9Marks in Mindanao
Looking down at the dusty streets, gazing into the bamboo shacks many call home, noting the bare hillside once covered by coconut trees, its baldness a chilling reminder of the relentless typhoon winds that hit these island shores – I found myself feeling insufficient to speak. Only 100 or so had gathered for this seminar; many walked, and some arrived in overcrowded jeepnies and motorbikes. The 100 consisted of pastors and pastor wives, church planters and church leaders—all from the far-flung tropical island of Mindanao. It’s an island that has been devastated by poverty, natural disaster, and militant Islam seeking to bomb the island out from the hands of the Filipino government.
I found myself asking, “What am I doing here?” Sure, a medical clinic or a food distribution would seem to make sense. But it felt utterly inadequate to come all this way to present a workshop on expositional preaching, biblical leadership, and meaningful membership.
But if I closed my eyes and listened to these men talk I might well have imagined myself in a pastor’s fellowship meeting back home: deacons publicly attacking pastors, church attendance below membership, the church refusing to act when a worship leader moves in with his girlfriend, church splits over the pastor’s pay, an anemic diet of topical sermons. Poor church health is an epidemic that is not contained by borders. It is a contagion that even the unlikeliest of places has been infected with, leaving in its wake weak churches, false converts, distressed pastors, and a poor witness.
For three days, myself and Bruce Nichols, a fellow pastor from Kentucky, led a workshop introducing the 9 Marks of a Healthy Church. And what I found were some of the most appreciative and humble pastors I had ever met. I was reminded that the nine marks are universally applicable and timeless. Just as they were applicable in first-century Jerusalem, they are applicable in rural Kentucky and tropical Mindanao.
These pastors on this troubled island were hearing these truths for the first time. For many years, they have been acting within a church paradigm taught by missionaries fifty years ago. The gospel took root—but so did unhealthy church polity.
A strong gospel witness is the greatest and most urgent need no matter where we are. There is a place for crisis intervention during times of disaster, and there is an ongoing need to feed the poor and build homes for the displaced.
That said, the work of building healthy churches helps to create real change that will not be destroyed when the winds start blowing again and the storm surge returns. We must not underestimate the power of healthy churches to bring about real transformation. It is to the cross we cling, so building healthy, gospel-centered churches that display the glory of Christ to the perishing is itself a mission of mercy.
I left the island struck by many sights and sounds and smells, but none more striking than the beauty of the church. There were moments—I’m afraid to admit—that their voracious appetite for gospel truth, their humility, and their passionate worship felt as foreign to me as their food and language. As one battle weary pastor in his seventies asked at the close of the workshop, “Why have we not heard this before? We have been victims of bad church government, but it is all we have ever known to do.”
Pray for the health of the churches on Mindanao Island. Pray for their pastors living in extreme poverty and with little training. Pray for the witness of the church as they seek to proclaim the gospel against a backdrop of militant Islam, indigenous cults, syncretistic Catholicism, and the prosperity gospel, which gets beamed in through their TV stations. Pray for healthy churches.