Church changes for new generations

Parishioners and clergy of St. John, Willowdale celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday with a group photo of the Chinese and English congregations on Oct. 9.
 on November 1, 2016
Michael Hudson

Parish overcomes cultural, linguistic differences

In late September and early October, the clergy and laity of St. John, Willowdale, had three town hall meetings to discuss the future of the parish. Specifically, they discussed whether it would be good for the parish to become a “new generation church,” focusing on the parallel growth of ministry and worship in both English and Chinese. Given that the children and grandchildren of many Chinese Anglican immigrants are English-speaking, the church also explored the possibility of having an English-speaking cleric as its next incumbent.

For St. John’s, a predominately Chinese church for more than four decades, the decision to have a leader whose first language was English was a big one. It also marked the evolution of a parish that has worked hard to become truly multicultural.

The changes undertaken by St. John’s over the past few years were driven by a common concern – young people leaving the church and not coming back. “When our people started the church and worked really, really hard for it, they dearly wanted the next generation to stay and be part of it,” says the Rev. Canon Simon Li, incumbent. “But what happened is far from what they had hoped.”

Instead of staying, generations of young adults left the church, he says. One of the reasons for the disconnect was a difference in language. The children of the parish increasingly spoke English as their first language, while the services and meetings were conducted in Chinese.

“We did things to accommodate the English-speaking people but it was always on the fringes,” says Canon Li. “As a result, they did not feel integral to the church’s life.”

Another problem was the cultural divide between the founding generation and their children and grandchildren who were born and educated in Canada. “Their concerns were not ours,” explains Canon Li of the younger generations. “They were very concerned about the environment and social justice, things like that. Their parents’ generation was slow to catch on to it. They weren’t apathetic – they just didn’t see those things as integral to the church’s life. There was a disconnect there.”

The disconnect was compounded by the Chinese tradition of young people deferring to their elders, he says. When asked for their opinion in a group setting, they would often remain silent or non-committal, not wanting to upset the status quo or break with tradition. Conversely, the original founders said they wanted the younger generations to assume leadership roles but would often offer only simple tasks.

Not having a real voice in the direction of the church and marginalized by language and cultural differences, successive generations went elsewhere – often to nearby Chinese mega-churches that offered not only full English language worship services but also programs such as mission trips and outreach events. Some left the faith altogether.

“It was very sad, seeing the former generation’s labour of love evaporating,” says Canon Li.

For some churches, that would have been the beginning of the end. But not for St. John’s. “People were not blind to what was happening,” says Canon Li. “They were just immobilized and couldn’t find a way out.”

Determined to grow, the church started to take action. A morning prayer service in English was started and official meetings were increasingly conducted in English. In a largely ceremonial but significant gesture, the church dropped the word “Chinese” from its name. Most importantly, in 2009 it hired its own first English-speaking associate priest.

Progress continued after the church relocated to its current site, the former church of St. Patrick’s, Willowdale, in 2013. “The move was supported by the diocese and, by God’s grace, became a catalyst for a yet more beautiful transformation,” says Canon Li.

When the Rev. Jordan Wellington, the current associate priest, started two years ago, he encountered a group of English-speaking parishioners who “felt lonely, a little abandoned and burned out” trying to keep their worship and fellowship going, he says.

He began by asking them what sort of worship service they wanted. It turned out to be a liberating experience for them. “It was great because everyone was so open-minded,” he says. “That was a blessing and part of the reason why we’ve grown.”

The 10 a.m. service became a Eucharistic service that includes both traditional and contemporary elements. Conducted in English, its attendance has grown from about 30 to more than 60. (The church’s Chinese-language service is held at 11:15 a.m.).

Some of the growth has come from parishioners, mostly senior citizens, of the former St. Patrick’s. A few stayed during the transition while others have come back, welcomed by the church’s Chinese parishioners and enlivened by the new English-language service.

Mr. Wellington has also developed new programs for young people. Last year, a group of young adults went on the church’s first mission trip – to the Yukon. He has also started a downtown fellowship for young adults who have moved to the city’s core but still want to be part of the church.

“They can’t always make it to church on Sunday but they still want that spiritual and cultural connection to St. John’s, so we bring the church to them,” he explains. “We meet in their condos and do topical studies instead of a homily. We eat together, talk together and pray together. It’s very simple but it’s growing and we love it. People have invited their friends.”

While growing the English-language congregation, he has been careful to seek the support of the Chinese-speaking congregation and honour Chinese traditions. For instance, the 10 a.m. service celebrates Chung Yeung, a Chinese custom of honouring the departed that is similar to All Souls Day. Small but important measures like that have created a bond and mutual respect between the two congregations, he says.

“It’s not like two congregations – there’s a lot of intermingling, a lot of relaxed conversations,” says Canon Li. “Now we have people from the Caribbean, south Asia, Korea, Hungary and the Ukraine. Anybody who walks in would feel comfortable.”

The bond has played out in other new ways. For the past two summers, both congregations have come together to host a Canada Day fair. This year’s event attracted more than 300 people from the neighbourhood and beyond who were welcomed by St. John’s 100 parishioners. Young career adults from the English-language congregation are holding leadership positions in the church.

“All of St. John’s clergy, churchwardens and deputy churchwardens are in strong agreement that the church is almost ready to take the next step to become a new generation church while continuing to have worship, mission and ministry in Chinese,” says Canon Li.

Teddy Ho, the people’s churchwarden, says the church is moving in the right direction. “I’m very excited by the position that we’re in. It’s been exciting to see the former St. Patrick’s parishioners rejoining us, and also to see neighbours, friends and young people coming to the church.”

He says the growth has not all been in the English-language congregation. “On the Chinese side, we’re also seeing new faces coming in, joining us and staying with the church. It’s a very encouraging sign.”


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