Although many Asian Canadian Immigrant churches (ACICs), particularly Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean immigrant churches, offer concurrent English language services for their second and third generation English-speaking congregants, these churches are experiencing either decline or stagnation of their membership. This trend influenced the Center for Asian Canadian Theology and Ministry at Knox College to explore the beneficial opportunities and challenges experienced by Asian Canadian Immigrant churches (ACICs) which have two or three language services under one roof. This qualitative research uncovered critical information to help transform current challenges into opportunities.

According to both the lay and clergy interviewees, one of the major benefits in having multiple worship services under the same roof is the ability to accommodate different generations, cultures, and languages. In addition, ethnic immigrant churches can help address specific ethno-cultural needs of second and third-generation children raised in culturally hybrid or bi-cultural environments.

Another beneficial opportunity is that families can come together in the same church and worship in different rooms based on their personal preferences. Such an arrangement also helps create important bonding opportunities between family members while contributing to a family atmosphere at the church. Family members feel most at home and most comfortable if they are able to worship in their preferred language. The first-generation members and the vast majority of ministers also agreed that the transmission of faith from generation to generation is one of the most valuable assets of offering multiple services under the same roof.

Another related opportunity arising from such an arrangement is that it presents intergenerational learning opportunities that bridge the gap between different generations and language groups sharing the same cultural roots. In particular, ethnic immigrant churches help connect both the ethnic language congregants and English congregants to their roots by sharing similar experiences, ethnic foods, and cultural holiday traditions, such as the Lunar New Year, and August Full Moon. Being able to connect to ethnic roots is integral to the creation of a hybrid identity, which helps congregants to navigate their lives in Canada outside of the church. Spiritually, ethnic immigrant churches with two or three language groups make members feel at home and more comfortable being themselves due to the ease of communication, which leads to personal spiritual growth and maturity.

Interestingly, the most difficult common challenges faced by these ethnic immigrant churches are the same language and cultural differences that make it difficult to become one church under the same roof. From these language and cultural barriers, communication challenges arise naturally. This is the biggest ongoing challenge for all ethnic churches with two or three language services to date. Different cultures added to the generational gap makes for an even greater communication challenge. Although the two or three congregations often yearn to co-exist harmoniously as one united church, there is an ongoing challenge of disconnection between generations and languages in two or three congregations.

Another key challenge for ACICs comes from leadership—or lack thereof—in both laity and clergy. It is more difficult for a senior or lead pastor and associate pastors to form working partnerships, due to the hierarchical power structure of East Asian cultures.

Another challenge comes from passive or inactive English-speaking second- generation congregants who lack a sense of ownership of the church, especially given the rapidly aging demographics of Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Korean congregations. There is, however, a different challenge, which comes from inadequate treatment of English congregants. Although they are all grown adults and professionals in society, ethnic congregants treat English congregants as children and their ministry as secondary, in terms of allocating space and resources and running programs.

Two of three language congregants, however, still see possibilities for turning current challenges into opportunities. They still love their ethnic churches and want to stay and work for the future as one church, even if that church might be an English language dominant church. They would like to create opportunities to move forward in a multicultural or multiethnic direction, starting with having friends and members of local community join their English services on Sundays.

The multiethnic church beyond Asians, which Jasmin aspires to, means “more coloured faces, and different nationalities.” This is the vision of the church, in 25 years’ time, for both lay and clergy. The majority of lay and clergy interviewees believe that opening the church doors to all will help nurture a multicultural or multiethnic congregation, which will in turn facilitate church growth. Interviewees are not only open to diverse ethnic groups, but to celebrating diverse cultures in the church. Ruth, one of English-speaking interviewee, sees the future of the church as multicultural and thinks this is a natural evolution.

In order to bring the different congregations together, congregations want opportunities for joint worship services and events. Likewise, frequent interactions between the different congregations via joint church services, events, and activities help both congregations understand each other better.

In general, the younger generation has cultivated a vision of becoming a church for all and hopes to reach beyond their own ethnic groups. Thus, the ethnic church works to accommodate their different language needs, cultures, and preferences. Many of interviewees asked and wanted to know how to become a multiethnic church, and how to move beyond their own ethnic groups or Asian-ness. This might be the future of the Asian church: i.e., not framing itself as an Asian church.

Are Asians in Canada able to change the perceptions of others, in no longer perceiving an Asian church as being for Asians only? Also, can Asians resolve the dilemma between an ethnic church rooted in their own culture and a church that is multiethnic? One may look to  Melia’s words about faith for the multicultural church.

I think it would be multicultural. Very multicultural … this is kind of what I’ve observed. As God transforms our hearts to be more like Him, we begin to see our identity as more in Christ. And as it is more in Christ, He puts it in our hearts to open our eyes more. My heart is not only for the Asian people, it’s also for all nations. And as He puts that in our hearts, our church will naturally become more and more multicultural.

Author’s Note: This research done by a Project Grant for Researchers by Louisville Institute.

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Dr. Nam Soon Song

Dr. Nam Soon Song is Ewart Professor of Christian Education & Youth Ministry at Knox College, Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto. She earned an Ed.D. and M.A. in Christian Education from Union Presbyterian Seminary (formerly Presbyterian School of Christian Education). She also earned her B. A. in Christian Education in her native home of Seoul, Korea.