transformation meant “the monocultural church became multicultural.”
As we further explored the data, we began to note how the default secularization thesis makes it appear that churches are inevitably declining in membership and influence. Too often, however, this assumption of decline is based on only watching the denominations that were ‘church plants of Western Christendom’ in North America over the last several centuries.
But what if, in addition to decline, God is actively at work changing the face of the church in Canada today? Our findings, as reported in Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver, [Wipf and Stock, June 2023] notes through a mixed-methods study including interviews and participant observation that many churches in Vancouver with predominantly Asian composition are growing both in size and influence.
That prompted this question: what might we learn about God’s transforming power by looking to Asia rather than Europe to predict the future of Christian witness in the Pacific Northwest of North America?
Migration and integration
This project “makes a unique contribution to the understanding of faith within the Asian-Christian community,” former University of British Columbia President Dr. Santa Ono said.
Now president at the University of Michigan as well as a participant in our study, Ono added that, “told from the vantage point of Christian Asian-Canadians, it is an important contribution to understanding Asian migration to North America and how faith plays a critical role in supporting such migration and integration into Canada.”
Ono himself is a good example of someone who came to faith in a crisis as an undergraduate and was welcomed into the faith by fellow students active in Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.
As a scientist and university president, Ono spoke openly about his Christian faith while at UBC and encouraged the planting of new Christian witnessing communities, while being vocal about his support of all faith expressions on a university campus.
The research explores the unique aspects of Asian ethnic churches in Vancouver and what we found to be their more fluid relationship to denominational identity and loyalty. As well, we investigate through the interviews various aspects of Asian culture, including the concept of ‘saving face’ and how a new Christian identity creates both tension and opportunity for belonging.
A dominant metaphor that emerged from our research was the ‘Jook-sing’ identity of Christian believers in Vancouver who, like the hollow bamboo tree, struggle with emptiness caught between Asian and Western cultural realities.
The research moves towards forward-looking reflections on what it means to imagine a Christianity on West Coast that is both dismantling a faith with European heritage and giving way to an expression of Christianity predominantly as an Asian religion.
Ross A. Lockhart is dean of St. Andrew’s Hall and professor of Mission Studies at Vancouver School of Theology (VST).
Jason Byassee is senior minister of Eaton Memorial Church, Toronto, and former Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at VST.
Albert Y.S. Chu is director of the Centre for Missional Leadership at St. Andrew’s Hall and the lead pastor of The Tapestry Church in Richmond.
This comment is re-posted by permission from Christian Courier.