In a recent congregational report to The Philippine Witness, the bimonthly newsletter of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (better known as the Holdeman church) mission outreach to the Philippines, Randall Plett, pastor of the Christian Light Mennonite Church in Sapang Palay, posed a heartfelt question. Why were the fruits of nearly 30 years of mission efforts so meager?
Membership in the congregation, he reported, consisted of two grandmothers, a single Filipino sister and three Canadian couples. “With so little to show, what do we have to offer? . . . Is something hindering the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst?”
Many missionaries can relate, and the answers are surely complex. But the pages of The Witness offer insights into the group’s challenges.
The Holdeman church has nurtured an evangelistic identity since its beginning in 1859, with an urgency to share the gospel in light of Christ’s imminent return. The church supports mission efforts in some 20 countries. The Philippines outreach began in the 1980s, and today the group numbers around 200 members. Five congregations provide regular updates to The Witness.
The reports in The Witness make it clear that Holdeman missionaries have worked hard to connect with Filipino villagers, learning Tagalog and sharing in many local challenges. Each church runs a school offering a biblically based curriculum — mostly in Tagalog — for children. All members are aggressively engaged in the distribution of tracts and other Christian literature. In 1988 the group began publishing a bilingual periodical, Ang Tanglaw (The Torch).
When the periodical’s format changed in 2012 to a stronger focus on doctrine, leaders launched the quarterly periodical, Mga Sagot ng Biblia (Bible Answers), for evangelistic outreach. In 2013 the Holdeman church in the Philippines sold more than 8,000 books in markets, bookshops and Christian bookstores in Manila, many of them newly translated into Tagalog.
At the same time, however, the Holdeman church is also deeply committed to a separatist identity and the practice of church discipline. Conformity to church standards is strongly enforced. Clearly, this aspect of church life has been difficult to translate into a cross-cultural context.
Thus, The Witness reports regularly on discipline against Filipino converts who have “fallen away” for gambling, smoking, card playing, chewing betel nut, inappropriate computer use, participating in voting or inconsistent adherence to dress standards. These reports are often accompanied by admonitions to “pray that the discipline be redemptive,” but it seems clear the specific standards of holiness have been difficult to translate into Filipino culture.
Though several Filipino church members teach in their schools, three decades of mission efforts have led to the ordinations of only two Filipino leaders and seemingly no intermarriage between missionaries and locals.
Plett’s question points to an ancient tension for the church in mission. What specific expressions of the Christian faith are accidents of culture and therefore open to change, and which are at the heart of the gospel? Moreover, how does one measure missionary success?
The Holdeman aren’t content to say a one-time public conversion is enough. Like early Anabaptists, they insist the new Christian must also undergo a transformation of life, including submission to the local church’s discipline.
Beneath the details of family and congregational life shared in The Philippine Witness, one can discern the challenge of translating the gospel in a cross-cultural context. Though their numbers remain small, the Holdeman in the Philippines bear witness to an earnest struggle to respond faithfully both to the Great Commission and Christ’s call to the narrow path of discipleship.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.