Churches in the Philippines: Taking Seriously the Joy of the Lord
The Philippines prides itself on being fun and happy, and so churches are often tempted by happy, superficial solutions. Yet churches are gaining humble, careful pastors who take seriously instructing their people in the joy of the Lord.
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“It’s more fun in the Philippines!”
In 2012, the Philippines Department of Tourism launched this slogan to promote tourism. The slogan was not just an invitation for fun and excitement, but a description of the celebratory culture of Filipino people. After all, we’re generally happy people. We’re resilient; we smile, crack jokes, and take selfies even in the midst of tragedy. Happiness is prized in our land, but this outward expression of cheerfulness and glee masks desperate hearts that long for an eternal joy and delight that only the happy news of Jesus Christ can address.
I’ve been a pastor in Manila (the capitol of the Philippines) and now minister in the Arabian Peninsula, in a city where many Filipinos come for work. Our church here has made multiple trips to the Philippines over the past three years, and we’ve had the privilege of training pastors and Christians in various parts of the country. I’d like to share a brief background of our country, a few encouragements on what the Lord is doing in some churches in the Greater Manila area, and a few ways you can pray for the Philippines.
CHURCHES SHAPED BY COLONIZATION
Filipinos take pride in having a rich heritage and diverse culture. Much of this diversity stems from its history of colonization by multiple countries over hundreds of years. The Philippines were under Spanish control for more than 300 years (1521–1898), which explains the strong Roman Catholic influence to our culture. When the Spaniards conquered our lands, they introduced the concept of “Christ and the cross” to our animistic nation. During this time, the Catholic Church played a pivotal role both in the religious and political transformation of the country.
But in 1898, Spain lost the Philippines to the United States. Soon after, Protestant missionaries arrived to plant Protestant churches: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, United Brethren, and Missionary Alliance. Through the faithfulness of gospel preaching churches, many locals came to faith in Christ, and more gospel preaching churches spread across the land.
Today, 81 percent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. A small, yet growing 11 percent are Protestants, or what’s locally categorized as “born again” Christians.
While Christianity has certainly influenced the Philippines, the Philippines has also influenced the Christianity that’s spread there. After centuries of wars, poverty, calamities, crises, and corruption, our people so desperately long for peace and prosperity—so much so that the pursuit of happiness has become an idol across the country.
TEMPTED BY HAPPY, QUICK SOLUTIONS
Sadly, this misguided prioritization of happiness has led many “born again” churches to lose confidence in the true gospel and to turn to a self-serving one instead. Many churches have embraced the belief that life with the Lord means perfect health and abundant wealth. The number of prosperity gospel-preaching churches is rapidly increasing, and they attract the masses, especially in depressed areas where people are eager to place their hope in the hands of a loving and generous God who will never allow bad things to happen to them because they are “good Christians.”
Another group that’s surfaced over the years, especially around Manila, are the seeker-sensitive churches. In this model, church programs are built mainly for non-Christians, and the main goal is conversion. One minister explained that their church intentionally wants to keep the sermons short, relevant, and practical. These churches are exceedingly careful never to offend non-Christians in an effort to keep them coming back. So they fill their services with theatrics, video clips, and contemporary music. These elements are incorporated into the services to keep non-Christians engaged. These churches have recently gained popularity, especially among younger generations.
Another trend is the large-scale incorporation of a discipleship strategy called G12 or “Government of 12.” This strategy started in Colombia, and it follows the pattern of Jesus choosing twelve disciples. G12 pressures Christians to lead and mentor twelve people in the faith, and then challenge those twelve to do the same. Despite its tendency to be overly prescriptive and too focused on rapidity, many churches have adopted this sort of spiritual multi-level marketing scheme because it seems to foster quick church growth.
GAINING HUMBLE, CAREFUL PASTORS
On the other hand, there are groups of Baptist and evangelical pastors in the north and east sides of Manila who are growing in their understanding of the gospel and its centrality in the life of the church. These pastors, by the mercies of the Lord, have come out from prosperity gospel, program-driven, or legalistic churches. They’re growing deeper in their acceptance of God’s sovereignty and are now embracing the doctrines of Reformed theology.
Over the past few years, our church has developed good relationships with these pastors who welcome training and mentorship. We’ve conducted pastoral conferences and training on what the marks of a healthy church are, and we’ve given away translated materials that they’ve found helpful. One resource that has encouraged and edified these under-shepherds is a Tagalog translation of Mark Dever’s little book on ecclesiology, A Display of God’s Glory (Ang Pagtatanghal ng Kaluwalhatian ng Diyos).
EAGER, YET IMPATIENT
These pastors are boldly preaching the Word and sharing the gospel in their communities even as they recognize the need for further training and equipping. Many of them have no formal biblical training yet are already leading growing congregations and zealously planting churches across their region. They take every opportunity to participate in any free conferences or equipping classes offered by churches who are willing to invest in them.
However, some of these pastors have struggled to be patient with their congregations throughout the reform process. One pastor even said, “I felt cheated and betrayed by my former church because they withheld these doctrinal truths from me. So much time was wasted and it’s up to me to make it right.” Though these men are growing in their understanding of the importance of gospel centrality in the life of their churches, they don’t know exactly what the goal looks like because they themselves have never experienced a healthy gospel community.
In my last meeting with them, these local pastors expressed six areas in which they need training and equipping: expositional preaching, church leadership, membership, church discipline, discipleship, and how to nurture a healthy gospel community. Praise God for pastors who desire to be faithful in these ways.
Please pray the Lord would provide the means, materials, and mentors that would equip Filipino pastors for gospel work. As they zealously teach and preach, pray that they would instruct their congregations with patience, love, and grace. Pray that their members would grow in their understanding of the gospel and seek to be shaped by it in their lives.
May God answer our prayers, and may the Philippines be transformed such that it would be known not only as the place where it’s “more fun” but as a place where the church is thriving, gospel-centered, and healthy.