A shrill whistle pierced through the bedroom window, awakening me at 5:00 a.m. Al ready I could hear the local church elders beginning to gather on the road in front of the house. I dressed quickly and joined them for a few minutes of warm-up exercises, followed by a brisk walk in the cool predawn darkness.
Thus began one of the most interesting, satisfying, and exhausting Sabbaths I had experienced in the Philippines. It was the culmination of a three-week elders' training session conducted in con junction with a nightly evangelistic campaign. The scene of activity was a village outside Santa Lucia, several hundred kilometers north of Manila. I stayed in the home of Floyd and Vicky Ramos, a dynamic young couple holding responsible government positions. After becoming Adventists two years previously, they found themselves the only church members in their locality. Feeling a burden for evangelism, they constructed a bamboo frame meeting hall across the road from their house. Then they appealed for assistance from mission headquarters.
Help came in the person of Florante Andres, director of the Church Growth Institute for the Northern Philippines Union. He invited local elders from the region to attend the training program and help out with the evangelistic meetings. Thirty-one elders attended the training session, and hundreds of people from the community took their stand for Christ and His truth as Rogelio Bernal presented the nightly message.
Since 1987, nearly 50 of these pro grams have trained an average of 35 to 40 elders a session. The plan originated in the Philippines with Edwin Beck, then director of the Church Growth Institute for the Far Eastern Division. Filipino pastors often serve 10, 20, or even more churches and can visit each of them only once a month—at best. For the week by week operation of a church, total responsibility typically falls on the shoulders of local elders. Despite having strong spiritual leadership potential, many are inadequately trained for preaching, visitation, and conducting the diverse business of the congregation.
The training sessions have met their need. The curriculum for the three-week course covers a number of important areas. After a morning devotional examines one of the fundamental SDA beliefs, four basic classes follow:
1. Personal Evangelism
2. Sermon Preparation
3. Church Administration and Leadership
4. Principles of Church Growth.
In addition to attending these classes, elders become involved in the evangelistic crusade going on. They help with platform duties, visitation, Bible studies, ushering, transportation, even special music.
Many elders sacrifice financially to avail themselves of the training. Some even jeopardize well-paying jobs. Each receives a modest stipend to cover food and transportation costs. Careful spending allows something to send home to the family for groceries. Elders usually find housing with local church members.
Many elders in metropolitan areas cannot abandon their professional practice for three weeks at a time. For them the church offers a weekend training program in Manila lasting three months.
The Lord's leading has been evident in the establishing of the Filipino training program for local elders, who contribute in large measure to the vitality of the Filipinio church. Edwin Gulfan, Church Growth Institute director of the South Philippine Union, one of the largest and fastest-growing unions in our world church, is enthusiastic about the elder training program. "We are constantly planting new churches," he says, "which means that our pastoral force is spread out more and more. The demand for strong lay pastors and elders is urgent, and this new program is meeting the need to equip them."
One local elder asked me, "Why has the church waited so long to provide this training for us? If all the elders had taken this course years ago, we would be in the kingdom by now."