by A. Leonard Tuggy
How do churches grow in the many varied societies of earth? Church growth research seeks to answer this basic question by the use of many tools – intellectual tools that have been developed for the most part by the social sciences of history, sociology and anthropology.
How do churches grow in the many varied societies of earth? Church growth research seeks to answer this basic question by the use of many tools—intellectual tools that have been developed for the most part by the social sciences of history, sociology and anthropology. To those who might question the value of such tools, let me remind you that the Christian mission has found many modern tools to be very useful. Radio, TV, missionary aviation and modern printing techniques to, mention but a few. But why should our use of modern tools be limited to technological ones? What about the powerful intellectual tools that are being developed? Modern linguistic techniques have already been widely accepted by the missionary community and there is no reason why we should hesitate to harness other tools of the social sciences for the effective spread of the gospel.
One axiom of church growth is that no church grows in a sociological vacuum but in a definite historical and sociological context. To describe as accurately as possible that environment is one of our most important tasks. Fortunately we have the results of a great deal of research on the Philippines that has been done by several very able anthropologists and sociologists such as Frank Lynch of Ateneo and Agaton Pal of Silliman University.
What are some of the highlights of the findings of recent research in the history, sociology and anthropology of the Philippines? What are some of the important facts about the Philippine environment that every evangelist should be aware of? Traveling around the Philippines, we are immediately impressed with the large number of islands and the very rugged topography of these many islands. With such a geography we are not surprised to find a multitude of languages and a culture that quite easily fragments. We find that mountains are greater barriers than seas and we realize that even this fact has implications for church growth. The geographical division between the predominately UCCP area and the Baptist area in the Visayas is the mountain range in Negros—not the strait between Negros and Cebru.
The several major lowland peoples—the Ilocanos, Tagalogs, Bicols, Cebuanos, Ilongos and several smaller groups—have so many cultural similarities that they can be spoken of as sharing a common "lowland culture." In addition to these are the Moslem peoples of Mindanao and tribal groups, particularly in the Mountain Provinces, Palawan, Mindoro and parts of Mindanao. The total picture is quite complex, but thankfully some broad cultural similarities among the different groups can be seen. For example, present-day lowland Philippine culture has been compared to an onion. Over it all is a thick skin of Americanization. Turn on the radio and you will likely hear American pop tunes. Go to the supermarket and you will find many stateside brand names. However, peel off this layer and you will find a heavily hispanized culture, reminding us of the 333 years of Spanish domination. How many strictly American evangelistic techniques have run aground here?
But peel away this Spanish layer and you reach the Malayan core. The dominant racial strain is Malayan. The bilateral, extended family system is shared with the majority of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The underlying belief systems involving spirits, ghosts of ancestors and the anting- anting also trace back to the Malayan core. These facts prompt us to ask if our presentation of the gospel really speaks to the heart of the problems of our listeners. Do they see the power of Christ as all-powerful over the powers of the spirits which they fear and the charms which they have been taught to trust in since childhood? Are people converted on the deepest level or just on the level of their superficial beliefs? We need to face the fact that Fr. Bulatao’s description of "split-level Christianity" may apply to Protestant Christianity as well as Roman Catholicism.
The distinctive tool of church growth research is the graph of growth of a particular church or denomination. What the transit is to the surveyor and the microscope to the biologist, the graph of growth is to the church growth researcher. Unfortunately this tool is only as helpful as the statistics on which it is based are accurate. Here I would like to interject a plea to all church and mission leaders to help their churches keep regular, accurate and consistent statistics. Over a period of years an accurate year-by-year record of communicant members is very instructive, but inaccurate statistics can be very misleading.
How can the graph of growth help us understand how a church grows? Let us take the growth history of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches as an example. This denomination entered the Philippines in 1900 and was given the western Visayan region under the early comity agreement. During the first decade of their work here they grew steadily despite an evident shortage of missionaries. Then church growth plateaued and this seems to be related to what they termed "the intensive policy" under which they would not enter new fields until those they had entered were thoroughly occupied. This is an example of the tendency of new churches to move into a period of "consolidation" which so often breaks the momentum of growth. Then in 1925 the graph shoots up again possibly related to the turning over that year of the Presbyterian work in Iloilo to the Baptists. During this time the churches in Negros were beginning to multiply also. The next period of growth began in about 1954 with special efforts in rural evangelism which has continued to the present time. It is significant that almost all of this recent growth has occurred in the island of Negros which economically and religiously shows much contrast with Panay.
Do we get all this information simply from a study of the graph of growth? No, the study of the graph is just the beginning. Mission and church records should be studied. Church leaders and ordinary members need to be interviewed to find out what actually occurred during the periods of growth or decline. Sometimes the result of this further research will force us to revise our initial interpretation of the official statistics of a group.
Our study of the history of the growth of the United Methodist Church underwent such a revision. On the basis of its graph of growth we concluded that this church had been suffering serious decline throughout most of the postwar period. But this generalization was belied by the fact that the actual number of local churches almost doubled -from 358 in 1948 to 684 in 1968, and the number of ordained ministers rose in the same period from 125 to 305. The United Methodist also has had a very visible growing edge – in Mindanao and now in Bicol and Palawan. We are fairly certain now that at least part of the apparent decline has been a matter of the church’s refining its statistics – in 1954, for example, they stopped counting "inactive members." But a study of the statistics of some of the older areas of this church seems to indicate also that this denomination, in common with the other older churches, is having trouble with what Dr. Elwood of Silliman University has called "the third generation problem." In other words, what was a deeply moving experience to the grandparent has become a routine religious exercise to the grandchild. What has been termed "biological church growth" may not seem to be very important in some areas of the world (though it always is), but here in the Philippines with its annual population growth of 3.5 per cent it is of critical importance.
The study of the patterns of growth of the various denominations is very instructive. We have been interested, for example, in the steady year-by-year growth of the Seventh Day Adventist Church at approximately double the rate of the population increase. By this manner of growth it is now one of the largest non-Roman Catholic groups in the Philippines with a membership of 1 12,000. A well-balanced program of education, medicine and evangelism coupled with a thorough program of indoctrination and a disciplined membership has made this type of growth possible.
An interesting contrast also has emerged in our studies between several Pentecostal groups on the one hand which have grown very well in the post-war period – and grown with minimal foreign missionary help, and the well-known conservative evangelical missions which have entered the Philippines since the war with large missionary staffs – but have grown with difficulty. Moving from a rather forced pattern of growth to a more spontaneous one is difficult but is the sine qua non for really significant rapid growth. I am sure that all of us would agree that the spontaneous pattern of growth is the New Testament pattern and is God’s will for the churches. I wonder, though, how many of us are examining our church-planting principles and methods to see if they are producing this type of growth or militating against it.
A fundamental axiom of church growth is that nothing grows in church growth but local churches. The local congregation must then be the focus of our research. If we limit our research to the large headquarters of the various groups, we will never find out what is really happening in the churches. One of our tools to find out how local churches grow in the Philippines was the "Church Member Questionnaire" that we used in many of the churches we visited.
What were we trying to find out with these questionnaires? First, we asked the members some very simple but basic questions. How old are you? What is your work? What is your educational attainment? Where are you from? These "census" type questions helped us build up a profile of the congregation. Is it predominantly older folks or younger? People from that place or move-ins? What is the language profile of the congregation, homogeneous or cosmopolitan?
Then to find out something about various methods of evangelism we asked, Where did you make your decision for Christ? In your family, who was the first to make his decision for Christ? What prompted you to become a believer? How long have you been a member of this church? What was your previous religion before becoming a member of this church? Tallied up for a particular church, the answers to these questions told quite a bit about how the church was growing. Then through interviewing we tried to follow out some of the apparent findings of the questionnaire.
Here, for example, is a young church in the capitol town of a Tagalog province. The survey revealed that there were almost twice as many active women as men in this church. About one-third had a sixth grade education and the four who had finished college were school teachers. Most were natives of the town. Almost exactly one-half lived in the barrio, but most were within two kilometers of the chapel. Where had these folks made their decision for Christ? One-third said at home. One-third made their decision at church, while the remaining one-third either made their decision at an evangelistic meeting or a youth camp. In this particular church it was the wife or mother who most commonly was the first to make the decision for Christ in the family. This, by the way, was not so typical. In many churches more husbands or fathers were the first to decide for Christ. One pastor explained in an interview that often the father was the first to make the decision, but that later it seemed that the wife became the more active. Only about ten percent of the members had came from other Protestant churches. This was in contrast with survey results of the larger Manila-area church of this same denomination in which the majority of the members were former Protestants. In this particular church I was interested in the "not yet – but soon will be" answers to the question "How long have you been a member of this church?" Here was the growing edge of the church and an indication of its vitality, for a church without active new contacts is heading for stagnation.
In all of the churches we surveyed in this manner, the majority of members had made their decision for Christ either in the church or at home. We feel that this is very significant. Are we looking for decisions that will really last? Here is where we can most often find them: in the homes and in the local churches. How tragic it would be if churches should decide to de-emphasize evangelism in the local church! How much we need to help our parents in their teaching of their children, and especially in bringing them to a meaningful experience with Christ! What a great challenge there is in home Bible studies! This is not to say that we must neglect other means of evangelism, but it does mean that we must not neglect the means that have proven to be the most fruitful.
Church growth theory would be vain and fruitless if it did not issue in effective communication of the gospel, resulting in the multiplying of churches and the building up of these churches.
How do churches grow? By many means! Here are some examples:
I. By the Sunday school – Assemblies of God, Foursquare, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Bible Baptists. 2. By establishing barrio outreaches – Convention Baptists, Visayan Fellowship Baptists, Pentecostal and many others. 3. By people movements New Tribes Mission in Palawan, Baptist barrio churches in Bukidnon. 4. By Christian day schools Manila-area Chinese churches. 5. By dividing and multiplying for example the founding of St. John’s Methodist by Knox Memorial Methodist Church. 6. By pentecostal blessing Assembly of God. Sunken Garden campaigns, 1953. 7. By hard work with an aim – Bible Baptists and groups such as Seventh-Day Adventists (colportage). 8. By tent campaigns The Friedrichsen campaigns in Legros (ABWE). 9. By home bible studies—Conservative Baptists and other. 10. By merger—UCCP.
To present a list like the one above, however, has two dangers. First, some may conclude that all these methods are equally fruitful, regardless of the local situation; and, second, we may give the impression that churches everywhere are growing equally well. To keep us from "resting in Zion," we need to remind ourselves that overall Protestant growth since the Second World War has been disappointing. No Protestant denomination has "broken through" since the war in the way that the Iglesia ni Cristo has, even discounting the inflated character of their statistics. The fact of small growth brings us face-to-face with the urgent need of discovering and using Philippine-oriented evangelistic methods – methods that are not imported from other cultures but spring out of the realities of Filipino life and are found to be effective in stimulating the spontaneous growth we so earnestly desire.
A Lutheran missionary has commented that the most Americanized group of Filipinos that he has observed is the evangelical Christian community – and it is never so Americanized as when it is engaged in public witness. Starting off with a motion picture followed by a variety of special numbers, solos, quartets and testimonies, climaxed by a short gospel sermon and public invitation, the usual evangelistic meeting is clearly marked "Western." In contrast, the typical Iglesia ni Cristo public meeting beginning with the loudspeakers blaring out popular music, followed by a marathon debate marked by peaks of oratorical excitement (locally referred to as bomba) and sometimes followed by an open forum, is nothing if not Filipino. Or take the approach of the rapidly growing Crusaders of the Divine Church of Christ of San Fabian Pangasinan under its Supreme Pontiff and Divine Healer, Monsignor Magliba. This syncretistic mixture of Aglipayanism, Rizalism and divine healing uses no western gimmicks, not even any tracts, but through their all-night stands of pure talk followed by healing they claim to have taken in more than 100,000 members in ten years. To say that there is no such thing as a Filipino approach is not to see what is going on all around us.
It may be objected that the two groups to which we have just referred are both very heretical, but remember we are talking about methodology, not doctrines. If it is further said that methodology is rooted in theology we will agree partially, but will also point out that methodology is also very much shaped by the culture out of which it springs. Some of our Filipino brethren are aware of this and are doing some interesting experimentation. In Zambales, a Methodist minister is adopting the Iglesia ni Cristo approach to the presentation of the gospel. Going into a barrio, he announces one week of religious discussions to be held every evening. The program is very simple. Two ministers form the team. One prepares a richly biblical study on an announced topic. This is carefully prepared and dynamically delivered. After this presentation the meeting is turned into an open forum led by the other man on the team who is still fresh. The forum time does have one basic ground rule. No one may ask more than two questions in one evening. The choice of topics is enlightening, "Jesus Christ, True God and True Man," "Jesus Christ, Not The Church, The Only Way of Salvation," "Methodists Can Eat Anything!" Anyone who has ministered in the barrios can immediately see the appeal of these meetings. But this is not the end. The following week the more usual type of gospel meetings are held with invitation to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. In this way the gospel is being preached to a prepared audience.
Not all culturally-oriented approaches may be this exciting, but nevertheless may be very effective. Many churches, for example, are finding the emphasis upon home Bible studies to be very fruitful. Here is a method that is soundly biblical witness the stress on household evangelism in the book of Acts. It is culturally oriented, focusing as it does on the family, which is the basic unit of Philippine social life. It is also eminently practical for it takes no great expenditure of funds, but only the dedicated time of trained pastors and laymen who are willing to go into homes to teach the Bible.
At this point it might be helpful to remind ourselves of some of the features of Philippine culture that we need to consider in evaluating our various methods of evangelism. We have already mentioned the family-centeredness of Philippine society, but we should also be aware of the importance of other "alliance systems," the gangs, the barkada, the compadre-comadre (god-parent) relationship, the wide-ranging lines of mutual obligation through utang-na-loob. All of these lines of relationship provide a multitude of bridges over which the gospel can cross. Then the importance of the person rather than the organization will make the evangelist aware of the need for great tact in dealing with people, and at the same time he will see the value of a very personal type of leadership. The charismatic leader seems to be characteristic of successful movements in the Philippines. The pyramid nature of Philippine social structure with the high class few and the masses of the poor must also be seen, as well as the fact that the majority of the population still live in the rural barrios. We tend to fault the Iglesia ni Cristo for growing among the poor and uneducated, when in reality this is one of their strengths. Does Protestantism have to tie so unalterably middle-class? At the same time we need to be aware of the tremendous forces of urbanization at work and the amazing growth of the suburban areas around Manila especially. A complex picture indeed.
The challenge to the churches for evangelism during this time is almost overwhelming. The need is so great and situation so complex that we may be tempted to withdraw from the battle, or simply continue in the way that we have been going, but in doing either we will run the risk of being judged "unfaithful servants" of our sovereign Lord. At the same time, insistent voices are calling us away from active evangelization to revolutionary activity in the social arena. Church growth, they say, is basically selfish, inward-looking and irrelevant to the pressing problems of our age. In the midst of these cross-currents, it seems to me that we must once again ask the basic question, What is God’s will for the church? Is it his will for churches to stagnate – and die? Or is it his will that churches grow, mature and multiply? Has the Lord of harvest recently repealed the Great Commission in the light of exploding population of earth, because the task seems impossible? Let us remind ourselves that even the church’s impact on the societies of earth depends at least in part on the strength of its presence. Will not a vigorously growing evangelicalism force society to listen to it, in a way that it would not listen to a diminishing minority?
We have spoken about tools and we have spoken about techniques. But more basic than these is our motivation. There is only one proper motivation for church growth, and it is very far removed from the selfish desire for the aggrandizement of our particular groups. It is simply love. We must have a heart of love that beats as one with the great shepherd-heart of our Lord Jesus. Christ who "when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then with he unto His disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest." God grant that we shall never become calloused to the sight of the multitudes. May we always be ready to be thrust into the harvest by the Lord of the harvest, motivated by his love, and empowered by his Holy Spirit. Then we can trust in his sovereignty for the harvest that is certain to be gathered when he returns.
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