Grace Triumphant - Chapter 20 - Rehabilitation in San Juan

Rehabilitation in San Juan

“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11-12)

During the four years of our absence from the Philippines, some rebuilding of the work had been done with the help of visiting servicemen.  Some of the believers who had been scattered returned to San Juan and to their homes.  Services had been resumed in the damaged chapel and preliminary repairs had been made.  A small amount of money was released by the government for war damage, which helped in making some repairs.  Soon after our return, a number of men gathered one evening to lay down a cement floor in the chapel.  During the first few months, there was a great deal that needed to be done.  Visitation of former church members and interested friends needed to be done and also services needed to be arranged and the Sunday school organized.  We were thankful to have with us at that time Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Parks.  They came here on a business project with a Chinese businessman but also with a view to help in the Lord’s work.  To our mutual disappointment, this venture could not be pursued (though no fault of theirs), and they returned to the United States.  However, their presence and fellowship meant a great deal to us at that time.

Having sold the house we lived in before, there was the need to find another home.  Mr. and Mrs. Dayton kindly allowed us to stay with them while we were house hunting.  This took longer than anticipated, due first to the difficulty of finding a suitable place.  Then once we were assured of the Lord’s will in our choice, there were legal problems concerning the property.  Many records had been destroyed during the war, and it wasn’t always easy to get these things straightened out.  After the deal was settled and before we moved in, there was a need for new electrical wiring and changing the meter.  Saturday afternoon when this had been done we had a very heavy shower of rain, which caused a short in the meter, starting a fire.  In the goodness of the Lord, we were able to break the wires with the help of a serviceman who was visiting us.  In the drenching downpour this was a risky operation, and I had visions of our house being burnt down before we even occupied it.  Our friend’s quick action limited the fire to the meter and the immediate wiring.

With regard to the chapel itself in san Juan, I might add here some late developments.  Through the years, the steady growth of members attending necessitated a number of enlargements and improvements in the building.  Now we wish we had more land on which to expand.  For a while we thought we might be able to purchase the lot, or part of it, adjacent to the chapel.  That deal fell through and in any case it would have been quite expensive.  The most recent renovation was in 1976, but by 1982, plans were being drawn not only to enlarge the chapel but also to increase the number of Sunday school rooms.  There were not enough rooms for all the classes with an average attendance of about 250.  The chapel is well filled for the preaching service every Lord’s day morning with around 250 to 300 attending.  Although almost all of the members speak and understand English, the bulk of the services are in Tagalog.

At the back of the chapel is a two-story building.  On the upper floor are apartments for the caretaker and for a national worker with their families.  On the ground floor is an office which also serves as a conference room and an apartment for transient workers, and library and reading room.  Some of the national workers from the provinces need to come to Manila occasionally, so there is a place where they can stay overnight.  The library is well-organized and well used, too.

The larger task before us in 1949 was the spiritual rebuilding of the work of the Lord.  In one of my trips while on furlough I had been on a train in Canada going to Ottawa.  A Roman Catholic priest took the seat beside me.  As we started up a conversation, he noticed the book I was reading, “Divine Principles of Missions,” by W.E. Vine.  I told him its main thrust was that the New Testament principles and patterns of missionary work were quite adequate in this modern age.  Then I also pointed out that in Communist countries there are many small local churches meeting in homes.  They continued to function because the authorities found it difficult to deal with them since they had no central organization or leaders.  He seemed interested, but I don’t know if I made any real impression on him.

However, during the years there have been many opportunities to observe different missionary methods and operating principles.  There is no doubt in my mind that in the Word of God we have a sufficient guide regarding our service for the Lord.  The record of the early church’s missionary outreach in the book of Acts gives us clear guidance regarding missionary work.  Luke’s inspired record in Acts is not merely an historical record; it is a pattern that we should analyze and follow.

In recent years a great deal has been said and written about church planting and church growth.  This is commendable.  However, some of these writings give the impression that the exponents of church growth feel they have just discovered something new.  But it has been there in the New Testament all along!  It is this principle that the preaching of the Gospel and the salvation of souls must result in gathering the saved into a local church fellowship.  The effectiveness of much modern evangelism has been weakened because of inadequate follow-up.  It is not enough to tell converts to go to the church of their choice; they don’t know enough of the truth to make the right choice.  They need to be guided into a local church where they will find the truth of God’s Word, the fellowship of God’s people and the opportunities in God’s service.

There are, unfortunately, many churches today where the Word of God is not being expounded and where many members have no opportunity for service, other than attending services.  Because of this, many earnest Christians lose interest in their local church.  They turn to para-church organizations to find fellowship with like-minded Christians and to seek outlets for serving the Lord.  There is no doubt that many of these para-church organizations do an excellent work in ministering to specific groups and for special purposes.  However, there is an inherent weakness in many of them because they do not contribute to the building up of local churches.  The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25).  There is no doubt that the write had in mind the meetings of the local church.  There may be value in businessmen, students, those of the medical profession, etc., getting together; but it should not be at the expense of the regular church services.

The Scripture teaching is that local churches should be indigenous and autonomous.  While remaining self-governing under the Lord’s direction, each church is free to have fellowship with other like-minded churches.  In order to be indigenous, each local church needs spiritual leadership through elders and deacons.  On the return phase of their first missionary journey Paul and Barnabas “had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, [then] they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23).  In a new work like that, it was necessary for the pioneer missionaries to point out men they considered fit to be elders.  Later on in the Pastoral Epistles, Paul wrote about the qualifications needed for elders.  We cannot help wondering if the men appointed by Paul and Barnabas had all these qualifications, for some of them must have been young in the faith.

So in any new work today it is necessary for the missionary to point out some men to be elders.  In the early days of the assembly in San Juan, we invited some of the brethren to share in the responsibility of caring for the assembly.  We were well aware that they didn’t have all the qualifications for elders and, of course, there were some disappointments.  However, we hoped to develop spiritual leadership by practical teaching and, as it were, on-the-job training.  Naturally, in knowledge of the Word and in spiritual experience, the missionary would exceed these new elders.  They would tend to follow him and let him make the decisions.  However, we tried to get them to express  themselves as to the right procedure in the various situations that arose.  Also, it was important that we learn how their cultural outlook influenced their thinking.

It was important that decisions in the affairs of the church be based on the teaching of God’s Word.  This became a challenge too for it was necessary to distinguish between what the Scriptures teach and what was simply “brethren” tradition.  It was out of place to say, “This is the way we do it in our country.”  If there is no clear guidance from the Scriptures we need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the light of present circumstances.

For example, we were using a piano at all the service in San Juan except for the Lord’s Supper.  The Filipino brethren in San Juan were not musically inclined, so they had great difficulty in starting the hymns when the missionary was absent.  The tendency was to pitch it too low and sing it too slow, and sometimes the tune was hardly recognizable.  “Why don’t we use the piano at the Lord’s Supper?” they asked.  I had to admit it was not a matter of Scriptural teaching but of “brethren” tradition.  As a matter of fact, I then recalled that in my childhood days in Lingfield, a small pump organ was used.  Using the piano has improved the singing and I don’t doubt but that harmony in our praise would be more pleasing to the Lord.

So, through the years following World War II, a great deal of the growth in the assembly has depended upon the spiritual leadership that God has raised up.  This spiritual leadership has been sustained in spite of a number of losses.  One tragic loss was the death of Sergio Mercado.  As a government official with the Bureau of Health on malaria control, he traveled a great deal.  Away from home on such trips, he would spend his evenings in the study of the Scriptures.  The Lord gave him a good understanding of the Word.  After one such trip to Isabela and Nueva Vizcaya in northern Luzon, when he was on a bus returning to Manila in the small hours of the morning, this bus was ambushed by dissidents and Sergio was among those who were killed.  Other elders have left to reside in the United States and Canada.  Each time we wondered how we should manage without the help and counsel of such elders.  Yet the Lord in His goodness has raised up others.

In the early days it was inevitable that the missionaries had to do most of the preaching and teaching.  In spite of the language difference, the missionary was better qualified.  The question often arose in our minds—should the missionary continue to lead, or should he get the national brethren to take the responsibility, even thought it seemed they were less capable?  The answer was obvious if we desired the work to be indigenous.  They would learn through their experiences, even through mistakes.  Sometimes the process seemed painfully slow, but in the end it has been richly regarding.  Today there are gifted and godly elders who have a care and concern for the spiritual welfare and growth of the assembly.  Now, at their request, we meet with them in their meetings as advisors and rejoice in the privilege of fellowship with them.

It may be helpful to mention the procedure they have developed regarding the choice of new elders.  Often it is necessary to replace those who have left or who are no longer able to serve as elders.  When one of the elders suggests the name of a brother as a potential elder, that suggestion is considered by the elders.  For a month or perhaps longer they will pray for guidance and discuss among themselves the qualifications or disqualifications of the brother suggested.  When the elders as a whole are satisfied and prepared to invite the brother to become an elder, then his name is announced to the assembly as a prospective elder.  If anyone in the assembly feels they have a valid reason against his becoming an elder, they have a month in which to voice their objection to one of the elders.  If no objections are received by the end of the month, the elders in their next meeting will confirm this decision.  When it is announced that this brother is recognized as an elder, sometimes the elders will lay their hands upon him while one of them prays for him.

In the early days when the assembly was small, the elders were able to take care of both the spiritual and material needs.  However, as the numbers increased, a need for deacons was felt.  These men could relieve the elders of much of the material business in the assembly.  The word “deacon” is taken from the Greek for “servant,” so in one sense all who serve or “deacons.”  In 1 Timothy 3, after defining the qualifications of elders (bishops or overseers), the apostle Paul gives the qualifications for deacons.  This indicates that some are specially recognized as servants.  An example of this is the choice of those men to distribute relief funds in Acts 6.  While they are not called “deacons” there, the verbal form describing their service, is related to the work from which “deacon” is derived.  In San Juan the deacons serve in a number of practical ways so that “all things [are] done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

As the population of the Philippines has expanded rapidly in recent years, it has resulted in a preponderance of young people.  A considerable majority are in the under-30 bracket.  Naturally, this is reflected in the make-up of the local church.  Senior citizens are decidedly a minority group.  The Sunday school with an attendance of about 250 has classes for all ages.  There are various activities for the young people.  High schoolers and teenagers call themselves “Young Builders.”  Besides meeting every Lord’s Day afternoon, they help in the children’s extension classes in different districts and also in literature distribution.  The older young people, the college and career group, call themselves “Young Adult Fellowship” and also meet each Lord’s Day.  Young married couples get together once a month, usually in some home.  They Lydian Fellowship ladies group meets twice a month, and also go as a group to visit the sick and shut-ins.  The young people also meet to prepare choral numbers, and besides the regular choir there is also a children’s choir.

In the 1959’s Ken Engle and Ken Brooks, with the help of some U.S. servicemen, started a Boy’s Brigade.  This has been a real blessing in the lives of many as the boys have grown into spiritual as well as physical maturity.  Some of the elders and deacons were formerly helped in the Brigade.  This work still continues under the direction of Filipino young men.  Among the first to win the award of “Herald of Christ” outside of the continental U.S. were two from San Juan.  There has also been a similar work among the girls through “Pioneer Girls.”

In addition to the Sunday school there have been children’s classes held in homes in different parts of San Juan.  Each hot season, a two-week Vacation Bible School is conducted for the purpose of reaching children who don’t attend Sunday school.  One of the great opportunities for service these days is home Bible studies.  It is often easier to gather people informally in a home than to get them to come to the chapel.  Where there is an evident interest in a district, an open-air film showing affords wider witness and fresh contacts.

Considerable thought and prayer have been devoted to the project of a hive-off but this has not yet materialized.  This is due to various factors: many of the believers live relatively close and have grown up in the atmosphere of the present chapel, and those who live farther away are scattered in different directions.  So while there have been home Bible studies in those districts, there has not yet been the potential for a local church.

Some people wonder why there is no assembly in the city of Manila.  The city of Manila is distinct from but part of Metro Manila which includes five cities and thirteen municipalities, of which San Juan is one.  The two small pre-war assemblies in Manila were scattered during World War II.  Efforts to revive one of them were unsuccessful.  Another problem in building up a work in Manila is the very high cost of land and rentals.  For a small and struggling assembly this would be prohibitive apart from a lot of outside help.  As much as possible we like to see new churches standing on their own in their building programs.

It is only natural that San Juan should be a sort of parent assembly to which others look as a pattern.  The elders at San Juan are often approached for help and counsel in problems that arise in other assemblies, and they are often invited to minister in these other places.  So they have tried to be a help and yet not hamper the autonomy of each church.  It has been helpful to conduct elders’ and men’s conferences for the sake of fellowship and teaching.  To some it has seemed desirable to have a central association to preserve uniformity and a common purpose.  While we encourage fellowship between local churches, we also resist any attempt to set up an authority which could interfere with the autonomy of those local churches.  It is not easy to always maintain that balance.  While some desire the formation of some kind of association, others tend to the opposite extreme of isolation.  In all of these situations, we need to abide by the teaching of the New Testament and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Some years ago I was meditating on Colossians 3:16, especially the words “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  Often we have felt the need for an understanding of what it means to worship, especially at the Lord’s Supper.  I began to realize the teaching value of hymns, especially in this area of worship.  The Tagalog hymnals we were using, published by some inter-denominational groups, were lacking in hymns of worship.  One of the outstanding features of the “brethren” movement has been its wealth of worship hymnology.  A practical way of teaching about worship would be to have some worship hymns.  Brother Geronimo Mercado translated some and also composed some hymns.  With the help of others we collated a small number of such hymns which were mimeographed, without music, in a small booklet.  This has been revised and enlarged several times.  Now with hymns of a more general nature there is a hymnal with 200 hymns.  This is being used in many of the assemblies.

When we first arrived in the Philippines we were handed hymnals and expected to sing along.  Since Tagalog is a phonetic language with only four vowels of one sound each, it was fairly easy to blend our voices with others, even though we were not singing with understanding!  However, this started a bad habit—to sing without fully understanding what was being sung.  Later on, we discovered that we were sometimes singing things with which we did not agree theologically.  The most glaring of these was in the translation of “I know not how God’s saving grace.”  One verse actually meant, “I don’t know I am saved.”

When a Baptist group which had a printing plant was about to publish a new Tagalog hymnbook, I was asked along with some others if I would give some time to revising some of the hymns.  There are many pitfalls for the unwary in translating hymns.  In one hymn the word “bagong” (new) was used.  Unfortunately, the second syllable came on a slurred note so that it came out in singing as “bagoong” which happens to be the word for a kind of anchovy paste!

Today in San Juan there are about 150 in assembly fellowship, with eight elders and six deacons.  The Lord’s Day services begin with the Lord’s Supper at eight o’clock, followed by the Sunday school at nine and the preaching service at 10:15.  At this service there are no vacant seats—even the front row is full!  Latecomers may have to stand at the back!  This is why the brethren are concerned about hiving off since no further enlargement of the present building is possible.  In the afternoon, the young people and the ladies have their meetings.  There is no regular evening service but occasionally there are special activities such as a special evangelistic effort, a film showing, or a musical presentation.