Protestantism in the Philippines: Megachurch fever

Church attendance is as vital to a disciple as a transfusion of rich, healthy blood to a sick man. (Dwight L. Moody)

CCF Center is dubbed as the largest worship center in the country
A megachurch refers to a Protestant Christian (usually Evangelical) church with an average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 (see the Hartford Institute definition). The megachurch phenomenon is evident in nations with sizeable Protestant populations such as the United States and South Korea, with missionaries bent on exporting their faith. However, the shift of counting methodology from membership to attendance show the difficulty of determining the former. Some churches have elaborate membership processes, which include practices such as baptism and discipleship classes. Other churches take account of adherents (followers, supporters) or even attendees as members. Attendance can be measured better than membership, provided that a number of churches do not even report official numbers. Catholic churches, still commanding 80.57% of the total population in the Philippines as of 2010, and other large Christian churches such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (2.45% as of 2010) are not considered megachurches because the megachurch fever is mainly a Protestant phenomenon, which began in the 1950s and continued to this day. This also means that churches which attracted large audiences prior to the 20th century, such as Charles Spurgeon's 5,000-seater Metropolitan Tabernacle, is not covered by the megachurch phenomenon. In addition, megachurches are regarded as extreme contrast of simple churches or house churches, which is prevalent in Europe, West, and East Asia. For instance, in China, churches with less than 25 members tend to be tolerated by the government. The house church movement in China resulted to a nation with around 80 to 100 million Christians. Meanwhile, in Europe, a 2010 study of more than 1,400 churches revealed that "simple churches" have an average membership of 96 people.

In the Philippines, one of the largest megachurches is the Jesus is Lord Church Worldwide (JILCW), a Full-Gospel (often interchanged with Charismatic and Pentecostal) church which claimed a membership of four million as of 2013 . It was founded by Bro. Eduardo "Eddie" Villanueva with a group of 15 students from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines on October 5, 1978. Villanueva, who was a communist and an atheist prior to his conversion to Christianity in 1973, did not finish law studies due to his opposition to the Marcos regime. He even survived an assassination attempt in 1983. The following year, pursuant to his vision of "a bloody revolution that may come if the churches will not unite to win the country with the Gospel", he led the establishment of the Philippines for Jesus Movement (PJM), a nationwide campaign purposed to see the lives of Filipino's changed by the love of Jesus Christ (Psalm 33:12). Villanueva sought the presidency of the Philippines not once, but twice, carrying the banner of reform. In 2004, he had 6.16% of the vote (1.99 million). His campaign was strongest in Metro Manila (NCR, 11%) and Cordillera (CAR, 8%). Finishing last in a five-way race, Villanueva doubted all surveys (he was then at 5%), as well as the eventual election results. His campaign featured the largest political rally in Philippine history, with an estimated 3.8 million people flocking at Rizal Park (Luneta). Police estimates, however, show only a crowd of 750,000. His 2010 campaign was not as successful. He finished fifth in an election with nine candidates, having 3.12% of the vote (1.13 million). This is despite having another large rally in Rizal Park on the eve of the election. It was reported to have amassed 1.2 million people. He also did not outdo surveys, which show him at 3%. His foray into politics caused some Christians to question his calling as an evangelist and church leader. Critics also pointed out that his large political rallies may be mainly composed of church members. Still, it apparently did not slow down the growth of the church, which was reported to have three million members as of 2007. Besides, a global survey of Evangelical leaders show that 84% approve of activism and expression of political views. However, a more conservative estimate from a global study conducted by the Leadership Network show that JILCW only has 53,000 members (Asia only). Other endeavors of the church include operating television programs. In 1998, ZOE Broadcasting Network (Channel 11) was acquired by JILCW. However, GMA Network was given control of all operations of Channel 11 in 2005, reformatting it as GMA News TV in 2011. At the same time, the church acquired a new station and made it Light Network (Channel 33).

Another megachurch within from a similar denomination (Pentecostal) is the Philippines General Council of the Assemblies of God (PGCAG). In 1926, missionary Benjamin H. Caudle came from the Assemblies of God USA to preach in the Philippines. However, it would only be on January 2, 1940 when Hermogenes P. Abrenica, Rosendo Alcantara, and Rodrigo C. Esperanza met with missionary Leland E. Johnson to plan the first convention of the Assemblies of God in the Philippines. The convention was held two months later, on March 21 to 27, 1940, in Villasis, Pangasinan. The newly organized Philippines District Council of the Assemblies of God was incorporated on July 11 of the same year. In 1953, after years of being administered by the Assemblies of God USA, the Philippines District became independent. Thus, the establishment of the PGCAG, with Rev. Esperanza as the first General Superintendent. In 1958, membership grew to more than 12,000. As of the year 2000, it was reported that PGCAG had 198,000 members and an attendance of more than 420,000, leading one author to label the church as the "largest evangelical body in the country." The church has acquired airtime in the Far Eastern Broadcasting Company (702 DZAS) to broadcast a number of radio programs.

A megachurch affiliated with the Assemblies of God is Word of Hope Christian Church (WOH). It was founded by Rev. Dr. David Sobrepeña in August 1988 with three people at Paramount Theater. Within two years, attendance grew to 8,000. Official reports show that, to date, Word of Hope has 40,000 members. WOH also aims to have 100,000 members by 2020. Their main church in Quezon City has a seating capacity of 6,500. Leadership Network, meanwhile, shows a figure of 35,000 members and a seating capacity of around 4,000 for their main center. Sobrepeña has served as Assistant General Superintendent and is currently serving as General Superintendent of PGCAG. In 2010, Sobrepeña had to deal with six issues raised by Reverend Joseph Suico, resulting to his suspension from office in the PGCAG. In 2016, the Court of Appeals decided to lift the suspension of Sobrepeña and let him assume the position of (Acting) General Superintendent.

Greenhills Christian Fellowship (GCF) is also a megachurch in the Philippines. The church was began by Rev. David and Patty Jo Yount of the Conservative Baptist Mission, with 67 people meeting at the Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan on February 14, 1978. It is now being led by Dr. Larry Pabiona as senior pastor. Pabiona has been a member of GCF since 1994. The church reports a membership of 7,000. Meanwhile, Leadership Network shows a figure of 8,000 members for GCF, and a seating capacity of around 1,500 in its main center.

Despite the growth of denominational megachurches, non-denominational Christianity also figured in the megachurch movement in the past thirty to forty years, as observed by a CNN report in 2015. For instance, Rev. Caesar "Butch" Conde and his family founded Bread of Life Ministries International (BOL), a non-denominational megachurch, on November 14, 1982. The first service, held in Maryknoll College (now Miriam College), was attended by around 120 people. Conde, who was a Buddhist aiming to become a monk, had an initial counter with Christianity in the Cursillo, a Roman Catholic movement featuring three-day retreats. This was after he finished a management engineering degree in the Ateneo de Manila University. A new Catholic convert with Pentecostal orientation, he attended the Far East Advanced School of Theology (FEAST), a seminary administered by the Assemblies of God. After his studies, he began attending the International Charismatic Community (ICC), a church affiliated with the Assemblies of God. His experience in church services in ICC and the New Life Christian Fellowship, the second church he attended, prompted him to leave the Catholic faith. Conde’s perception is that in the 21st century, there will be a "blessing of God to the churches which understand that ‘organicity’ does not lie in church growth." In ten years, BOL membership grew to 2,000. However, on June 30, 1996, Reverend Robbie Casas and Pastor Florencio Ragos of BOL Baguio City split from the church and established Guiding Light Christian Church (now Guiding Light Ministries) two days later (July 2). As of 2012, it has reported to have 600 members. Another issue faced by the church was the story of Faye Nicole San Juan. The 11-year old girl supposedly won the "Intercontinental Science Quiz Net" at Australia in 2004, and BOL featured her in an article (print advertisement) supposedly written by Pastor Rito "Bong" Saquing. However, when the story was proved to be a hoax, he made a public apology for not investigating the issue thoroughly. After seven months in isolation (part of the church's discipline program), he was removed from church leadership. This led him to find a new church. Later on, he became a pastor in the next church in this article, CCF. Meanwhile, by 1998, the Crossroad Center (formerly Crossroad77) in Quezon City was dedicated as the church's main center. It has 2,500 seats and can accommodate an additional 1,000 to 1,500 people (overflow). BOL also holds the distinction of establishing the first prayer mountain facility in the Philippines (and the first in Southeast Asia, according to some claims), the Touch of Glory Prayer Mountain in Antipolo City. Rev. Conde derived the idea from Korea, where the prayer mountain Osanri Choi Ja-Sil can accommodate up to 10,000 people. The church also operates a school, the Meridian International Learning Experience. The church reports a membership of 25,000 as of 2012. However, Leadership Network shows a figure of 15,000 members. BOL is currently being led by Reverend Noel Tan.

In the same year, 1982, Pastor Peter Tan-Chi began a home Bible study in Cainta, Rizal. He was a business administration graduate of the University of the Philippines, and then finished a master's degree in management at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM). He also had a doctorate in ministry from the International Graduate School of Leadership, an institution founded by the Campus Crusade for Christ. Two years later, in 1984, Tan-Chi founded the non-denominational Christ's Commission Fellowship (CCF) with a core group of 40 people. The first service was held at AIM. In 2013, to accommodate a growing church with 40,000 members at the time, CCF constructed their own worship center at Frontera Verde in Ortigas, Pasig City. Known as the CCF Center, it is 48 meters high (ten stories) built on a 2.3 hectare lot. It has a capacity of 10,000 people and can accommodate an additional 2,000 to 2,500 people (overflow). However, in a Christmas celebration at CCF Center in 2014, Executive Pastor Ricky Sarthou was said to have dressed up as "an Arabic suicide bomber", causing criticism from Filipino Freethinkers. Sarthou had sent an apology and cleared that he was portraying Osama bin Laden. Leadership Network shows a figure of 25,000 members. However, the church reports a membership of 75,000 to date. Besides posting sermon videos in the internet, CCF had acquired airtime in TV5 (Channel 5) to broadcast sermons of some of their pastors, including that of Pastor Tan-Chi.

In the same year that CCF was founded, Rice Broocks, Al Manamtam, and Steve and Deborah Murrell led a group of 65 American missionaries on a one month mission trip at the University Belt in Manila. It was summer of 1984. After two weeks, these missionaries founded the non-denominational Victory Christian Fellowship (now known simply as Victory) with a core group of 165 Filipino students. The first service was held at Tandem Theater on Recto Avenue, Manila. Steve Murrell had an encounter with a Presbyterian pastor, leading him to become a Christian in November 1975. Meanwhile, Rice Broocks was a graduate of Mississippi State University. He then finished a master's degree in the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), a seminary in the service of the Presbyterian Church of America. Both are accomplished authors. Murrell wrote WikiChurch: Making Discipleship Engaging, Empowering, and Viral, and 100 Years From Now: Sustaining a Movement for Generations. Broocks wrote GOD'S NOT DEAD: Evidence for God in an Age of Uncertainty, MAN MYTH MESSIAH, and the Purple Book. The first book was adapted into the film God's Not Dead, which grossed 62 million dollars in box office sales. The second book was also adopted in film, this time in the second installment of God's Not Dead, which grossed 23 million dollars. The last book is currently being used in discipleship classes in Victory. In 1994, Victory became affiliated with Every Nation (formerly Morning Star International), an Evangelical group of churches and campus ministries. However, since both Broocks and Murrell were formerly connected with Maranatha Campus Ministries (a Charismatic church founded in 1971), with 15 other Maranatha churches in the United States and the Philippines joining the group, critics saw it more as a repackaged Maranatha than a new ministry. Murrell, serving as Every Nation's president, defended that they had rejected Maranatha and its extreme practices such as "controlling discipleship, authoritarian leadership, and theological mysticism." Meanwhile, the church reports a membership of 110,000 as of 2015. Leadership Network even lists Victory as the fifth largest megachurch in Asia (the so-called "Manila Miracle"). Indeed, in the same year, more than 14,000 people gathered in Smart Araneta Coliseum for Victory's Ignite Conference. Despite the increasing number of members, increasing by almost 25% from 2000 to 2012, Victory has not taken any project to build larger worship centers. Meanwhile, the Every Nation Center in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City is allotted mainly for the Schools of Ministry. Unlike many churches, Victory does not highlight sole leadership of the church. Even Murrell, who is president of Every Nation, does not assume such position in Victory. He even called himself an "accidental missionary." There are senior pastors in every church location, perhaps causing enough confusion for newcomers. However, there are executive directors in every region of the Philippines. As for Metro Manila, where most Victory members are concentrated (65,000 as of 2013, a figure corroborated by Leadership Network), the executive director is Pastor Ferdinand "Ferdie" Cabiling. He is better known as the "running pastor", who ran 2,180 kilometers around the country in 2015 for the benefit of 250 youth scholars.

Even after the 1970s and early 1980s, there are more megachurches emerging in the Philippines, and even outside it. On June 6, 1985, Pastor Eduardo "Ed" Lapiz began the non-denominational Day by Day Christian Ministries (DBD) from a small fellowship of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Lapiz was a graduate of the University of the Philippines, finishing degrees in Philippine Arts (BA) and Philippine Studies (MA, Ph.D.). He has also authored some 40 books, including Paano Maging Pilipinong Kristiano: Becoming a Filipino Christian, which featured his ideas of Filipinizing (indigenizing) Christianity. Lapiz himself admitted that he was being criticized for his views and practices to indigenize the Christian faith, such as the Kristianong Pasyon and the use of kakanin in communion. He returned to the Philippines in 1991, holding his first service at McDouton Building in Quezon City. As the number of members grew, the church was moved to the Folk Arts Theater, Pasay City in 2005. It was then dedicated as the Bulwagan ng Panginoon (Hall of the Lord). The theater became the main center of DBD. Since then, the church has expanded to other locations. While the church does not release official membership counts, the average attendance in the main center is around 6,000. The church has acquired airtime in the Far Eastern Broadcasting Company (702 DZAS) to broadcast a number of radio programs.

On June 27, 1987, the Presbyterian Church of the Philippines (officially The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the Philippines or GAPCP) was officially founded. This is around two years after DBD. The founding of the church was partly caused by the arrival of Korean missionaries in the 1970s. In 1974, Reverend Choi Chan-Young from the Presbyterian Church of Korea (TongHap) was sent as a missionary to the Philippines. He worked for the Philippine Bible Society until 1977. After him, Reverend Kim Hwal-Young left Vietnam and arrived in the Philippines in 1977. He was sent by the Presbyterian Church in Korea (HapDong). Kim attempted to establish a Presbyterian Church in the Philippines as difficulties in cooperating with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) mounted. This led to the establishment of the Evangelical Presbyterian Mission (EPM), agreed upon in 1981, and established in 1983. Four congregations joined EPM. In the same year, the Presbyterian School of Theology was founded. Nevertheless, as the number of Korean missionaries increased (266 by this time), so did the number of churches. By 1986, agreement was reached between the EPM (sponsored by HapDong), the Reformed Church of the Philippines (sponsored by TongHap), the Presbyterian Mission in the Philippines (sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Korea (Kosin)), and the Presbyterian Church in Korea (HapDongBoSu) mission to unite under one Presbyterian Church, thus forming the GAPCP the following year with Reverend Lemuel Dalisay as the first Filipino minister. However, in 1989, Reverend Kim Yooshik left the Presbyterian Church, and then established the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the Philippines with himself as president. He has been a missionary (HapDong) in the Philippines since 1979, and the congregation he led began in 1983. In the same year of his leave, 20 Korean missionaries from TongHap, Koshin, and HapDongBoSu reaffirmed unity under one Presbyterian Church in the Manila Manifest. On September 16, 1996, the first General Assembly was held in Los Baños, Laguna. To date, 287 congregations are organized in nine presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church. As of 2009, while there are no official church reports, membership is estimated to have been 11,000. Meanwhile, a 2007 source mentions membership to be at 8,000. It is currently being led by Reverend Nelson Dangan as general secretary. Dangan was formerly senior pastor of Light of the World Presbyterian Church.

Other megachurches in the Philippines include:
  • Cathedral of Praise (formerly Manila Bethel Temple), a Pentecostal church founded by Dr. Lester F. Sumrall in 1954. To date, the church is led by Pastor David E. Sumrall. It reported a membership of 24,000 as of 2002. However, Leadership Network puts their membership numbers at 6,000. It has also acquired airtime in television since 1986.
  • Church of the Foursquare Gospel in the Philippines (CFGPI), a Pentecostal church branched from the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. The church reports a membership of 95,000. Reverend Valentin C. Chaves leads the church as its president.
  • Destiny Church (or Destiny Church Manila, to distinguish itself from other churches with the same name), a church affiliated with the G12 Conference. The church originated from a youth core group in the University of the Philippines known as Students of Destiny (formerly Students of Christ) in 2001. It was founded by Pastor Leo Carlo Panlilio, serving as its senior pastor to date. Then known as Destiny Ministries International, the church became affiliated with G12 in 2004. As of 2010, church attendance reached 5,000. In 2016, 7,000 pastors affiliated with G12, including that of Destiny Church, endorsed Rodrigo Duterte for president. Panlilio had the opportunity to pray for Duterte at the gathering in Cuneta Astrodome. Duterte was elected president eventually, but it remains to be seen how the endorsement affected the election.
  • Metro Manila Christian Church (MMCC), a church affiliated with the International Church of Christ (ICOC) in the United States. It was founded in 1989 by 28 Americans from the ICOC, having the first service with 260 people. The church grew to 2,000 members by 1995. While it did not release official counts afterwards, the anniversary service at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) gathered a total of 3,000 members.
  • Grace Christian Church (GCC), formerly Grace Bible Church and Grace Gospel Church, a non-denominational Evangelical church founded by Dr. Edwin Spahr in Manila in 1949. The following year, the Grace Christian High School was established, with the new church as its "church home." On October 27, 1968, Grace Christian Church was formally inaugurated, with Reverend Paul Tan serving as its first minister. By this time, the church has 150 members. As of 2013, the church reported attendance figures to be at 2,000.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Of course, there is no single article that can discuss all existing megachurches, even in the Philippines. The following would be a few observations in some of these megachurches:
  • Multiple locations: Megachurches are able to increase discipleship opportunities because of being available in many areas. This is not only confined in the Philippines, but there are congregations being formed abroad as well, particularly in nations with significant Filipino populations. For instance, Destiny Church has three churches, Cathedral of Praise has eight, WOH 43, BOL 59, CCF 60, DBD 71, Victory 82, and GAPCP 287.
  • Multiple services: Not only do megachurches hold services in many locations, they also hold many services within any one location. This accommodates people with hectic schedules. Services also tend to adopt contemporary worship music which can be considered at par with secular songs.
  • Starting small: In retrospect, most of these megachurches actually began as simple or house churches, with their respective first services catering more or less a hundred people. In addition, some of these megachurches do not invest heavily on larger worship centers. For example, the largest worship center in Victory has the capacity of 1,200. This is a far cry from the capacity of the CCF Center.
  • Staying small: While overall numbers increase annually, megachurches use to good effect small groups (which may have varying names but the same functions). These groups are facilitated by leaders (volunteer leaders) who gather three to 20 people weekly or monthly to develop intimate and close connections with members, emphasizing a "spiritual family." This also means that everyone can be accommodated and no one would be left behind.
  • Good communications: Some megachurches have utilized both traditional and social media to convey the Gospel, and with it came creative ways to keep the people connected. JILCW, CCF, DBD, PGCAG, and Cathedral of Praise, among others, have aired programs in radio and/or television. Meanwhile, social media is also a good venue for megachurches. In Facebook alone, JILCW has more than 689,000 followers, Victory has more than 294,000, CCF 291,000, Destiny Church 45,400, Cathedral of Praise 27,200, WOH, 15,500, GCF 11,800, BOL 9,500, PGCAG 6,400, and GCC 3,900.
  • Funding priority: While there are criticisms concerning the amount of money megachurches take in, giving is clearly voluntary. Besides maintenance of locations and operations, megachurches proved to be socially responsible with their outreach programs and voluntary work. Most, if not all, of these megachurches actually began with little to no funding, especially with churches focusing on youth ministries. As illustrated by Rev. Conde in a gathering of Korean missionaries, "Do you really love the Philippines? Then do not give money to the national workers. Do you hate the Philippines? Then give money to them. Remember how the Korean Church started about one hundred years ago? Did they have money? Even though they were poor, they sacrificed a lot and did great works."
  • Affiliation: Not all megachurches are affiliated, and not all of them are non-denominational. Pentecostal/Charismatic churches figured in this list, and so did other denominational churches.
Finally, evangelism is at the core of the quick growth of megachurches. Nevertheless, despite the work done in the past half century, the Protestant population of the Philippines remain small. Even to this day, figures show that members of the megachurches in our list number more or less 600,000. With this figure alone, it would mean that megachurch members already comprise around 13% of all non-Catholic Christians (JILCW is not accounted for in the millions figure which they report, otherwise the total would have been around 4.6 million, a figure that may not be supported by government statistics). Indeed, growth is one factor. However, the challenge lies on keeping these members and making them disciples that make more disciples.

He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation." (Mark 16:15)

Protestantism in the Philippines: Megachurch fever Protestantism in the Philippines: Megachurch fever Reviewed by Al Raposas on Friday, January 20, 2017 Rating: 5


  1. Interesting work! Thank you for this very helpful article. I just wonder why United Evangelical Church of the Philippines was not mentioned.

    1. The United Evangelical Church of the Philippines (UECP) has an attendance of more or less 1,000, which may qualify it as a megachurch in the strict sense of the term. However, the churches listed have a minimum attendance of 2,000. It is hoped that the limitations of the article is understandable.

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  2. Doulos for Christ not mentioned?

    1. While Doulos does seem to have increasing attendance numbers, it does not appear to have sufficient statistics to make the comparison. It is hoped that the limitations of the article is understandable.

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