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.
The Washington-based Pew Research Center found the percentage of Canadians who identify as Catholics dropped to 39 per cent from 47 per cent between 1971 and 2011, while the share that identified as Protestant fell even more sharply, to 27 per cent from 41 per cent.
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. Churches with large Asian congregations in particular are growing.
"Over time, the [immigrant] churches will look like this," said Reverend Rich Kao, drawing an ascending line on a white board. Other churches will see declining numbers, he said. Rev. Kao, who founded Five Stone Church in New Westminster, just outside Vancouver, said most new congregants are those who are coming in from East Asia, whether they are South Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, or Hong Kongese.
The Canadian Chinese Alliance Churches Association (CCACA) had four churches when it was founded in 1967. After five decades, the number has grown to 93, serving 22,000 people across the country. The total number of congregants has been rising slower than the organization has expected, "but it's still growing," said Aaron Tang, executive director of CCACA. More than 80 per cent of the church members of CCACA are located in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, where the majority of Chinese immigrants live.
In Edmonton, the growth of Chinese churches slowed down when some Chinese immigrants chose to leave the city as the economy declined. Even so, a Chinese church there still receives a few dozen newcomers from China each year.
"Between 2010 to 2015, on average, there were about 200 new people that came to our church every year; but now, probably a few dozen, less than 100 people," said Michael Liu, pastor at Edmonton Christian Community Church.
He added that many Chinese immigrants moved to Canada after giving up their good job and comfortable life. When they have to start all over in a new country, many of them feel lost and begin to explore faith. "Some of them were engineers [back at home], but now they're cashiers at a grocery store or doing labour work … they start to seriously think about faith through these ups and downs."
Pastor Liu came to Canada from mainland China. He said that when he visited home in recent years, he found people in China were too busy trying to make money and hardly considered religion. "When they come to Canada, where the pace of life slows down, they have more time to think about faith."
The growth is not only happening in Chinese churches in Canada, Chinese immigrants and international students are filling the traditional Canadian churches, too. James Paton, a pastor at Calgary's First Alliance Church, noted that his church has seen significant growth in numbers of visible minorities, including new immigrants to the country. "We have a lot of people from China, the Philippines, Iran, Iraq, and Latin America," he said, and the church now provides translation services into Spanish, Mandarin and Farsi.
Henry Yu, who studies history at the University of British Columbia, observed that, unlike other immigrant populations, many converts from mainland China were not church-affiliated in their home country. "Most didn't know much at all before they came," Prof. Yu said in an interview. Instead, church communities initially draw people together. "Belief often comes later," he added.
Emily Zhang, 21, goes to a college in Vancouver area that is affiliated with Simon Fraser University. She arrived in Vancouver from China last September and found life without family and friends was isolating. She found strength, commitment and faith within the rapidly-growing Christian student club at the university. Her grandfather is a Christian, but it wasn't something the family discussed. At home, she said, there aren't many "channels" to learn about Christianity.
In Canada, "I wanted to integrate into the society. I felt extremely lonely and kept asking myself if coming here is a right decision," she said in an interview. "The support from church community is powerful. The sisters and brothers are always there helping you."
In 2014, the Chinese government estimated that the Christian population in China was
23 million to 40 million. According to Pew Research Center, in 2010, Christians accounted for 5.1 per cent of the Chinese population. But the number is very hard to track because lots of Christians in China attend underground churches or worship at home to avoid scrutiny by the government. Others join Christian groups or activities registered with the government-approved Protestant Three-Self Church and China Christian Council and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church – churches which are monitored and approved by the government.
Rev. Kao said one of the main reasons for the Christian population growth among new arrivals to the country is that they were not exposed to Christianity before. "Canadians are inoculated; they think they know about Christianity … whereas you have people from Asia who have no exposure, and it's so fresh and so new."