Grace Triumphant - Chapter 21 - Church Growth

Church Growth

“And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily.” (Acts 16:5)

What a great deal of missionary effort lies hidden under this brief statement.  How much preaching and teaching by Paul, Silas, and Timothy must have been involved in this remarkable church growth.  Remarkable indeed—for seldom have churches grown daily.  No doubt most of the growth in this verse was in individual believers added to the churches. Nevertheless, such growth would lead to growth also in the number of churches.  Whether it be in the size or number of churches, church growth rests upon their being “strengthened in the faith.”  Physically or spiritually, where there is no strength there will be no growth.  Undoubtedly the lack or slowness of church growth is due to weakness in the faith.

In the Philippines church growth was slow in the years prior to World War II.  For one thing most of the population was either indifferent or antagonistic to a “religion” which was new and different.  Why should they leave the Roman Catholic Church in which they had been brought up?  The Protestants were attracting mostly poor people and most of their chapels were not impressive.  In our own case there was a shortage of workers.  Due to his printing business, Brother Wightman was pretty much limited to the assembly in the Walled City, which later moved to Legarda Street in Sampaloc.  For ourselves, the new work in San Juan required much of our time.  During those years there were no full-time national workers, only part-time helpers in the work with us.  In an earlier chapter I have mentioned the labors of Brother Geronimo Mercado in the Paco district of Manila and also in Tanay and surrounding towns in Rizal province.  During the Japanese occupation, he gave up his work in the Bureau of Health and confined his energies to Tanay mostly.  In this he was joined by Brother Candido Aguilar, at the Santol Sanitarium.  These two men of God had a vision of establishing assemblies in many of the towns of Rizal.  Brother Geronimo went home to be with the Lord during the war years, but members of his family are still with us in San Juan.

Brother Aguilar suffered at the hands of the Kempetai, or Japanese Military Police, because of his contacts with the guerillas.  In spite of weakness of body he bravely continued serving the Lord and established a work in Binangonan.  Shortly after our return in 1949 we drove out there.  The chapel was easily located as it was on the main street beside a hand pump where the townspeople drew most of their water.  From there we were directed to the home where Brother Aguilar was staying and he welcomed us with open arms.  He was a man of considerable ability and devoted to the Lord and His Word.  He was living with some of the believers because his own family in Manila had no interest or sympathy in his stand for Christ.  He was able to minister the Word with profit, even though he seldom specifically prepared a message.  He had an ability to refute the errors of cultists in discussions.  They were frustrated by his ability to expose their errors from the Scriptures.  On one occasion some from the “Iglesia Ni Cristo,” a cult started by Felix Manalo, were reported to have said, “We’ll never accomplish anything here unless we get rid of that old man.”  Brother Aguilar heard of it and publicized the threat so that people would know who to blame if he was liquidated.  However, he continued to serve the Lord until his home call in 1954.  His brother, Severiano, continues faithfully in the fellowship at San Juan.

The location beside the well was so noisy that a move was made to a side street where a chapel was erected on rented land.  After the war they got some crating material left behind by the Japanese to make benches.  Those benches were noted for their extreme discomfort—it was a relief to stand up and preach!  Another move was to a piece of land purchased by the assembly, and there continued to be some growth.  In 1980, due to some personality problems, some withdrew and started another assembly in another part of town.  The leaders left behind were younger men, and they moved the chapel to a more suitable location.  So there has been growth in both places.  In 1983, a new assembly was established in Bilibiran, a barrio near Binangonan.

Small assemblies had been established in Tanay and Pililla, a few miles east of Binangonan through the ministry of Brother Geronimo Mercado.  His home call during the war was a great blow to this work.  Intermittently there have been times when a few believers met together in Pililla, but there has been little growth there.  In Tanay the Mercado family had donated a piece of land and built a chapel.  Most of those who met there were older men.  Though they had some knowledge of the Word, it seemed to have little effect in their own lives.  They seemed complacent with the situation even though their own families were not being won for Christ.  They blamed the lack of response on the difficulty of witness in that town.  There seemed to be a measure of truth in this excuse because other groups had little success there.  There were no young people and no Sunday school.  It was quite disheartening trying to help those men.  On one occasion Jim LeValley stopped in the middle of his message, hoping that would awaken a couple who were sleeping!

Something drastic had to be done.  Dennis and Elaine Carter (from New Zealand) were willing to help there and a fresh beginning was made.  As there was evidently no hope of cooperation from the few old men, the Mercado family intimated they would reclaim the land unless the chapel was put to better use.  The men found some place else to meet and since then the work in the chapel has been revived, mostly among young people.

Through the years there had been efforts to revive the work in Pililla.  Meetings have been held in homes and in the open air.  At different times a few believers have met together in a home as a small assembly.  Since there were no men with the knowledge and ability to lead and show potential of becoming elders, efforts have petered out.  For a time there seemed to be a possibility of starting a work in Jalajain, a barrio beyond Pililla.  Children’s meetings and home Bible studies were held for a time but this was not sustained.  This was partly due to lack of workers.

In the early 1960’s one of the elders from San Juan with his family moved to Taytay, a town midway between San Juan and Binangonan.  He began meetings in him home and also a small Sunday school.  Jim LeValley and others helped canvass this town with Gospel literature.  Some churches in the New Testament were started in homes.  We don’t read about chapels being built in early church history in the book of Acts.  However, while a home is a good place to start a home Bible study, it is not always best for the building up of an assembly.  So in Taytay they rented a two-story apartment which served for Sunday school downstairs and for meetings in the upper floor.  Later on, the assembly was able to purchase a lot and erect a chapel where the work has continued.

When the first Literature Crusade team was here about 1965, they made contacts with a family living in the slum area of Tondo, Manila.  Some were saved, and some meetings were held in their home.  Later, they moved to Cainta, a neighboring town to Taytay.  They fellowshipped with the believers in Taytay for a time but later wanted meetings to be held in their home.  Brother David Harvey helped in this work and the group there was able to buy a lot and build a chapel.  The spiritual growth of the work there has suffered because of a lack of men who are spiritually able to lead and feed the flock. Yet would have been saved and a goodly number gather there.

On the other side of Taytay from Cainta is a town called Angono.  Home Bible studies and open-air meetings have also been held in this town, and a few have professed faith in Christ.  However, no established work has been maintained.  Up in the hills beyond these towns is Antipolo.  This is a staunchly Roman Catholic community, largely because in the church there is a famous image of the Virgin Mary.  It was reputedly brought from Spain by way of Mexico in the days of the galleon trade and was “miraculously preserved.”  So this image is greatly venerated, and in the month of May thousands of pilgrims flock to Antipolo.  Some attempts have been made to begin a work there but with no success as yet.

Soon after we returned to the Philippines in 1949, Mrs. Tiongco, the mother of Mrs. Dayton, was visiting San Juan.  She invited us to go to Floridablanca, her home in Pampanga, to preach the Gospel there.  At the time this was not possible for too much needed to be done in San Juan.  Mrs. Dayton had been praying that her husband could get some other work so the family could have more time together.  His work then was in Canlubang and their home was in San Juan.  So he was home only on some weekends.  Later on, in January 1952, he was offered a position on the Del Carmen Sugar Estate near Floridablanca.  This position included housing, so they moved there.  It was a disappointment to Mrs. Dayton to be away from the fellowship in San Juan, yet this became the opening for a work in that area.  Mrs. Dayton was anxious to serve the Lord and to witness to her many relatives in Floridablanca.  She began classes at the home of her mother, Mrs. Tiongco, and another relative, Mrs. Isip.  Mr. Dayton had the carpenter make some benches for these children’s classes which were usually held outside.  The classes grew and were often attended by older women and some men at times.

In April 1954, they were able to hold VBS at Floridablanca and at Del Carmen with the help of some from Manila.  Then in August Mrs. Dayton invited Ken Brooks to go there for some meetings which were held in homes over the weekend.  These were followed by monthly visits in September and October.  In November, after much prayer, it was felt a more intensive effort should be made.  Jack LaBuff, who had to leave the work in Laos for a time, shared in this effort.  Meetings were held every weekend, not only in Floridablanca but also in surrounding barrios.

In San Jose, Ruben Nanquil and his wife were saved and meetings were begun in their home.  Later on a small chapel was built beside their house to better accommodate those who attended.  However, San Jose was part of a large sugar estate and later on pressure was applied by the estate owners.  So in later years the chapel had to be torn down and the few believers joined with those in Floridablanca.  A few miles beyond San Jose there is a river at the foot of a range of mountains.  Some were baptized in this river and meetings were held in barrios like Pandergirig and Pabanlag.  The outreach at the latter place continued intermittently for several years.

After our return from furlough in 1954, we also helped in this work.  Two brothers, Eugenio and Daniel Tique, also gave valuable help because they were Pampangans who could preach in the language of the people.  Most of the people understood Tagalog which we used, but there were a few older folk who did not.  While there are some similarities in the two languages, they are distinctly different.  One peculiarity of Pampango is that it has no aspirates while Tagalog does.  It was rather amusing to hear a Pampangan preaching in Tagalog, dropping an “h” where it belonged and putting it on where it did not, just like an English cockney.

The outreach from Floridablanca in another direction included meetings in other barrios.  One was a place called Valdez where some years later a large house served form some young people’s camps.  For a while there was some interest in Mayquiapo and Seran with one or tow families in each place evincing some interest.  However, between these was the barrio of Dau where there was a good interest and some conversions.  In fine weather the meetings were held under the side of large mango trees, with children’s classes nearby.  Some young ladies from San Juan would go along to help teach these classes.  It was not unusual to have six or seven meetings in different places between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon.

The few believers in Dau decided to build a small chapel with bamboo walls and cogon grass roof.  The week after it was built someone set it afire at night.  Of course, in a few moments it was gone, but the enemies of the Gospel did not have the last word.  The believers decided to rebuild with materials which would not burn so easily—hollow block walls and galvanized iron roof.  The work there still continues and the group is reaching out to nearby places.

Up in the hills beyond Floridablanca there are some hamlest of Negritoes, called “Baluga” by the Tagalogs.  They are considered by some to be the aborigines and are a short-statured people, rather like pygmies, with short kinky hair.  Ken Brooks and some others made some trips into the hills to reach these people and on occasion even spent the night in their little huts.  The unsaved Pampangans did not look with favor on such efforts as it might interfere with their ways of oppressing and taking advantage of these poor people.  In any case it was not possible to follow up this work for lack of personnel.  It would need someone who could devote all their time and learn their language.

In 1958, Mr. and Mrs. Milton Haack joined us in the Lord’s work here in the Philippines.  Milton had been here during World War II as a serviceman but was not then a believer.  The Haacks went into that work in Pampanga and for several years have lived in San Fernando, the capital of that province.  While they were on their first furlough, there was an invitation to help hold services at Basa Air Force Base (of the Philippine Air Force) which is a few miles from Floridablanca.  Sunday morning services were begun there with the help of Howard Eppler who was then here with the Back to the Bible Broadcast.  This work was taken over by Brother Haack after his return from furlough.  Meetings are still held there.

The group at Floridablanca built a small chapel beside the home of one of the believers there.  Later on, they were able to purchase a lot in a subdivision and have since built a larger chapel.  Brother Stimson Alviar lives in that area and has been used of the Lord in the spread of the Gospel.

Brother and Sister Haack have also opened up work in several other places in Pampana nearer to San Fernando.  So that there are about eight small assemblies in and around the towns of Guagua, Sexmoan, and Bacolor.

Across the province of Pampanga, in the eastern part, the Lord has done a great work.  About 1958, some interesting letters came to the office of the Bible School of the Air (more about this work in a later chapter).  They were from a young lady who lived in Bahay-pare (meaning “Priest’s house”), in a low-lying swampy area known as the Candaba Swamps.  Though in Pampanga, it was close to the border of Bulacan and was reached through Baliwag, a commercial town in Bulacan.

One Saturday afternoon in 1959 we drove up there for a visit and met Miss Teresita Castro.  As we drove into the barrio we noticed the Roman Catholic Church.  Tessie told us she had been brought up as a Roman Catholic and was very devout in that religion.  After finishing high school she developed a bad infection in one ankle and as we talked with her she had one leg in a cast and was using crutches.  She was rather bitter when this happened because the prognosis was that she would be permanently crippled.  So what were the prospects for college, for marriage?  Why should this happen to her when she had been so devoted to her religion?

A missionary traveling on a bus going to Batangas witnessed to his seatmate, a young Filipino.  He gave him some literature and enrolled him for an Emmaus correspondence course from the Bible School of the Air.  The young man happened to be a cousin of Tessie.  She decided to go to Batangas to seek help from a faith healer and visit her relatives there.  While visiting him she saw the first two lessons of “What the Bible Teaches.”  Casually her cousin said, “If you want that, take it!  I’m not interested.”  It was that course that was the means of her conversion and of an entirely new outlook on life.

Looking out of the window as we conversed with her, I realized that this was a rather remote place.  Also I knew that it was an area where the Huk dissidents were quite active.  Turning to Tessie I asked, “I noticed the church as we drove in.  Tell me, does anyone ever come here and preach the truths you have learned through this course?”  She replied, ”No! No one has ever preached these truths here.”  She mentioned that the cults Jehovah’s Witnesses and Iglesia ni Cristo, had been there.  I told her that we would like to preach the Gospel there.  However, it would be easy for us to preach there and go home again; but if there was opposition or persecution, she would be the one to face it.  So we asked her to pray about it and let us know when she felt the time was right.  Her family was friendly and those we met were hospitable, as is customary with Filipinos; but we didn’t think they were really interested.

Tessie took a short course with Child Evangelism Fellowship in Manila so she would be able to teach the children in her home. Then she attended Far Eastern Bible School and Seminary, in spite of her handicap. In the goodness of the Lord she was healed while she was in Bible School. After the first year, in 1963, she told us that her mother and sister had trusted in Christ and her father was willing. (Later we learned he consented to having a meeting because he thought he would prove that we were wrong.) Would we go and have a service in their home? Since it was not safe to travel those roads at night because of the dissidents, we arranged to stay overnight with the Castro family.

What a memorable meeting that first one was! Arriving about three in the afternoon we were served a cold drink of pineapple juice. As we rested and enjoyed our drink, Tessie went out to invite people to come. She had previously informed the people that we were going to be there. Soon 25 to 30 people were gathered. With a silent prayer, I began by introducing ourselves and then told why we were in the Philippines. This naturally led to an explanation of the good news of salvation. For an hour everyone listened intently to this old message which was entirely new to them. Then I asked if they would like to ask any questions and they began to open up. As the daylight faded, oil lamps were lit but still they talked. It was getting to be around seven o’clock for the meeting lasted over three hours. I was getting hungry and wondered when supper would be served! Yet what a thrill to present the Gospel for the first time.

One statement I shall not soon forget. One man said, “Do you know why we are interested in hearing what you have to say?” I replied, “No, I don’t, but I would surely like to know.” “Well, “ he said, “we have noticed a change in the life of Tessie and we want to know what it is all about.”

Soon after that I was quite ill and had to return to the U.S. to recuperate. However, Leonard, Kenneth, and others continued the work at Bahay-pare; and soon Felipe Castro, Tessie’s father, gave clear evidence that he too was a believer. It was in June 1965, that the few believers there first remembered the Lord in the breaking of bread. After a few years Brother Castro donated a piece of ground beside his home and a chapel was built. In the early days they didn’t have a ceiling, and it was not uncommon to see a rat running across the rafters while we were preaching. Soon contacts were made in a neighboring barrio, Dulong-ilog (River’s End), and services were started there. The road was either inches deep in dust or in mud, depending upon the season of the year. The services were held in a home for some time and then they received help to build a chapel there. In the opposite direction from Bahay-pare is a place called Pansumalok where there has been another hive-off. On the road from Baliwag to Bahay-pare, we used to pick up a man at a place called Tangos and take him to the meetings at Bahay-pare. Now there is a small chapel and company of believers there too. Another outreach was a bit further away in a place called San Roque where another assembly has been established. Yet in spite of these hive-offs, the work continues to prosper in Bahay-pare.

The first baptism of believers from there was held in a river near the town of Baliwag. The river was clear water running over a gravel bottom but rather shallow. One of the brethren from San Juan did the baptizing, the first time he had ever done this. Another brother who went with us was afraid the folks were not being “buried” in baptism. So he was calling out from the river bank, “Put them under, put them under!” One of those baptized was an old lady of uncertain age. The uncertainty about her age was not due to feminine diffidence; she had been born in that country area when the keeping of vital records was considered unimportant. The best clue we got was that she was already a young lady when the Americans first arrived which was in 1898. For her age she had remarkably good eyesight but was a bit hard of hearing. In the services she always wanted to look up the references. Filipino preachers are expected to give the reference when they quote Scripture. Having ascertained from a seatmate the reference, she would look it up and read it. That meant, of course, reading it aloud. She was quite oblivious of any comments the speaker might be making and to any inconvenience to those around her.

One of the brethren at Bahay-pare is very faithful in attending the services even though it means a walk of four or five kilometers across the rice fields each way. Perhaps one reason for the faithfulness of Tomas Carpio has been the unusual nature of his conversion. Like the majority he had been brought up a Roman Catholic. On one occasion he became ill and went into a coma. Without adequate medical help, his family and neighbors thought he was dead. He himself inclines to the idea that he died. Perhaps it was similar to the Apostle Paul, “Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.” At any rate, while in that condition Tomas had a dream or vision in which he saw himself standing before the gate of heaven. To his consternation, the person at the gate refused to let him in; with his Roman Catholic ideas he supposed it was Saint Peter. He remonstrated that he had been a faithful Roman Catholic while on earth and on that basis pleaded to be admitted. When Peter (or whoever it might have been) still refused, Tomas asked what he could do to gain admittance. He was told to return to earth and look for someone with a Bible, to tell him what was needed. At this point the family and friends who were making a coffin and were about to prepare him for burial, got the shock of their lives. (Where there are no embalming facilities, burial has to be within 24 hours.) The supposedly dead Tomas sat up and began to talk. Relating what had happened, he said he must find someone with a Bible as soon as possible. Someone recalled that Felipe Castro in Bahay-pare had a Bible. So as soon as he was able Tomas set out to visit Felipe who had the joy of showing from the Bible how he could be sure of getting into heaven. How true are the words of William Cowper, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”