Mystery Worshipper: Pewpotato
Church: Victory Christian Fellowship Ortigas
Location: Quezon City, the Philippines
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 May 2008, 5:00pm
The church meets on the top level of Robinson's Galleria, a rather stylish mall in Ortigas Center. They lease one of the biggest spaces in the mall, which I believe was once an outlet store for a famous clothing line but which has been renovated into a worship hall they call Victory Centre. Coming from the mall atrium, one enters Victory Centre through a pair of glass doors that open to a tiny foyer with a small welcome table. The right side of the foyer opens into a small bookshop. Opposite the bookshop is a narrow hall that leads to four Sunday school rooms that also serve as a day care centre on weekdays. Past the foyer is another pair of glass doors that open to the worship hall. The dimly lit worship hall with low ceilings is filled with chairs arranged fan-shaped that sort of surround the two-foot high stage up front. The stage is without any trace of religious symbolism – there wasn't even a pulpit. Crowding the small stage were band equipment and a number of sound system peripherals neatly arranged. Illuminating the stage was a wide array of high-tech coloured lights, making the entire worship hall resemble a modern disco hall or a jazz bar. Two projection screens hung on both sides of the stage. At the back of the stage is an office and a holding room for service participants. Because of the congregation's size, the church rents a 900-seat cinema on the same level of the mall in which are held three of its most attended Sunday services.
Victory began 26 years ago as a Bible study composed of university students. The tiny group soon grew from a handful to a more that 15,000 attendees distributed among 10 churches. Victory Ortigas is one of the two largest congregations in the Every Nation family of churches. This congregation alone claims 6000 attending their 12 services every weekend. It has always been a church for the young and hip because of its continued vibrant ministry to university students. Victory today is a good mix of different age groups from all walks of life. One of the most interesting phenomena for Victory is its growing popularity among Filipino celebrities. On a regular Sunday, one may see no fewer than a dozen showbiz, social and sports figures. In fact, there have been sightings of former first lady Imelda Marcos. Some critics believe that the growth of Victory is celebrity driven – that more and more common folks attend worship just for celebrity sightings.
The mall is smack at the very edge of Ortigas Center, the second most important commercial and business district in the Philippines. Ortigas is also home for two other megachurches in the city.
Pastor Ferdie Cabiling, senior pastor, and some unnamed singers.
What was the name of the service?Worship service.
How full was the building?
I'd say about 450 people were present. There were a number of chairs vacant.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, someone did. They have a good number of ushers who welcome people and lead them to their seats.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were no pews. Instead, we sat in chairs, with plastic seats and backrests, and steel frames, which were comfortable only for a certain period of time. But like any other church I've visited in the Philippines, their chairs are designed for medium-sized Filipinos. The chairs and the rows are arranged too close to each other for comfort. In fact, the aisles are about two feet wide – only enough space for one person to pass! For a charismatic church that encourages free movement in worship – dancing, swaying and hand-raising – the worship center sends a totally opposite message: "Be still!"
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
For a Pentecostal congregation, the atmosphere was rather reverential. I was expecting it to be more rowdy and noisy. Outside the worship center, children were running noisily in the tiny narrow hallway. People talked in the mall lobby and there were a number of folks seated talking to each other. The band was running through some songs.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We started immediately with a song: "All creation sing of the risen King, let the universe resound."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Everything needed to be read, sung or seen was projected onto the two screens on both sides of the stage by high-powered LCD projectors. Such a look is fast becoming the in thing for churches around the Philippines to attract the younger generations who are drifting away from traditional Christianity. People did have their Bibles with them, though.
What musical instruments were played?
Two keyboards, two guitars, a bass guitar and a set of drums.
Did anything distract you?
At the beginning of the singing, people began clapping and swaying and dancing – things I feared they'd do despite the size of the hall and the arrangement of the seats. Two hands blocked my view of the screen, and the man standing beside me worshipped with his hands up almost the whole time. It would have been fine if he didn't bump me a few times.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy in every way. Pastors and leaders here dress casually – no clerical collars, vestments, suits, coats, or ties – and so do the attendees. The band and the singers were very good but the songs were all new to me, all modern. Not one traditional hymn was sung! There was a lot of freedom in worship. People clapped, knelt, raised their hands, jumped up and down and danced to the beat of each song. The 20-minute-long singing moved from one song to another interspersed with "singing in the spirit" – a common practice among Pentecostal churches where people are given time to sing out to God with their own words (and in other tongues) spontaneously. The singing was followed a time of prayer, where people who had special needs were asked to come forward and be prayed for by the pastor. An offering was received after a short exhortation. After the collection, the pastor began his message and closed with an altar call. A final song was sung as the people walked out of the hall.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Pastor Ferdie, as he is dearly called by his parishioners, is a typical Filipino looking and sounding man. His grammar was almost perfect but his diction distracted me. He seemed to have trouble with fricatives: "from" became "prom" and "things" became "tings." But then again, that's common among Filipinos.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was Mothers Day, and the sermon title was: "Warning: Disobeying your parents may be dangerous to your health." The pastor read two verses: Exodus 20:12 ("Honour your father and mother") and Ephesians 6:1 ("Children, obey your parents"). Honouring one's parents is a way to serve and worship God. This is the only commandment with a promise, which is prosperity, health and long life.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. They make pretty amazing music at Victory.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The low-ceilinged worship hall with dimmed house lights and coloured stage lights made me feel like I was in a disco or bar of sorts.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I did not hang out. Very few people did – the place isn't very conducive to that. But the people seemed really friendly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee. Or maybe there was, I really don't know.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If I had no other church to join in the area, I would.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A church with a disco atmosphere.