Church leaders trying to attract new followers from racial, ethnic minorities

Pastor Merv Budd, middle, speaks with Patrick Douglas, left, following Sunday morning service at North Burlington Baptist Church in Burlington, Ont., on Sunday, April 8, 2018. Douglas has been attending North Burlington Baptist Church for over a decade. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power

When they moved to Owen Sound 10 years ago, John Johnson and his family were the only non-white people in his church.

Over the years, a few other non-white members joined Rockcliffe Pentecostal Church, which Johnson describes as "one big family."

The father of two finds the church so welcoming that he's introduced many reluctant Indian friends to Rockcliffe.

"I tell them my story," he says. "They all come to this church and they have positive experiences."

Many church leaders want to give minorities a similar welcome. The immigrant and minority population is expanding beyond big cities, and leaders believe their churches must do a better job of serving an increasingly diverse population, especially as attendance plummets.

According to a 2017 Ipsos survey, only 40 per cent of Canadians attend church compared to 63 per cent in 2006.

Meanwhile the nation's immigrant population is growing. Foreign born individuals will make up 30 per cent of Canada's population by 2036, according to Statistics Canada, and the bulk of them will be in Ontario.

"Cultural diversity is definitely growing year on year," said Cid Latty, a congregational development associate of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec. "Some of the churches have 20, 30, 40 different nations worshipping in the same context."

Last year, 25 of the association's churches sponsored 119 refugees, Latty said.

Diversity is integral to the Christian community, church leaders say.

"From a theological perspective, we'd say that reflects heaven. Heaven's a place where every people is present — every tribe, every tongue, every nation," said Merv Budd, senior minister at North Burlington Baptist Church in Burlington, Ont.

The 170-member congregation is predominantly white, but there is a growing population of Indian, South Asian, Caribbean and African members.

It's the same story in Kitchener, Ont., at Highland Baptist Church. Pastor Das Sydney says that 10 years ago, the church was 95 per cent white, and now roughly 80 of the 200 attendees are non-white. They include people from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Sudan, Romania and Burma.

"The diversity that we have is a microcosm of the kingdom of God," said Sydney.

Sydney says his church also seeks unity with the First Nations community and hosted a Baptist conference aimed at reconciliation two years ago.

In Thunder Bay, Ont., Italian, Portuguese, Filipino, Chinese, Syrian and First Nations parishioners worship at St. Anthony's Parish, said Rev. Luigi Filippini.

"The church is like a mama in welcoming all the children. We serve the community as much as we can."

Faith unites the different cultures, Filippini says.

"There's also a strong flavour of identity because they are all Roman Catholics."

The church has masses in Italian, Portuguese and English to better serve its members.

Churches that don't have comparable diversity are striving to meet the needs of their cities' various ethnicities. In Cambridge, Ont., for example, pastor Dan Fietje said the church should represent the larger community's diversity.

After noticing that the ethnic makeup of the 150-member Cambridge Community Church did not reflect the city's ethnic makeup, Fietje raised the issue with the church board and the church is now re-evaluating aspects of its culture.

"Every church has a culture, whether they know it or not. Is that culture welcoming?" Fietje said, "I'm sure we think we are, but maybe we do things that aren't welcoming at all."

"I try to think about this when I do slide shows. Is every single person that I have in my photos white? Are they mostly male?" he said.

Other church leaders have sought out formal training. Last fall, 35 students enrolled in an inaugural class for the Certificate in Ministry and Organizational Leadership, offered by the Tyndale Intercultural Ministries Centre in Toronto. The certificate trains Christian leaders to better serve multi-ethnic churches and improve the interactions between different cultures, said Tim Tang, the centre's associate director.

"Traditions are hard to change; a lot of church practices are built around norms and cultural biases that we are not aware of," Tang said.

For example, Tang said, many sacred hymns were written to drinking melodies.

"If they were based on European drinking games from centuries of old, how relevant really are they today for us?"

Involving other races in church leadership is critical to a truly integrated church body and a culture that represents all members of the church, said David Seljak, professor of religious studies at University of Waterloo.

"When ethnic minorities are not involved in decision making, they risk not being represented," he said, "You are relying on the good will of the dominant community. This model still creates inequality."

Budd said he's seen this model silence minorities.

"The problem with white people when they are a majority is because they are comfortable they assume everyone else must be comfortable, so they don't go out of their way to make sure that's the case."

He's recruited qualified minorities for leadership and volunteer positions.

"Often what I have found is that people of a different ethnicity who have those gifts and talents are sometimes overlooked because of that ethnicity.

Churches should also make sure that songs and prayers don't represent just one race, said Latty.

"You can now download a song from Ethiopia," he said, "There's absolutely no reason that a monoculture culture cannot learn from and glean from another culture."

There are other challenges as churches embrace new cultures. Socioeconomic differences between new immigrants and established Canadians continue to divide and prevent full integration, said Sydney.

"So even though there are good efforts to bridge the gap, it's not happening that easily."

Tackling this and other obstacles to welcoming other ethnicities is critical to the survival of the church.

As Budd puts it: "The western church is dying, but around the world it's growing and expanding, so we are wise to listen. We are wise to make room and be putting ourselves in a position to learn and humble ourselves."

— Dr. Tola Afolabi is a plastic surgeon and reconstructive surgeon praticising in southwestern Ontario who is also a fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.


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