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Pastoring a Philippine Church

It’s the Lord’s day. Like most Sundays, we ministers in the churches here have to preach two sermons before lunchtime. Around 5:30 a.m., I get out of bed and start preparing for those two sermons. Having committed my way to the Lord, spent time with my notes, and finished my cup of coffee, I pull a traditional Filipino dress shirt out of my closet and pull it over my head. It’s too hot for a suitcoat and tie! We eat breakfast, load our five kids into the car, throw open the gate, and motor away under a canopy of tropical trees. At the entrance of our subdivision, we stop for a moment to let in our seminary student, of whom I am one of the instructors, with his wife and baby boy. Then we pull out onto the main road and begin our journey from the mountains down into Metro Manila. Thankfully, traffic in this megacity is not too bad on Sunday mornings. Yet there are still plenty of fascinating sights for our visitors: jeepneys with artistic (though sometimes rather horrid) designs, slow-moving trikes (which make quite a racket), and swarms of motorcycles (which are about as plenteous as the ants in this country). But inside our car, we enjoy the delightful singing of Protestant Reformed choirs and a spectacular view of one of the world’s biggest cities as we head down the hill. Soon we arrive at a church that has become very dear to me, in a quiet neighborhood in a bend of the Marikina River.
There’s a sign on the gate that says, “Provident Protestant Reformed Church.” The church in this neighborhood began as a Bible study in the early 1990s. Later in that decade, God directed their path to Reformed theology, and they began to embrace the five points of Calvinism. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the Lord brought them into contact with the missionaries of our churches (PRCA), whom they requested to come over and help them. Since then, they have grown tremendously in their knowledge and convictions concerning Reformed doctrine, worship, government, and life. They formally adopted the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Church Order in 2018 and joined the Protestant Reformed Churches in the Philippines (PRCP) in 2019. Since 2017, I have had the immense privilege of guiding them through these milestones and continuing the work of building them up as a self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating church here in the Philippines.
Keep reading to learn more about what it is like to do the work of a pastor in a young Protestant Reformed church in the Philippines.
Having parked on the road by the church, we enter the gate and pass by a garden bed that was built from the leftover sediment of a devastating flood. Anyone may pluck the fruits or herbs growing there, and many do. Before our first worship service, I meet with the two elders and two deacons in the library for prayer. Everyone else walks up the stairs and enters the sanctuary. At 9:00, we begin our first service. The second is at 11:00. You would feel very comfortable in the worship services here. They are very similar to the ones in your churches. We sing from the same Psalter, though we do not yet have live musical accompaniment. We use piano recordings for now. We read the law in the first service and recite the Apostles’ Creed in the second. We join hearts in congregational prayer to God and give our offerings to the causes of his kingdom. We have baptisms and celebrate the Lord’s supper too.
But the centerpiece of the worship service is the reading and preaching of the word. Essentially, pastoring a Philippine church is no different from pastoring a church in any nation. It is the great task (the great commission!) to go into the world, to preach the gospel of salvation, and to teach all things Christ has taught us. It is the awesome work, assigned to the minister of the word, to bring the glad tidings of great joy which are unto all peoples. It is the task of proclaiming the gospel of God, who promised to send the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent and accomplished that wondrous salvation through the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is the wonderful task of calling the weary and heavy laden to come to Christ and declaring the promise that God gives the blessings of salvation to all who believe in him, according as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world. Pastoring a Philippine church is preaching Christ, who gives oh so precious comfort and hope to every elect believer. Like that great missionary of old, I have determined not to know anything, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Like that apostle, too, I do not shun to declare all the counsel of God, including election and reprobation. Hence, too, we preach through the Heidelberg Catechism and proclaim the truth of our only comfort in life and death, that we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, by declaring the greatness of our sins and miseries, how we have been delivered from our sins and miseries, and how we must show our thankfulness to God by a life of obedience and love.
But unlike you, the saints at Provident PRC occasionally hear those truths in the Tagalog language. Last year, I began using their new Tagalog translation of the Heidelberg Catechism and preaching a little bit more in Tagalog. Using the Tagalog language, one of the main languages of the Philippines, is a very unique aspect of pastoring a Philippine church. In North America, we all speak the same language in our churches, and no other languages. That means communication in the church usually flows smoothly from speaker to hearer and back again. But here, the people of God speak more than one language, which means communication is sometimes a bit difficult for us foreign missionaries. We have to get used to the reality that we are not always going to understand everything that is said, even if we have spent many hours studying their language. The saints at Provident know English very well but also appreciate when I use a little Tagalog and have encouraged me to continue studying their mother tongue. I have found it helpful to know the local language for connecting with the people. A greater knowledge and ability than I have would be even better!
After our two morning services, we eat lunch together at church (some go home for lunch). Pastoring a Philippine church includes certain culinary delights! We think it’s a wonderful practice to sit down together as a church family, after worship, for fellowship with food and drink. Maybe you prefer your roast beef and mashed potatoes every Sunday (we like that too!). But we also enjoy the hot meals of delicious Filipino food, pots of steamy rice, bowls of pork, chicken, or fish soaked in mouthwatering sauces, and mixtures of local vegetables. I haven’t had a meal at church that I didn’t like or one that has given my stomach any trouble. So kain na (let’s eat!)!
As in the PRCA, the children and young people here also go to catechism. I teach Old Testament Bible stories to twelve little children on Saturday mornings. Their dads love to listen too. They never heard those stories before because, sadly, most churches here do not see Christ in the Old Testament, so they don’t bother to teach it. I teach the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine on Sundays after lunch to eight young people plus a few others who are interested in joining the church. Once in a while, too, we have an outdoor fellowship with the youth. Last December, the youth came to our house for a breakfast fellowship around Christmas time. We had cheesy pasta, apple pie, mango and pineapple juice, and three-in-one coffee (you know, the little packets with coffee, cream, and sugar all mixed together). Then we played some games and went for a walk under the trees. Lord willing, we will soon have another youth camp for all the young people of the PRCP.
Other aspects of pastoring the church here include the annual family visitation (which we are about to begin again); the monthly council meetings of elders and deacons (of which I am the chairman); and the evangelism work, which includes a monthly visit to a church north of Manila (which would like to follow in the footsteps of Provident PRC). There are also plenty of other meetings for me to attend as one of the missionary advisors to the classis and to two of its standing committees.
Thanks for taking this glimpse into the pastoral ministry in one of your sister churches in the Philippines. We pray that by means of the new seminary that is now up and running the Lord will someday give them a Filipino pastor to replace me. Until then, I am thankful for the privilege of serving Christ in this church.