The Surprisingly Urgent Need in the Philippines

March 16, 2017

Native missionary baptizing woman in the Philippines.
Indigenous ministry workers undertake deep discipleship with tribal people before baptizing them.

In the Philippines, where 92 percent of the people identify as Roman Catholic, some might wonder why an indigenous ministry leader feels an urgency to build communities of Christian disciples.

The director of a church-planting organization based in Manila has a joyful disposition, but his brow furrows when he recalls that Islam is growing on the islands. Muslim leaders on the southern island of Mindanao, where a movement for a more Islamist region has gained traction, are sending Muslims north to establish beach heads for Islamic expansion, he said.

"Their strategy is to send Muslims from Mindanao who offer to do business with non-Muslims, then slowly persuade them to adopt their beliefs, their religion," he said. "They're scattered throughout the Philippines."

If an area comes to have 10 Muslims, Islamic leaders in the Philippines will build a mosque and a madrassa (Islamic school), he said. Complementing this strategy is longstanding encouragement for Muslims to take non-Muslims as wives, convert them, and further populate the land with Muslim children, he said.

In Mindanao, the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) would give five provinces with sizeable non-Muslim populations – already designated as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao – sufficient independence to impose sharia (Islamic law). Designed to stop decades of violence by Islamist separatists, the BBL is said to be supported by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Christian evangelists in Mindanao have long faced dangers and opposition from Muslim militants, and the director said the prospect of Islamist expansion in the rest of the country makes evangelization all the more urgent. Mainstream schools of sharia mandate the death penalty for leaving Islam.

The indigenous ministry has trained 263 evangelists from 12 tribal groups at nine training centers in the past two years, but the number of workers is still far short of the harvest potential – another matter of urgency, he said. The training includes one year of Bible school and one year of missionary instruction.

Poor Christians from the lowlands find it difficult to get to Luzon Island's training centers, so ministry team members are bringing the training to them.

"We have seen the shortage of workers, so God has given us the idea that we can train those lowland peoples where they are – it's less expensive, they can live in their tribes, and they are effective," he said. "We've felt the urgency to equip churches to send people to do the work that is unfinished."

Contributing to the urgency to make disciples is the tendency of tribal people who retain animist beliefs and practices even if they profess Christ – whether Catholic or Protestant. Most Catholics in the Philippines are animists involved in rituals to appease spirits, and they know very little of the Bible, he said. At the same time, many tribal people who have prayed to receive Christ with evangelicals continue to adhere to animist beliefs, he said.

Native missionaries on horseback in the Philippines.
Native evangelists reach remote tribal peoples by any means possible.

On the island province of Palawan, where native tradition taught that a deity called Damar would return one day, most worshippers in 24 churches thought missionaries talking about Christ were bringing Damar back, the director discovered.

"They were singing of Christ, but thinking of Damar," the leader said. "Our elders went back to the churches and taught how Christ was before the world began, and that He didn't evolve from a cave like Damar."

The indigenous ministry restored 20 of the churches to faith in Christ through painstaking efforts to help form deeply rooted disciples. There are still problems in four churches, with indigenous missionaries working to instill the knowledge that Jesus is the eternal God, and that He will be eternal forever, the director said.

The team members' technique of chronological teaching of the Bible fits this well-grounded approach to the gospel. Topics from Genesis onward take time to present – three months for the 125 lessons of the program's first phase, for example – but lay a solid foundation for proclamation of Christ. After teaching on topics through the ascension of Christ, a third phase goes forward from the Book of Acts for a period of five to 10 years.

"We're not just sharing Bible verses like John 3:16 and then asking them if they want to invite Christ into their hearts," the director said. "Tribal people will do that, but they're' just adding Jesus Christ to their gods."

Seeing formerly unreached tribal people develop a deep understanding of the Word, discovering how their lives are transformed and witnessing how the church changes the community is exciting, he said. Tribal people have a tradition of offering an expensive sacrifice to appease various spirits and gods, with a shaman dictating how many costly animals they must offer, he said.

"One man had to kill 97 cows," he said. "Not counting the goats, chickens and pigs killed. He had become mentally ill, and he had 11 children, and they were not going to school because he was disturbed. He became Christian and stopped doing that, so he was able to save money for the schooling of his children. All of the children finished college and became professionals, as the funds were available because he stopped spending on animist celebrations."

The community saw his transformation and awarded him a certificate of recognition for being a good father, he added.

"This is very tiring, but very exciting," the director said. "The Word of God is what will change the lives of the people when they understand the message. We're changing the worldview of the people, and changing their lives."

To help indigenous missionaries to meet needs, you may contribute online using the form below, or call (434) 977-5650. If you prefer to mail your gift, please mail to Christian Aid Mission, P.O. Box 9037, Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please use Gift Code: 801NTM. Thank you!