A Case Study from Mindanao, Philippines
Wilson McMahon provides a historical review of the growth of the Manobo church in the Philippines and examines how certain socio-historical realities generated a degree of readiness on the part of the Manobo for appropriating evangelical Christianity. Their acceptance of Christianity helped them to transition to a new identity around a new set of values, which facilitated their remaining distinct as a people.
Wilson and his wife Irene are from Northern Ireland and have served with OMF as church planters among the Manobo of southern Philippines and as regional directors for OMF in Ireland. Wilson and Irene returned to the Philippines in 2019. Wilson now serves as dean of academic affairs in Koinonia Theological Seminary in Davao City and Irene serves as OMF Philippines field director.
Ready for the New: How Social Upheaval Shaped a People’s Response to the Gospel
A Case Study from Mindanao, Philippines
Mission Round Table 16:3 (September–December 2021): 22–27
As missionaries who belong to an evangelical agency, we are comfortable talking about church planting using missiological terms. We have developed competency at drawing from key themes of this discipline to explain what we see happening in the midst of the people with whom we have become deeply connected, particularly as we see them respond positively to the gospel, begin to gather as communities of faith, and then, in turn, reach out to evangelize and plant churches among their own kith and kin. As church planters, many of us have also imbibed a good measure of pragmatism. We have learned that certain ways of doing things work well, in terms of promoting interest in our message or helping young churches grow, multiply, and remain true to their calling. The latter we have learned from the senior workers who mentored us in our craft or from our time spent reading material that draws from thinkers within the Church Growth Movement.
Undoubtedly, well-honed methods and good missiological thinking impact the shape and depth of our mission. We also have a large measure of control over both. We fastidiously learn our methods and implement them with care. We may owe a lot of our missiological thinking to our teachers, but we alone are responsible for weaving what we have learned into the warp and weft of our daily work.
The reality is, however, that Christianity does not take root in new places solely in response to the missionary’s message, crucial though this is to the process. Everyone who hears the Christian gospel for the first time does so within a cultural matrix of socio-political, socio-economic, and socio-historical forces that can make it either more likely or unlikely that people respond positively to the new message. In this article, we will examine some of these forces. Using the growth of Christianity among the Manobo of Central Mindanao, Philippines as a case study, I would like us to consider how certain socio-historical influences have been vital in affecting the positive reception and ongoing growth of Christianity in this part of the Philippines. We shall begin with a brief introduction to the history of Christian mission among this segment of the Manobo population of Mindanao.
The workers and their methods
OMF Philippines leadership first began making trips to visit the Manobo groups of Central Mindanao in 1975–76. When reporting on those trips, it was clear that, in accepting the challenge to begin mission work amongst the Manobo, OMF’s intention was to see an indigenous Manobo church established. To quote from a report presented by Dave Fuller at an OMF Philippines conference in 1976, “… if the church is to succeed in reaching more than peripheral Manobo, it also must be Manobo.” Today there is a large thriving Manobo church association that owes its origins to OMF workers who began and continued their efforts with this intention firmly fixed in their minds.
The OMF missionaries who pioneered evangelism amongst the Manobo began by learning Cebuano, the lingua franca of Mindanao, after which they moved into Manobo villages and began acquiring fluency in the language of the Manobo people group they had committed themselves to reaching. In general, their evangelistic methods were preaching, group and/or individual Bible studies, and conversations in Manobo homes.
Missionaries began discussing what the new emerging Manobo church would be named as early as 1979. Initially, there was widespread enthusiasm for the Manobo churches to be organizationally connected to the Association of Bible Churches of the Philippines (ABCOP). This was eventually abandoned in favor of the creation of a purely Manobo church grouping, which was formed in 1985 and named the Manobo Bible Church Association of Mindanao (MABCAM).
The number of MABCAM believers in October 1985 was 550 and, by November 1987, there were 734 members belonging to thirteen congregations. At this early stage of MABCAM’s life, OMF missionaries remained committed to making MABCAM a church association led by Manobo Christian leaders and in a manner that was appropriate to Manobo culture and customs. MABCAM’s leaders were elected by delegates appointed from each church to attend meetings.
The major early initiatives that helped to develop the capacity of MABCAM and its members were decided on by OMF missionaries and then brought forward for discussion and approval by the MABCAM delegates in their meetings. In what was only their second delegates’ meeting in December 1985, it was recorded that delegates decided to proceed with providing dormitory accommodation for Manobo high school students and to approve the concept of a central Bible school.
With the passage of time, the dormitory project eventually morphed into a full-blown scholarship program that provided accommodation for high school students across MABCAM and tuition grants and accommodation for those who made it to college. This scholarship program and the Central Manobo Bible School of Mindanao (CMBSM) proved to be institutions that made inestimable contributions to the education of young people and the training of church leaders respectively. Nevertheless, they were always dependent on mission funding for their operational costs. CMBSM was eventually closed down in the late 1990s as the necessary funding dried up. Financing for the scholarship program was maintained until 2019.
In the years following MABCAM’s creation, its leadership increasingly took on more and more of the oversight of church life and mission. Matters of discipline were dealt with by MABCAM leadership and they gradually became more and more proactive in the running of the association and its administrative shape. In 1988, delegates took the decision to organize MABCAM into four regional zones to facilitate easier supervision of churches through regional business meetings.
Evangelism and church planting in new villages was another ministry that MABCAM leaders gradually began to take organizational responsibility for. This was made possible through the training gained at CMBSM. One report details how, one year after classes had begun at the school, there were four new villages being consistently visited by Manobo preachers. In each case, the initiative had been taken by the respective preachers. Despite these encouraging signs in the early years of MABCAM, there was little growth numerically throughout the 1990s. In December 1994, MABCAM was recorded as still having only seventeen churches.
In the early years of the twenty-first century, new growth and vitality began to flow into MABCAM, principally through the work and influence of younger leaders who had graduated from college via the scholarship program. Well educated and spiritually vibrant, many of these young adults gave themselves to helping in their home congregations, with the most gifted of these getting elected to positions of overall leadership. They brought new administrative skills to leadership and were proactive about organizing Manobo Christians to do church planting in unreached areas.
MABCAM church at Kibungkog, July 2019
Today, MABCAM has more than seventy congregations, not to mention an indeterminate number of outreaches where Manobo preachers are teaching the gospel. The association now has ten zones, more than double the number it had in 1998, and has a presence amongst seven of Central Mindanao’s indigenous people groups. MABCAM’s relationship with OMF has also moved on—OMF no longer has missionaries doing frontline church planting or training within MABCAM. A celebratory event has been planned for August 2022, which will celebrate what God has done among the Manobo of Central Mindanao and also mark the end of a formal relationship between OMF and MABCAM.
Besides the strategic planning, skills, and efforts exerted by OMF workers, and working on the premise that the Spirit of God was active in bringing to birth faith and new life in these Manobo communities, what were the socio-cultural factors that contributed to this enthusiastic reception of Christianity in Central Mindanao?
Celebrating MABCAM’s thirtieth anniversary, April 2015
Trauma as catalyst for new identity
Susan Hawley, in her study on the Bible amongst the Miskitu in Nicaragua who were evangelised by the Moravians in the nineteenth century, remarks that the stress inherent in a period of change can lead to the search for a new identity and that, in the case of the Miskitu, led them to choose Christianity. The late Andrew Walls made the claim that the appropriation of a new religion, or elements thereof, at a time of crisis, is frequently given momentum by the perceived inadequacy of the old gods in dealing with new conditions. These existential crises of identity can come in the wake of various natural or man-made calamities. Examples of the latter are famine and/or conflict; alterations in the local demographics caused by the in-migration of new settlers; severe economic downturn, which can kickstart the out-migration of much of the indigenous populace; and environmental degradation through desertification, constant flooding, or deforestation. From the 1960s onwards, the Manobo of Central Mindanao have lived through variations of most of these.
Following World War II, from 1948 to 1960, Mindanao’s population increased by 87 percent, more than twice that of the national rate of 41 percent. More than one half of this increase was due to in-migration (an actual increase of 1,250,000 people) and issued in a population for Mindanao of around 5 million people by 1960. The huge influx of migrants eventually began taking its toll on the social fabric of Mindanao. By the 1960s, many of the new settlers, unable to pay back their government loans, had become landless. The Muslims of Cotabato province also began reacting to what they saw as the increasing emasculation of their way of life by “Christian” immigrants, with the result that new armed groups began to emerge in response to the social dislocation that Muslims were facing.
When Ferdinand Marcos became president of the Philippines in 1964, the situation in Mindanao was becoming more volatile. Keen to exploit the island’s abundance of natural resources and in order to avoid any disruption to major extractive industries, Marcos deployed the military to key trouble spots in Mindanao. More than any of the other major extractive industries, it was commercial logging that expanded and flourished under the Marcos presidency. From 1950 to 1987, 36,000 km² of land was deforested in Mindanao, accounting for 45 percent of all deforestation in the Philippines in this period. All of these developments brought massive social and environmental upheaval to the Manobo and other indigenous peoples of Mindanao. The colossal deforestation of so much of Mindanao irreversibly disrupted their way of life, and the network of national highways and logging roads opened up their homelands to Cebuano-speaking settlers, who would acquire land and be the catalyst for additional social dislocation.
The Manobo of Central Mindanao first encountered OMF missionaries and their message in the mid-1970s when the monumental changes listed above were in full swing. Looking at circumstances from a socio-cultural standpoint, the Manobo of Central Mindanao found themselves in a new place—the old way of life was gone. Christianity and, in particular, the Bible provided a new identity and a new text that would allow some Manobo to navigate a way through their new circumstances. This comes through in many of the interviews I made during my own research in 2014–15:
That is what we all as Manobo followed before. Then the Bible arrived and we were enlightened. The old has gone; the new has come. We now need to do what he wants. He tells us what is good to keep and what we should abandon. (Interview 19)
In a previous time, we gentiles did not have the Bible. We were ignorant about his word. He made people; he used people so we would know his word. (Interview 8)
It was correct to use Manobo wisdom in the past; we did not have anything else and there was no one to explain to us the meaning. But now we have the Christian way and the way of the government… now we follow new technology, because in the past we had Manobo ways that were not easy…. (Interview 21)
I would say that, in years past, we just did not know about the Bible. We just lived by our culture, but now our education is much greater… there are Manobo who have been to school… we have teachers who are Manobo, we have a doctor, nurses … your children can be educated, we can be educated. Like me, if I continue to serve the Lord, my children can be educated. (Interview 62)
The Bible in these interviews is not referenced as an ancient text that pre-dates Manobo culture but as something new, something that signified their transition to a new identity as a people. The Bible and Christianity are bundled together in the people’s consciousness with other more familiar elements of modernity, such as education, technology, upward social mobility, and submitting to the government. Academics who research in the field of World Christianity regularly encounter this relationship between modernity and Christianity. To quote another example from Southeast Asia, Cornelia Kammerer has described how conversion to Christianity among the Akha highlanders of Burma and Thailand gained intensity at the same time as traditional religious knowledge among these people began to wane. The diminishing importance of local knowledge was a result of young Akha becoming ever more preoccupied with gaining an education in the Thai school system with the understanding that this, in turn, could lead to new economic opportunities.
Early missionaries Bob Moye, Wendell Krossa, and David Ginther with Manobo leaders
What this helps us to see is that the arrival of OMF missionaries teaching the gospel coincided with a kairos moment in Manobo history—a moment that owed its actuality in real life to the corporate greed and scheming of power-hungry politicians and businessmen. Nevertheless, it was a moment within the providence of God that prepared Manobo people for a new message and identity.
Evangelical Christianity and group formation
From the previous section, a question that begs an answer is: if the Manobo of Central Mindanao were ready for a transition to a new identity and a new way of life, why did they not just assimilate themselves to the “new” and “modern” way of life of the Visayan settlers who were moving in as their new neighbors?
An answer to this can be arrived at by considering why the Manobo and other indigenous people groups of Mindanao chose to live in the highland areas of the island in the first place. The anthropologist and political scientist, James C. Scott, has studied the highland communities of the Southeast Asian massif and their relationship with neighboring nation states. Scott’s analysis of the upland communities of Southeast Asia, whose domain stretches from central Vietnam to north-east India, leads him to assert that upland communities make a political choice to live at the perimeter of state control. Non-state space, therefore, be it hill or forest, became a zone of refuge from state agents where people could avoid being captured as slaves, pressed into labor, or have their produce assessed and taxed. Life in the hills and forest, therefore, according to Scott, does not display “archaic traits of a people left behind, but devices to avoid incorporation and to stop concentrations of power in their midst.” Living in small communities of four to five households and practicing swidden agriculture made them notoriously difficult to subdue and their crops almost impossible to assess for taxation purposes. Even their kinship patterns were designed so as to “divide and not be conquered.”
Talupakan Village, 2010
Though Scott focuses on a territory within mainland Southeast Asia, his conclusions can be applied to the Philippine context. The elements of a culture that signify avoidance of state control in Scott’s thesis can be found within Manobo communities, namely, a strong tradition of household autonomy, self-reliance, an anti-hierarchical ethos, and shifting agriculture. The desire for autonomy and independence were very probably the confluence of factors that drove the ancestors of present-day Manobo communities into the central highlands of Mindanao in the first place. This can help enlarge our understanding about the Manobo’s willingness to adopt evangelical Christianity.
Manobo in native dress at MABCAM thirtieth anniversary celebration in 2015.
Religion, according to Scott, can be a device that assists in maintaining the distance from state-forming societies that hill peoples are anxious to preserve, in addition to providing them with a modern identity. This happens when hill societies adopt a “religious identity that is at variance with that of core state populations who have stigmatized them.” By becoming evangelical Christians, the Manobo have been able to negotiate a place for themselves within a global Christian community while, at the same time, preserving their differences and distance from the local, lowland, state-forming power, which is dominated by lowland Visayan settlers, is religiously Catholic, and would prefer that Manobo allow themselves to be assimilated within their structures of power.
In short, and in answer to the question with which I began this section, assimilation into the mainstream has always been something that independent-minded, freedom-loving Manobo have wanted to avoid at all costs. Embracing evangelical Christianity has enabled the Manobo of Central Mindanao to do just that. It has helped them to maintain a sense of being a distinct people group in the face of all the social upheaval that we examined above.
This option for Protestant or evangelical Christianity, over against the majority religious affiliation of a nation, has been made on the part of minority indigenous people from other regions of Southeast Asia, and for the same reasons. This is certainly the case in Myanmar, where Baptist Christianity has flourished among minority groups like the Karen, Chin, and Kachin, who never embraced the Buddhism of the majority Bamar people. The situation is similar in Malaysia, where more than 70 percent of the nation’s Christians are located in East Malaysia, in the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, among the non-Malay, non-Muslim indigenous peoples. Protestantism makes up more than half of the 33 million Christians of Indonesia and these are also found scattered across a multitude of ethnic groups. Perhaps the best-known ethnic group in Indonesia to have embraced Christianity is the Batak. There are around 8.5 million Batak in Indonesia, and around 50 percent of these are Protestant Christians today. And the same is true in Vietnam, where Catholicism constitutes a large 8 percent minority of the country’s population. Large numbers of Vietnam’s minority highland peoples have become evangelical Christians, with most of this growth taking place since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In fact, though the ethnic minority peoples of Vietnam constitute only 13 percent of the nation’s population, they account for more than half of the country’s Protestants.
In this article, I have sought to present how certain socio-historical realities generated a degree of readiness on the part of the Manobo for appropriating the evangelical Christianity brought by OMF missionaries. Christianity—this new religion with its new text—helped the Manobo to transition to a new identity and a new future, characterised by the material benefits of modern life, such as education, technology, and upward mobility. Embracing evangelical Christianity also allowed for renewed group formation around a new set of values, which would facilitate their remaining distinct as a people and avoid assimilation into the mainstream culture of lowland society.
Lest some of us lament that these are less than worthy reasons for converting, it is worthwhile to note that certain elements within the OMF mission strategy reinforced these expectations on the part of Manobo. It can hardly surprise us that the Manobo expected opportunities for education as a corollary of conversion if we consider that a scholarship program was a core element to OMF mission strategy right from the beginning.
As for the expectation that embracing evangelical Christianity would facilitate a renewed sense of being a distinct and separate people, we should note the quotation above from the early leader and pioneer of OMF mission among the Manobo, Dave Fuller. He was committed to planting a church that “must be Manobo.” Commitment to this value by OMF workers—reflected also in the decision not to connect MABCAM with ABCOP and to ensure that MABCAM was always governed by Manobo leaders—has indeed facilitated MABCAM becoming not just a Christian denomination, but an important cultural marker for many Manobo. In a separate piece of research that I conducted in 2013, I asked thirty MABCAM members a simple question: “Who is MABCAM”? The overwhelming majority of respondents (86 percent) answered that MABCAM was an organisation that existed “for the Manobo.” This take on MABCAM’s identity reveals, perhaps more than anything else, what MABCAM contributes to the sense of its members’ identity as Manobo. For many Manobo, who have witnessed the loss of so much self-esteem through the eradication and dilution of their traditional way of life, MABCAM cuts against the prevailing tendencies of other organizations, businesses, or political parties they have encountered in the past. In their eyes, MABCAM is probably the only institution they know that is “for them.”
All Christianity is cultural. The socio-cultural values of a local culture and the needs of its people will always shape how Christianity is practiced and what it signifies for its members. And the reverse is also true. The practice of Christianity will also result in the creation of a new cultural space. Today, MABCAM bears the marks of the socio-historic, socio-political, socio-economic, and socio-cultural forces that dominated the lives of Manobo people at its birth. But, MABCAM is more than a mere social construct—more than a cultural Christian entity formed to provide a sense of unity and meaning for a socially dislocated people. MABCAM members view themselves as truly Christian, having left behind the old gods of their forebears to serve the one true and living God. Within MABCAM, members also feel they have a safe place where, without fear of ridicule and derision, they can celebrate the way of life of their forebears and all within it that was, and still is, enriching and life-affirming.
 OMF Philippines, “Introducing Central Mindanao: Report Presented at the OMF Philippines Area Conference,” 1976, unpublished paper.
 This church association is officially called the Manobo Bible Church Association of Mindanao and will be referred to hereafter as MABCAM.
 Cebuano is the main language of communication within the western Visayan islands and eastern Mindanao. For this reason, it is more often referred to as Bisaya or Binisaya within Mindanao.
 ABCOP was co-founded by OMF and the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade in 1972 to provide fellowship for newly planted churches in southern Luzon, Philippines. At the ABCOP General Assembly in 1988, ABCOP’s name was changed to the Alliance of Bible Christian Communities of the Philippines and is currently known by the acronym ABCCOP.
 OMF Philippines, “Formal Communications,” October 1985, unpublished paper.
 OMF Philippines, “Mindanao Monthly Report,” November 1987, unpublished paper.
 OMF Philippines, “Mindanao Monthly Report,” October 1988, unpublished paper.
 OMF Philippines, “Prayer Focus Philippines,” November 1988, unpublished paper.
 OMF Philippines, “Manobo Team Minutes: Annual Planning Meeting,” December 1994, unpublished paper. Actual figures are unavailable for the number of churches and total membership in the late 1990s.
 Zones 1 and 2 represent MABCAM churches amongst the Ata Manobo, zone 3 the Tala Ingod Manobo, zones 4 and 6 the Tigwa Manobo, zone 5 the Umayamnon Manobo, zone 7 the Dibabawon, zone 8 the Pulanguihon Manobo, and zone 10 the Agusan Manobo. The Manobo of the Arakan valley are closely related linguistically to the Matig Salug and their churches are located within MABCAM’s zone 9. The Dibabawon of zone 7 do not consider themselves Manobo even though their culture and worldview are similar to that of their Manobo neighbours.
 Susan Hawley, “Does God Speak Miskitu? The Bible and Ethnic Identity among the Miskitu of Nicaragua,” in Ethnicity and the Bible, ed. Mark G. Brett (Boston and Leiden: Brill, 2002), 327–28.
 Cf. Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (New York: Orbis, 1996), 131. Walls makes the point that the universal faiths can provide the means for maintaining the identity of tribal people under the threat of absorption or domination from a majority culture.
 Frederick L. Wernstedt and Paul D. Simkins, “Migrations and the Settlement of Mindanao,” The Journal of Asian Studies 25, no. 1 (1965): 91–95.
 From 1903 to 1960, the Muslim proportion of the Mindanao population dropped from 31 to 20 percent, Wernstedt and Simkins, “Migrations,” 101.
 Patricio N. Abinales, Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation State (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000), 166.
 David M. Kummer, Deforestation in the Postwar Philippines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 58.
 Some logging concessions constructed as much as 70 km of road in order to extract lumber. Cf. Robert Hackenberg and Beverly H. Hackenberg, “Secondary Development and Anticipatory Urbanization in Davao, Mindanao,” Pacific Viewpoint 12 (1971): 8.
 Cornelia Ann Kammerer, “Conversion among the Akha Highlanders of Burma and Thailand,” American Ethnologist 17, no. 2 (1990): 284.
 James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009).
 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, 8.
 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, 32.
 Shifting agriculture is still practiced by some Manobo communities, but is much less common nowadays. Settled agriculture and the cultivation of land for growing maize, wetland rice, and bananas are rapidly becoming the norm for Manobo farmers.
 Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed, 319.
 Peter Phan, “Vietnam”, in Kenneth R. Ross, Francis D. Alvarez, and Todd M. Johnson, eds., Christianity in East and Southeast Asia, Edinburgh Companion to Global Christianity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 193.