An Overview of Our Philippine Community
The circumstances and make up of ecclesias vary across the Philippines. Some ecclesias are very well established, while other ecclesias are small and isolated in distance from other ecclesias.
The Australian Christadelphian Bible Mission (ACBM) assumed responsibility many years ago for the support of the Philippine Islands. Bro. Peter Wassell, who is now the ACBM link brother for the Philippines, kindly has provided us with an up-to-date picture of ecclesial life in the Philippines.
How many baptized believers are in the Philippines now? How frequently are baptisms occurring? What are the estimates of unbaptized Sunday School members?
There are 690 brothers and sisters in the Philippines. Over the past five years, there have been 168 baptisms, averaging about 34 per year. The total number of brothers and sisters immersed is much higher than 690, however, some have departed the faith and many others have either become inactive or are traveling abroad to seek work.
There are about 1,000 Sunday School students attending organized Christadelphian Sunday Schools. The majority of these come from non Christadelphian families. One of the challenges for Sunday Schools in the Philippines is the retention of students until they reach their later teens, so that they can learn the first principles of the Truth in preparation for baptism. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of students from non-Christadelphian families lose interest as they grow older.
Could you please describe the Christian landscape in the Philippines and what our own brothers and sisters found attractive about the Christadelphian faith? What has worked best in spreading the Truth?
The Philippines is about 83% Catholic, with 11% being from other Christian religions, and 6% Muslim (mainly in the southern Philippines—Mindanao). Catholicism, and its traditions, are mixed with superstition. This is a big part of the Philippine culture, and this does present its challenges when preaching the Truth, as family groups have a strong influence, and Filipinos are dependent upon each other.
Converts to the Truth have come through various ways.
Given the largely Christian population, the Bible is generally respected as the Word of God, though the vast majority would not be familiar with its contents. Challenging commonly held (but erroneous) Christian teachings with Bible teachings is one way that sparks interest in learning the Bible. This has proved to be the major attraction of those who have converted to the Truth from “outside” while the strong family unit around the Word has seen growth from within.
Converts to the Truth have come through various ways. The main pathways to the Truth have been largely by direct communications with those whom they interact. Brothers and sisters share the gospel with family and relatives, acquaintances at work or college and with students from non Christadelphian families attending Sunday School. There has also been preaching activity by some more active ecclesias, involving travel to different villages to conduct regular Bible studies.
Where are the largest ecclesias today and how many are urban (large cities) and more rural? Does urban vs. rural have impact on the ecclesias?
While there are many islands in the Philippines, they can be grouped into three areas: Luzon (the main northern island), Mindanao (the main southern island) and the Visayas (the islands in between Luzon and Mindanao). There are 14 ecclesias in Luzon, four ecclesias in Mindanao and three ecclesias in the Visayas.
Most of the ecclesias, as well as the concentration of brothers and sisters, are in provincial or rural areas. There are four large ecclesias with more than 80 members each. These are all in rural areas.
Two of these ecclesias are in central Luzon, one of which is at Bayambang, where the Truth first started in the Philippines, and two are in central Mindanao.
Seven (or one-third) of the 21 ecclesias in the Philippines are in cities or urbanized areas, but only account for about one fifth of the Christadelphians in the Philippines.
Most of the members of the ecclesias in Manila (the national capital and largest city in the Philippines) and the surrounding area have moved to the city to find work.
Likewise, in the main island of Mindanao, the members of Cagayan de Oro City Ecclesia mainly come from provincial areas for work in the city. The large cities are not conducive to the spread of the Truth, as there is less discretionary time available for brothers and sisters, due to work and travel time during peak traffic, especially in Manila.
For these reasons, opportunities to come together as an ecclesia, apart from the memorial meeting, are limited in Manila and is therefore also not healthy for the growth of ecclesias.
Could you please describe the fraternal exchange on the islands? Do they get together for Bible Schools, fraternal gatherings, etc.?
Prior to the advent of COVID-19, and restrictions affecting travel and large gatherings, the normal calendar for combined events consisted of the following:
- Biennial Youth Conferences for young people from all over the Philippines were held in December. Visiting Fieldworkers and young people also attended to provide support and encouragement. The interaction between young people from other countries and the Filipino young people is an association that is spiritually beneficial to both.
- Biennial Regional Family Fraternal Gatherings, (Bible Schools) In alternate years to the Youth Conferences, were also held in December. Brothers and sisters from Visayas and Mindanao would attend the Mindanao Family Fraternal, while brothers and sisters from Luzon would attend the Luzon Family Fraternal. Regional Family Fraternal Gatherings help reduce the travel costs and enable more brothers and sisters to attend. There would be about 220 brothers and sisters, young people and children attending the Mindanao Family Fraternal, and about 350 attending the Luzon Family Fraternal. These events are supported by Fieldworkers, who also provide a study leader for one of the sessions and provide an excellent opportunity to renew and strengthen friendships with all in attendance.
- Each year a Mindanao CYC study weekend would be held in April for young people from Mindanao and the Visayas. A Luzon CYC study weekend would also be held in April or May for young people from Luzon. Again, this is an opportunity for Fieldworkers to attend and support study groups and spiritual growth.
- In addition, from time to time, there have been special events like Maintaining Healthy Ecclesias workshops for senior brethren representatives from each ecclesia, a School of the Prophets activity for a limited number of young brethren and a Daughters of Zion activity for a limited number of young sisters representing all ecclesias. These are supported by Fieldworker visits providing study leaders, spiritual advice, and group discussion.
During the pandemic, it has not been possible to hold these combined events in person. Instead, they have been held virtually, via Zoom, continuing with the same schedule. Where possible, ecclesial groups gather in their own halls to join the event, and this enables them to also enjoy spiritual association and fellowship around the Word and socializing.
The circumstances and make up of ecclesias vary across the Philippines. Some ecclesias are very well established, while other ecclesias are small and isolated in distance from other ecclesias. In some isolated ecclesias, it is the work of a few remarkable sisters that really keep the ecclesia going. It is these smaller or isolated ecclesias that need help and support.
There are several brothers and sisters from the older generation that only had a very basic education, and therefore that can be a limiting factor. Nonetheless they are faithful to what they know. The younger generation has had a lot more opportunities to learn, with Youth Conferences and Study Weekends.
It is pleasing to see younger brothers and sisters growing in maturity and taking on responsibilities in the ecclesias. Visiting Fieldworkers from Australia really enjoy and spiritually benefit from the fellowship in the Philippines, where there are some very spiritually mature brothers and sisters with a very good Scriptural understanding.
We feel at home and united with them. Because of this, most of the preaching and conversions from the world have been done by capable brothers and sisters. Fieldworker visits have become more pastoral, and supportive of established ecclesias.
Are there special challenges now being faced? For instance, has COVID had a major impact there? Is poverty an issue across the ecclesias?
Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, the main welfare needs in the Philippines are with medical, hospital and surgical costs. Much of the welfare assistance of this nature comes from the ACBM in Australia, through the Bible Education Center work, but must be regulated or governed by need, and ecclesias and families are encouraged to contribute what they can towards any costs.
As with other Mission areas, we are careful to ensure that a dependency on welfare is not encouraged. The pandemic began in 2020 with a two-month nationwide lockdown, imposed by the government. This meant that many brothers and sisters could not work. Financial assistance was provided to acquire basic needs during that time as there was no or limited government assistance for those out of work.
During the Delta variant of COVID-19, in the third quarter of 2021, several brothers and sisters were infected. Five brothers and sisters died, four of them elderly with underlying health conditions. The other one was a 26-year-old brother with a young family. Financial assistance for hospital, testing and funeral costs from Australia was provided during this time.
The pandemic has, however, opened some opportunities. The use of Zoom has allowed brothers and sisters, particularly those in isolation, to access meetings and Bible classes that they could not otherwise have done so. For example, one ecclesia in the Philippines sponsors a Bible class via Zoom on Thursday evenings, which is open to brothers and sisters from all over the Philippines (sometimes also from overseas) to join.
There is a selected topic series for the classes, such as the parables of Christ, or the miracles of Christ. Speakers are from many different ecclesias. There are some areas such as in Metro Manila, which have not been able to have face to face meetings during the entire pandemic. They have had to rely on virtual meetings.
The option of being able to join a mid-week Bible Class (though virtual) was not something which was available before the pandemic. On a monthly basis, brothers from Australia provide the exhortation for the Manila Ecclesia. This same pattern has been introduced by other ecclesias in the Philippines.
What do you believe to be the major challenges and opportunities in the Philippines for preaching and development of ecclesias?
We believe there is potential to expand preaching opportunities in the Philippines. The main limitation is human resources—the limit of people’s time due to work requirements. For preaching in rural areas in the Philippines, there is a need to travel to areas where there is an interest, and then to continue with follow-up.
For example, one ecclesia in a rural area is particularly active this way. If there are members who have relatives in another village with whom they would like to share the gospel, several brethren will go to that village and hold a Bible study in the relative’s place, with people in the village also being invited to the Bible study.
If there is an interest shown, they will go back and follow-up with more Bible studies on first principle topics. If there is no interest shown, they will go to other villages. Sometimes the relatives themselves have shown little interest in the Bible talk, but other people in their village have become interested, and that in time has produced fruit.
This requires a willingness to travel to sometimes remote villages and a persistence with follow up studies. We have also found that it requires leadership, with one or more local brethren taking the initiative to teach and lead others.
The expenditure is for fuel and food costs, which is funded by ACBM. Because of the circumstances, an ecclesial vehicle has also been purchased to support travel to other villages. The brethren in that ecclesia are mainly farmers, so their work is seasonal. But in between planting and harvesting there is time available for preaching.
For preaching in the cities, the demand on people’s time places a limitation on the time available to preach. There are also many competing alternatives for people’s attention in the cities. Unfortunately, a re-occurring problem in the Philippines is that some young people marry outside the Truth. While there are many young people in the Philippines, a lot of them might be related to each other in one ecclesial area.
Traveling to another ecclesia to establish a relationship with a partner from there is not that easy because of the tyranny of distance and the affordability of travel. It is a different circumstance than first-world countries where young people have time and money to move around freely. This emphasizes the importance of combined events (e.g., CYC Youth Conferences and Study Weekends) where young people can meet to mix.
Because of the poorer circumstances that exist in the Philippines, there tends to be more of a focus on just surviving. This leads some to work abroad to support their families and that can mean the husband and the wife being away for two years at a time before returning for a short holiday break.
This is common in the Philippines, as there are up to 12 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). Working abroad may help the family for the physical needs but may not be helpful for their spiritual needs. On the other hand, quite a few younger brothers and sisters have acquired a college education and have been able to gain reasonable paid employment. However, this employment is usually in the city where costs are higher, and time is limited.
Our thanks to Bro. Wassell and the ACBM for their steadfast work in the Philippines and sharing this great story with our readers. May the Lord continue to bless the brothers and sisters in the Philippines and especially nurture the young people in their very large Sunday School groups.
We will continue with reports, such as these first two on Africa and the Philippines, in future issues. Future stories will include Latin America, India and Pakistan and the large number of Iranian brothers and sisters now in the UK. We are so blessed to live in these times. Surely, the time will be short before our Lord returns.