As a missionary in the Philippines, I get asked to speak to many rural jungle churches. One particular Sunday I was invited to speak at church in the remote Aurora Province. In typical fashion I arrived twenty minutes early and discovered that I was the first to arrive. The church was merely a tin roof supported by eight rough-hewn logs buried into the ground. Termites had already eaten through much of each of the pillars, and daylight could be seen through holes that had rusted on the roof. Luckily it wasn’t raining. The loving pastor and his wife showed up at exactly 10:00, the official start time for the worship, and greeted me warmly. They offered to take me to their house for some coffee while we waited for the rest of the congregation to arrive. So we walked back to their house and sat next to a small fire with a water kettle placed directly on the coals. They mixed up a 3-in-1 packet of coffee-like stuff that contained creamer and sugar with the hot water before it came to a full boil. I began to think about the last time I had dysentery as I sipped the coffee-like stuff. It was far too sweet for my taste. After thirty minutes we wandered back to the church where a couple dozen people stood in the shade awaiting the pastor’s arrival. Most of them were women, each with five or six kids that seemed to watch one another. Their clothes were worn and torn and their smiles were infectious. I was welcomed with many, many handshakes.
After I took my seat in the grey plastic chair closest to the front on the aisle, the ‘presider’ opened the worship service (only forty minutes late) by asking everyone to come in from the outside and take their seats. I was amused because the church had no walls and the inside was merely a shaded area under the roof. Once everyone was seated, including two dogs next to the portable wooden pulpit, the presider said, “Brother Jun will now open the program with prayer.” He actually called the worship service a program! It quickly became apparent that Brother Jun was absent. Two women trotted to the dirt road and returned shrugging their shoulders to indicate that he wasn’t present. The presider then panicked as he looked for another man to pray. He was wide-eyed and his nervousness was evident. Women in this church were forbidden to lead in any capacity, and there were only four other men to choose from: me, the pastor, an eighty-two-year-old man who was deaf, and the neighborhood drunk who attended regularly to receive refreshments after the service. The presider turned to a teenage boy who was holding a weathered purple plywood guitar with five rusty strings. He tried to hand him the microphone, but the guitar player refused to accept it. They argued in whispered tones that were audible to everyone through the tiny karaoke machine connected to the microphone. The congregation was amused by it – I wasn’t. In frustration the presider sighed as he said, “I will now open the program. Please stand for our opening prayer.”
His prayer lasted for more than five minutes and included ‘long life’, ‘good health’ ‘financial blessings’ and ‘healthy crops’ for each of the present members of the church. Did I understand him correctly? Was he asking that God bless only members who were present? Or was he consciously excluding inactive members and those who had wandered from the fellowship? I was already distracted by the late start, the weirdness of having a ‘presider’ who lorded over the ‘program’ and the lengthy prayer that failed to give any praise to God. But the weirdness was only beginning.
Every transition was announced by the presider. “Our scripture reading from Lucas, chapter six, verses forty-five through forty-nine will be performed by Sister Rowena.” She corrected him before she accepted the sole microphone that was attached to a karaoke machine with the reverb maxed out – “I will begin in verse forty-six, not verse forty-five.” So the presider turned, once again, to the congregation and said, “I stand corrected. Sister Rowena will read from Lucas chapter six, verses forty-six through forty-nine. Would everyone please stand as we read from God’s word?”
After the scripture reading the presider informed us that we would experience the opening song next. “Sister Loretta will now lead us in our opening song.” And before Sister Loretta could grab the microphone, the guitar boy showed us why the purple plywood guitar had only five strings. He struck the stings with such force that I was certain the other strings would break. The guitar was so badly out of tune that I winced. But it didn’t matter because Sister Loretta sang in another key altogether. The microphone popped and went dead occasionally as Sister Loretta sang and clapped. Each time she clapped her hands together the microphone begged for help. Her voice was audible without the microphone and all I could hear through the karaoke machine was the microphone being abused as she clapped, bang, bang, bang, bang.
Everyone clapped as Sister Loretta took her seat. I also applauded that. Then the presider stood up, walked to the microphone that Sister Loretta had placed on the floor, and picked it up to announce, “We are now accepting testimonies.” Nobody stirred, and after a few minutes of begging the presider announced, “Sister Maribel will now share her testimony.” Everyone clapped as Sister Maribel walked to the pulpit, chiding the presider as she walked to the front carrying a two-year-old boy naked from the waist down. There was no translation, but from what I understood she thanked God that six of the nine piglets born to her sow that week survived, and they all were now healthy. I clapped as Sister Maribel sat back down.
“The praise team will now lead us in worship,” announced our presider, who handed the microphone again to Sister Loretta, who was quickly joined by two other young girls who wore the same white blouse and short plaid skirts that were likely high school uniforms. The guitar boy pounded out the first tune as Sister Loretta sang something else. The second song was worse than the first. As a musician I was totally distracted by the tinny, out of tune guitar. And the girls laughed and giggled as they forgot the words and sang familiar songs that were rendered unrecognizable. After five agonizing songs, Sister Loretta sat the microphone on the ground and left the service with the other two girls, only to return ten minutes later with ice cream. All the younger kids spotted the girls with ice cream and mobbed them, begging for one of their own. In the midst of this the presider said, “I will now permit our pastor to introduce our guest speaker.” He handed the microphone to the pastor and then sat back down in the front.
After being praised by the pastor for a full fifteen minutes I was handed the microphone to preach. Using a translator while preaching requires timing; you have to speak in complete thoughts and then pause for the translation. Unfortunately my pastor friend struggled with my English. He said something about a ‘nosebleed’ and stopped trying to interpret my words, so I finished the sermon mostly in a language that nobody seemed to follow. One woman looked at me and nodded, but talking with her after the service, it was clear she was just providing encouragement, not nodding in agreement. The two dogs fought behind me as I preached and I endured an array of other distractions: crying babies, children playing with a ball in the center aisle, a rooster chasing another rooster right next to my feet, and an argument between the three girls on the praise team. I’m no longer surprised when a young mother reaches inside her blouse and pulls out a breast to feed her child, and my preaching that morning seemed to make the infants hungry.
I prayed after I finished preaching and was shocked to find the presider standing next to me when I opened my eyes. He reached out his hand to take the microphone and said, “This is our time of invitation. Please come to the front as we sing.” There was no explanation whatsoever, but they all complied. They did exactly as he asked, gathering in a somber group at the front of the church until a recorded version of “Your Love Never Fails” ended. I’m not sure anyone other than me understood the lyrics, but they reverently remained huddled together at the front until the final note faded. It was awkward.
The presider then grabbed the microphone again and tried to speak, but the electricity was dead. He spoke loudly to be heard, “We will now collect our tithes and offerings.” A wicker basket was placed on the floor at the front of the church and the presider held up his cell phone playing “Redeemed” as people walked to the front to drop pesos into the basket. As soon as the last person was seated he truncated the song just as Big Daddy Weave sang the line, “All of my life I have been …” I never heard the rest of the line.
The presider then announced, “Our pastor will now close us in prayer.” He did and the service, I mean the program, was finally over. I was relieved that it was over and after only a few minutes of small talk I jumped in my jeep and drove along the rough muddy road to get back to the highway. The worship service seemed to me like a complete disaster, but then I began to reconsider. Perhaps that was their best. The terrible sounding purple plywood guitar couldn’t stay tuned, but it was all they had to praise our God, so they used it. Filipinos are musical people, so I know that Sister Loretta wasn’t the most talented vocalist amongst the church members, but the Philippines is a relational culture and her feelings were likely more important to the pastor than having someone with a better voice lead the worship. Plus, Loretta was willing to be used. Maybe the presider had nothing else to offer except to announce what to expect next. I felt so judgmental as I drove home.
This poor jungle church couldn’t possibly compete with the production level of the average American church, but I reminded myself that worship isn’t a competition. They were forced to use a dying microphone that was laid on the dirt floor because they had no microphone stand. The super reverb karaoke machine is their PA system. They have no projector system to display the song lyrics or Bible verses. They simply came together to offer an expression of their love, no matter how simple and ‘unprofessional’ it was, to our Lord. I love getting lost in passionate worship, but have learned not to judge worship that lacks power, precision, or even basic structure. I pray that someday I will stop being distracted by my expectations; only then can my heart join the local congregations in jungle worship.
Barry Phillips is the author of a short-term mission trip “survival guide” named “I Planted the Seed (and Woody Squashed It)” available on Amazon.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @barrydphillips