The Newsletter 75 Autumn 2016

The indigenisation of megachurch Christianity: Jesus is Lord in the Philippines

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio

<p>The Jesus is Lord (JIL) Movement is one of the biggest independent megachurches in the Philippines and has even been described as one of the fastest growing churches in the world. It claims four million members in the Philippines and 55 other countries.</p>

In 2013 JIL celebrated its 35th anniversary at the open-air grounds of the Luneta Grandstand in Manila. With an estimated 20,000 in attendance, the event adopted the theme ‘Revolution of Righteousness’, which organisers have explained in two ways. On one hand, the revolution pertains to a spiritual transformation that individuals have to undergo for the sake of salvation. Clearly, this idea cannot be detached from JIL’s evangelical ethos. On the other hand, as far as JIL is concerned, such an idea has implications too on the way it sees Philippine society. Speaking at the anniversary, Bro. Eddie Villanueva, founder and senior pastor, emphasised that “the triumph of justice and righteousness must prevail, because, the Bible says, justice and righteousness are the foundations of God's throne.” The anniversary’s theme neatly defines JIL and its social location as an evangelical church in contemporary Philippines. It has clearly repackaged itself as a force in Philippine society, from an emerging Charismatic church in the 1970s, to a religious entity with political leverage and ambitions today. 

What is interesting about JIL is that throughout its history, it has maintained a particularly Filipino identity that differentiates it from many other megachurches in the Philippines, while also sharing architectural and cultural features with their counterparts in the US and Asia. In view of its leadership structure, presence around the world, style of worship, and political ambitions, JIL has a strong Filipino sense that marks it as an indigenised form of the megachurch phenomenon. It is precisely this indigenisation that shows how JIL is a unique case of doing megachurch today. So while it is evangelical and charismatic and thus shares theological positions with many other conservative churches in the West, JIL is also an example of how world Christianity is enriched through its localisation in many parts of Asia.

The indigenisation of megachurch Christianity, insofar as JIL is concerned, takes shape in three respects. First, it is mainly catered for the working class, which predominantly constitutes the population of the Philippines. Helpful in making this assertion is the church’s assertive use of the Filipino language and the production of local worship songs, some of which have also become mainstream within evangelical Christianity in the country. It is also fast expanding among Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). Second, its indigenisation lies in its organisational structure. Its leadership is very Filipino and it does not hold itself accountable to any international evangelical organisation. It has its own ways of training its leaders and organising its local communities. The fact that it is independent from American-affiliated denominations renders JIL an essentially indigenous Christian church. Such independence allows its leaders and members to “bring their message to bear on the culture in which they resided”. 1 Shenk, W. 2005. “Contextual theology: The last frontier”, in Sanneh, L. & J. Carpenter (eds.) 2005. The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World. Oxford and NY: Oxford University Press, p.207.  Finally, JIL sees itself as a prophetic movement to shape the future of the Filipino nation. The Philippines is imagined by its leaders as a nation belonging to Christ. While this conviction is fundamentally spiritual, it is also highly political.

The transformation of political structures is possible through the moral transformation of those in public service. If religious leaders themselves are called upon by God to run for office, run they do. JIL is part of the Philippines for Jesus Movement and Bangon Pilipinas (Arise Philippines) Movement. Brother Eddie himself ran for president at least twice.

JIL demonstrates that megachurch Christianity is not a homogeneous phenomenon that is often associated with a growing middle-class and its accompanying theological and political conservatism. While there are megachurches that clearly fulfil these expectations in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia, JIL presents itself as an alternative precisely because of its indigenized identity. In this sense, it is part of a wider story concerning the unfolding of Christianity in the global South. In other words, indigenization is how a megachurch sees itself first and foremost as an embodiment of Filipino Christianity that at the same time adds to the already rich tapestry of Asian Christianities. What is interesting is that while it may be theologically conservative as a charismatic and evangelical entity, JIL has offered itself as an alternative in other respects. It caters for the working class Filipino when many other megachurches have proven their success by affiliating with the burgeoning affluent and cosmopolitan segment of the population. JIL too has presented itself as a political alternative that instead of simply supporting a set of winnable candidates, has fielded its own under the impression that what is more important for society is moral renewal.

Jayeel Serrano Cornelio, Director of the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University.