Philippines UBF: An Indigenous Ministry

Churches (like companies) tend to experience three phases: an initial phase of rapid growth, a plateau phase, and a final phase of decline. But Philippines UBF has been continually growing and flourishing under the leadership of Dr. William Altobar for a quarter of a century since the mid to late 1980s. In this post I will try to describe this remarkable ministry and see what we can learn from them.

A Brief Overview of Philippines UBF

The ministry began in 1984 when Ron Quilaton of Chicago, a Bible student of my wife, went to Manila for medical school and invited William to Bible study. Upon completion of his medical school, Ron returned to the U.S. in 1988. I did not expect the ministry to continue. But William has faithfully led and served the ministry ever since. Thus far, they have established many godly families, and have sent out missionaries to the US (including Hawaii), Canada, Britain, UAE and Baggio, a province in the Philippines. Over the past year, they sent out Timothy Ipapo and Dr. John Talavera to plant two churches in Manila near the University of the East and Fatima University at Antipolo.

When I visited them from Feb 15-20, 2011, I was stunned that there were so many new students coming to their fellowship meetings for Bible study. I was expecting only a handful of students, but 30 new students packed a room on Thursday under Timothy and his wife Esther, and 20 new students came the following day under John and his wife Hannah, with the support of Susan San Marcos. At their main center, William meets a dozen single men for prayer and daily bread at 5 am every morning, while his wife Sarah meets a half dozen single young women at 6 am. Jonathan and Grace Reytos is the only other couple remaining in their main center besides William and Sarah. They also have a growing ministry at UP (University of the Philippines) Manila, the top university in the Philippines, which is being led by Arlene Miranda, a recent graduate of UP.

The Agony of the Plateau Phase

Personally, I have experienced a growth phase in my ministry in Chicago in the 1980s and 90s. But over the past decade or so, I am agonizing about having “flat-lined,” though my passion and enthusiasm has not waned. We have 9 families at West Loop UBF at present. But we might have only a handful of converts each year. While much of our “growth” has come from our kids growing up and participating in the ministry, student ministry has been hard, even though our main leaders are committed and faithful godly men and women.

However, Philippines UBF has been growing with many converts each year, even as they send out their families as missionaries and for church planting, as well as sending their single women to marry men from other UBF chapters. How have they been able to grow continually for a quarter of a century without having reached a plateau phase that does not seem to be coming anytime soon?

Seven Reasons for Continuing Growth

1st, a godly couple, William and Sarah. They are truly the pillars, the power source, the foundation, and the backbone of the ministry. William is like a father to everyone. In addition to his own two children, he adopted three additional children out of compassion, for they were abandoned at the clinic where he worked. Three times he called up his wife from work and said, “Honey, I’m bringing home a baby.” His youngest adopted son is named Obama, who is two years old. William is also a man of prayer and vision and compassion for his people and his country. Everyone in the ministry loves and trusts him without reservation.

Sarah is motherly and sanguine. Her laughter and joy are palpable and infectious. I have never seen her depressed, angry, moody, grumpy, dark, difficult or griping. Truly, it seems like she is always smiling warmly and genuinely from her heart. Most of all, both William and Sarah love Jesus, they love the Bible, and they love their people.

2nd, communal living. Through out their married life, William and Sarah have literally lived communally with all their Bible students from the time they come to Bible study until they marry in the church. Presently, about two dozen adults and a handful of teenagers and Obama live at the church. They eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together every day. They cook together. They do their laundry together. They wash the dishes together. They take collective stewardship to clean the church daily. Literally, they are one big happy family in Jesus. I have visited them yearly over the last few years, and their communal living is like a slice of heaven on earth.

On Saturday evenings, they prepare for the Sun worship service. In the main hall of the worship service, there are individual people practicing the piano, guitar, violin, flute and cello scattered throughout the room. There are also some practicing singing. The remarkable thing is that they are all practicing their own individual parts simultaneously! Just imagine the amount of noise that is created. It is really, really loud and noisy, including babies playing and crying. Yet the spirit and joy of the people strangely makes this collective disjointed loud noise sound like a chorus of angels. I am still pondering how or why this loud mass of noise is not irritating or gyrating, but rather really exhilarating. Surely it is the Spirit of God in our midst.

3rd, contextualization of the Bible in their own vernacular. Philippines UBF is not a cross-cultural mission. It is what Peter Wagner has termed E1 evangelism, which is the most effective form of evangelism, as previously written and explained by Joe. They do not have any cultural misunderstanding or miscommunication, since they are all Filipinos.

4th, unity in the Spirit. Nothing destroys a church or ministry faster than conflicts, politics, gossip, slander, accusation, one-upmanship and divisions. I am sure that on occasion they have disagreements among themselves. But they have such a degree of love, trust, humility and respect for each other, that human conflicts and politics have always been subdued and overcome, not by human authority, but by the Spirit of God.

5th, joy. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace (Gal 5:22). One can fake or force a smile that could even look quite attractive, but no one can fake joy, which comes from the heart only by the work of the Holy Spirit. Where there is true spontaneous authentic unabashed joy, people are always attracted.

6th, informality. They have Sunday worship services, 1 to 1 Bible studies, weekly fellowship meetings, several Bible conferences during the year, testimony writing and sharing, fishing, etc, like most UBF chapters throughout the world. But they have a degree of informality that is quite refreshing. I think that what they learn informally when they eat together, or do chores, or walk, or play sports, or live their daily life together may be more influential than all the rest of their formal church activities and Bible study put together. There is very little difference, if any, in their formal Bible study and their informal chatting. They see and feel and experience the Christian life lived out daily.

7th, friendship. People want to hang out with their friends. No one wants to hang out with someone who irks them, or irritates them, or angers them. Though William and Sarah are the oldest, as well as their spiritual parents, yet they are truly warm open-hearted friends with all their Bible students. There is no sense of any gap or superiority or seniority in all their friendships or relationships.

Some Application from Philippines Ministry

This is in no particular order:

1) Regard Bible students as friends, or even as peers and as trusted colleagues and partners and equals, rather than as “sheep.” It is sad when some Bible students have felt as though their shepherds and Bible teachers treated them like sheep, even after they have been in the ministry for years. We remember Jesus’ words of genuine affirmation when he said to his disciples who would soon abandon him in a few days, “I no longer call you servants… Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15).

2) Let learning occur out of the rich informality of life, and not just in formal Bible study settings. This is in keeping with Deut 6:7-9.

3) Let indigenous leaders lead as soon as possible. William was thrust into a position of leadership when his shepherd and Bible teacher returned to the U.S. after just a few years of Bible study. Paul also established indigenous leaders quite rapidly whenever he planted churches (Acts 14:22,23).

4) Be honest, open, and transparent (HOT) in all our interactions. If we are not, others will speculate and think of all kinds of hidden agendas, real or imagined.

5) Overcome the natural paternalism, patriarchy and hierarchy inherently present in all of us. If we don’t, it will seem as though we favor some, not on the basis of grace, but on the basis of tenure, seniority, or some arbitrary partiality, which will inevitably communicate favoritism, control and manipulation.

Final Thoughts

1) How does your church life and Christian experience compare with Philippines UBF?

2) If you have the financial means, do visit them, and your room and food would be provided, or you could make an occasional offering to them, since they are all quite poor. For example, a manual laborer working a 8 hour day gets paid $10/day.


  1. Nice article Dr. Ben. I have been visiting Dr. William’s chapter every four years since 1998. I have seen his growing ministry for over 12 years now. I love going to Philippines not only is it a beautiful country, known as the paradise of Asia, but the beautiful ministry of UBF there is so encouraging. When I visit I usually have about 20-30 Bible studies a day on a group or individual basis. Most of them are with young students who are so eager to learn about God and the Bible. It was so refreshing. We had one short term missionary from the Philippines stay with us for 6 months in Kyiv, Ukraine. Her name is Gemma Panigbatan. She only studied the Bible for 2 years. Yet she was ready to go out as a missionary. She worked as a teacher here but had to returned because we couldn’t renew her visa. Though it was stressful for her, experiencing snow for the first time, working as a teacher in an International setting and learning a new language and eating new food yet her faith was simple and beautiful. She was always joyful, dependable and hard working. In our last SWS together our whole family cried except for John. He was wondering what was going on. It was because she was such a blessing. May God bring her back and send many more Filipino missionaries to the whole world.

    • Whenever I’ve visit them, I’m amazed from the very first thing in the morning. All the men, about a dozen of them, meet at 5 am for daily bread prayer meeting 7 days a week. They are thirsty and seeking the Lord from dawn to dusk. I’m moved to tears and I need to repent of my own often cold and dry and habitual heart.

      I concluded that this is not the work of any mere man, but the wind that blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8); it is surely the God who does whatever pleases Him (Ps 115:3, 135:6). Praise God, who receives all the glory for his grace in our very midst.

    • Hi Ben,

      In your opinion, is their 5am prayer an attempt to generate revival by their own effort, or is this prayer the evidence and fruit of their revival? Are they trying to earn God’s blessing or return God’s blessing? How do you know? How do they themselves describe this meeting? Do leaders pressure their disciples to attend? Do those who come feel superior to those who do not? Are those who come held up as exemplary?

      I’m asking this not because I doubt your assessment, but because I think the distinction is crucial for other ministries that want to follow their example and experience revival.

  2. I’ve posted this on another article, but it’s worth sharing again since Dr. Ben’s article reminded me of William Carey’s “11 commandments of mission”:

    1. Set an infinite value on immortal souls.
    2. Gain all the information you can about “the snares and delusions in which these heathens are held.”
    3. Abstain from all English manners which might increase prejudice against the gospel.
    4. Watch for all opportunities for doing good, even when you are tired and hot.
    5. Make Christ crucified the great subject of your preaching.
    6. Earn the people’s confidence by your friendship.
    7. Build up the souls that are gathered.
    8. Turn the work over to “the native brethren” as soon as possible.
    9. Work with all your might to translate the Bible into their languages. Build schools to this end.
    10. Stay alert in prayer, wrestling with God until he “famish these idols and cause the heathen to experience the blessedness that is in Christ.”
    11. Give yourself totally to this glorious cause. Surrender your time, gifts, strength, families, the very clothes you wear.
    Listed in Christian History, Issue 36, page 34

    • Thanks, Ben, for Carey’s 11 commandments. Perhaps, to overcome imposing one’s culture upon the indigenous people (#3) might be humanly really hard.

      Also, to turn over leadership to indigenous people (#8) might also be practically very hard to do without dying to self, and simply trusting that God can do a better job than we can of “training” them.

  3. 3 years ago when I first came to UBF, I always wondered why all the people in this church are always joyful. One night I glanced at each of our members, especially Sh. Sarah Mina and Dr. William who prayerfully and humbly serve Jesus with all their hearts. I didn’t know what drives them to do things like treating the sheep as if we’re a part of their family, 5am daily bread meeting, testimony sharing, rebuking the sheep, and one to one Bible study. Soon I learned that everything they do (and we do) for God serves as our thanksgiving and love for God and the members and only by the grace of God we created a harmonious relationship. Everyone made Jesus the center our relationships which also make us love one another. I thank you for your wonderful compliment which you mentioned on your article which says we are like a slice of heaven on earth. I really am praying that may God open a way for you to stay here in the Philippines for 10 months so that you may know more about us.
    God bless you, Dr. Ben!

  4. James Kim

    Hi Ben, very nice and gracious article. Philippine is calling you!

  5. Let me try to answer Joe’s questions: “In your opinion, is their 5am prayer an attempt to generate revival by their own effort, or is this prayer the evidence and fruit of their revival? Are they trying to earn God’s blessing or return God’s blessing? How do you know? How do they themselves describe this meeting? Do leaders pressure their disciples to attend? Do those who come feel superior to those who do not? Are those who come held up as exemplary?”

    1) I personally did not at all think, nor did I sense that anyone else was attempting to generate a revival, or to earn God’s blessing.

    2) Usually, I never liked early morning prayer meetings in the past, because it felt forced. I felt guilty if I didn’t go. And if I did go, I didn’t feel good, because I felt tired and sleepy. Mainly, I felt that I was desperately trying to pray hard to get God to do something for me/us: people to come to conferences, meet our promised number, etc.

    3) Very strangely, whenever I visited Manila, I looked forward to meeting the guys every morning at 5 am, because it was such a delight to meet everyone who came, not with a sense of obligation, but that they just seemed happy to come.

    4) There was no real overwhelming sense of agenda to try to get God to do something for us, though we pray for various prayer topics.

    5) Also, I did not sense that anyone was pressured to come. Also, those who came did not have airs about themselves, nor were they held out as exemplary.

    6) How do I know? It’s surely purely subjective, just like how their Sat evening “loud disjointed noisy music practice session” sounded delightful like a majestic chorus of angels (Rev 5:11).

    Someone else commented to me that my article comes across as though their “works” resulted in God’s blessing on their ministry. I would have to categorically say that it is not at all the case.

    I believe that what they do is really the fruit of love, joy, and thanksgiving to God for his abundant Grace, and not an attempt to get a blessing from God.

    Sorry for my long, tedious answer.

  6. Joshua Yoon

    Thanks, Ben, for sharing about many wonderful things about Philippine ministry. I hope God will give me a chance to go there and witness God’s beautiful work with my own eyes. You stressed that Philipphine ministry has not experienced a plateau phase but has been continually growing over the quarter century. One reason you gave for this unusual growth is their mono cultural mission. Most chapters in N. America have not passed the initial phase of rapid growth. Many are praying to raise one ancestor of faith. Much less sending a missionary out. According to your observation and thesis, just being in a cross cultural mission seems to pose a negative to continuing growth. Living and ministering in multicultural societies can be disadvantageous. But from the first century to present days, the gospel has been preached via cross cutlural mission. It is inevitable for different cultures to meet if the gospel is to be preached to the end of the eath. Recently, the Lord gave me a new and positive look on the cross cultural relationship and ministry through many hours’ honest and deep dialogue with one indigemous leader. The Spirit helped both of us to identify many barriers and challenges implied in cross cultural encounter. Deep trust and mutual understanding were created in us. We were also fascinated by the great opportunties the differences and challenges could offer. God opened my eyes to see the beautiful things He has already done in each party through this cross cultural encounter, which would not be usually experienced in mono cultural mission. I believe God is doing his good and unique work in all situtions, either we are in mono cultural or cross cultural mission. I came to have a bright hope for God’s work in N. America. Thanks, Ben, again for sharing God’s beautiful work in Philippine UBF. I pray that they may experience contiaul growth without entering the next phase of plateau.

  7. Thanks, Joshua. Your “many hours of honest and deep dialogue with one indigenous leader” is so encouraging and uplifting to hear. This is surely trinitarian by being HOT (honest, open, transparent) with deep love, respect and trust toward one another. Honestly, I don’t see how any cross cultural ministry can thrive beyond a generation or two without doing what you did from the heart.
    Surely, God helped you to overcome your own personal cultural and nationalistic bias to do so, since this was not your own cultural experience and upbringing.
    Until the HOT moment, whether you realized it or not, you were on top and your indigenous leader was “below you,” since you were his “shepherd” and he was your “sheep.” So he practically had no choice but to “behave well,” at least outwardly before you, even if he harbored inward subtle grievances or disagreements. But when you opened up to him, he could truly speak up from his heart, without feeling rude or “rebellious” or out of line or unnecessarily guilty. He could finally be his true self in Christ, and not just be the indigenous shepherd that you expected him to be, or wish to raise him to be; he no longer had to act or pretend, not that he was. By allowing him to be “equal” to you as your partner, colleague and trusted friend, the Holy Spirit can now be the same Lord of the both of you. I believe that your friendship and interaction and quality of relationship has dramatically improved since then.
    Sorry, if this just sounds so theoretical or theological, or if my assumptions are just way off.

  8. Just wanted to echo what Ben and my sister Maria have seen, experienced, and tasted in Philippines. I love their ministry because at the heart of everything is Jesus, purely Jesus! Dr. William and Sarah are a key instrument of God along with their precious coworkers. One thing I can say about their ministry is that they not only LOVE God but they truly LOVE the word of God. They love bible study. One of my most fondest memories I have was a time we studied the bible early morning, ate breakfast, wrote and shared testimony, studied a 2nd passage, ate lunch, wrote and shared testimony, studied a 3rd passage, ate dinner, wrote and shared testimony. All in one day. It was AWESOME. Everyone (about 25 members) were all eager to study the word of God. Indeed it was the work of the Holy Spirit. The other thing I noticed was their community. Everyone took care of each other’s children as if they were their own. Everyone treated each other’s bible student not as “my sheep” or “my fellowship member” but as God’s percious sheep thus it was everyone’s responsibility! May God continue to pour out His spirit of grace in the Philippines and if there are those who can go, PLEASE visit them and experience it for yourself!

  9. James Kim
    The author mentioned about wonderful Philippine Christians in Cyprus. Philippine may be a missionary sending nation!

  10. Rob Soltys

    I’ve been impressed at Dr. Ben’s courage to de-emphasize dogmas that do not have anything to do with the Gospel. It is funny how Protestants complain about Catholics having practicing salvation by works and then find themselves doing the same thing, just under different (“better”) aliases. Mainly at your church, testimony writing, marriage by faith, and fishing. Can any of these practices save a human soul?…the answer is he** no. Sorry for the profanity. It can’t. Only Jesus. Only the cross. Only Christ. So…that said, why is such GREAT emphasis put on these works. Are we afraid God can’t work outside of them? Why, when attending UBF, did I forget about the cross and worry about my conduct, my sheep, our mission?

    I am eternally grateful for Dr. Ben digging deeper and finding the treasure (the Gospel) and recklessly proclaiming it. The peace that comes from knowing Jesus paid it all.

    The works are better left unsaid. They are a natural product of ones salvation/conversion. How can a good tree bear bad fruit…impossible. I feel an orthopraxis (practice of faith) can be established in a church because of lack of trust in new converts. It isn’t enough for someone to believe, they must prove it somehow. Although one must be weary of the wolf in their midst, this is no reason to get paranoid. We must trust our brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether they attend our church or another. As long as He is front and center.

  11. Since I’m here now in Manila, Philippines UBF, I thought it was appropriate for me to add another “twist” to the early morning daily bread meeting, especially with the brothers since that was the meeting that I attended, obviously. Early morning prayer is the life that Jesus lived and taught his disciples so there should be no question about why brothers get up 5:30 am for daily bread. Christians in other countries get up at 4 am to pray. So it’s a spiritually natural practice. However, coming from a background where we met for daily bread only from Monday to Friday, meeting 7 days a week takes a little time to get used to. No oversleeping on the weekends! But when I attended I did not feel that the brothers felt pressured to attend or doing for their salvation. In fact, if brother did miss I never seen anyone rebuke that brother for being a terrible sinner. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to add another side to this daily bread tale.

    First of all, there is the culture of the siesta. As you may know, especially those from Latin countries or countries with very hot weather, it’s a necessity to take an afternoon nap because its just too darn hot to do anything else. So these brothers are not sleep deprived when they come to early morning daily bread. Trust me I’ve taken my own siestas with them while I have been here. So they have plenty of sleep and to get up that early is no problem for most of them. Due to jet lag I would sometimes go down to the first floor of the Bible house to use the washroom but it was not unusual to see a brother or sister studying for their classes at 1 or 2 am in the morning. I heard one brother practicing his cello at 4 am! Also in the morning they can share their prayer topics and receive any direction they may need from Dr. William. Remember, Dr. William works full time as a doctor, has 6 kids to take care of and support and now burdened with the bible house construction but he also attends daily bread every morning. That’s what I call a spiritual example. If I was a young shepherd and saw such a busy man get a lot of things done through early morning prayer I would want to learn his secret also. As one servant of God said, “I’m so busy today and have many things to do that I need to pray 3 hours first this morning.”

    Second, early morning basketball. Yeah, can you believe after daily bread the brothers go out to play basketball for two hours. There is a reason why they have to go so early–to beat the crowd. Filipinos love basketball and it’s first come first serve at the basketball courts. If you don’t get there early no basketball. So brothers are happy to get up early and play basketball early in the morning from Monday to Saturday–Sunday get ready for SWS. We have been going right after daily bread meeting so I usually dress in my basketball outfit to sleep so that I can just go and play right after daily bread. The brothers even don’t waste time putting on gym shoes and play with their slippers or bare feet! Sisters usually use that extra time in the morning to prepare food or wash their clothes or clean the Bible house. As my Bible teacher used to tell me and great men have said, “Those who conquer the morning can conquer the day.”

    I’ve already wrote too much but I just wanted to clarify about what’s going on with early daily bread meeting here in the Philippines. I know anti-early morning daily bread people talk about sleep deprivation or works for salvation this is not what’s going here. This is my testimony firsthand. I think it’s just a complaint from people who grew up in a cultural of oversleeping, especially on the weekends until noon or who stay up too late watching videos or partying. Let’s practice what Jesus did in Mark 1:35, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” God bless your early morning prayer life.

  12. John, thank you for clarifying! It is helpful to see this kind of insight.

  13. Dear Dr. Ben
    thanks, it means alot

  14. Joseph R

    One of my utmost prayer is that when I go back to Chicago, I will have this early morning prayer/reading the bible/fellowship. I know that this will be hard just because my family already thinks Im ‘holier than Thou’.

    It is apparent that the Holy Spirit is working in the Philippine UBF ministry. It is also apparent that the devil is knocking at the people’s heart here. But they are learning how to ‘rule over it’ (Gen 4:7).

    Recently, I have noticed major changes in my own heart, while ministering in the Philippines. I had noticed how hard for me to listen first before I speak (James 1:19). I realized the importance of meditating on God’s word day and night (Psalm 1:2). And that I have a lot of plank in my own eye (Mat 7:3). Ultimately, I need to seek Christ first (Mat 6:33). Rather, ‘za-te-o’ (continually seeking) Jesus. I thought I was doing much of this, apparently, I was not.

    Surely, I have the biggest plank in my eye. But I do want to add, that the Philippine ministry is not growing because of the hard work, endless prayers, among many other great works of the church. It is only through Christ and only through His grace that all this is possible (Mark 10:27).

    I am thankful for the men, women, and children that makes Philippine UBF a godly ministry. They are certainly God’s gift. But no matter how great God’s gift may be, God – the gift giver – is much greater still.

  15. Well said, Joseph! Without a doubt, this is NOT man’s work, for…

    * The wind of the Spirit blows wherever the Spirit pleases (Jn 3:8).

    * God does whatever pleases God (Ps 115:3).

    * The LORD does whatever pleases the LORD (Ps 135:6).

    * Jesus is the ONE who builds His church (Mt 16:18).

  16. Admitting that something is the Lord’s work sounds humble, but it has also two hidden dangers:

    1) It can make you proud, because you now start to think YOU did the work or the LORD (it’s kind of paradoxical, but anyway), so what you’re doing is something great, holy, and indispensable. What would God do without you? God and others should recognize you and thank you. The lowly things that ordinary people do are nothing compared to “your” work of the Lord.

    2) It can be used to legitimate what you do. If people start to believe in God through your ministry, your ministry must be fundamentally good, and may not be challenged, right?

    It’s not only UBF that falls into these traps. These dangers must have been there from the very beginnings, and it seems to me that 1Cor 3 and many other passages in the epistles address these issues.

  17. Great cautions, Chris! I fully agree. I should not be justified by my ministry, which can easily become my idol.

    And I need to constantly remind myself of the verses (in my comment right above yours) that I often quote, so that God may have mercy on me and not let “my success” and “my spirituality” swell my small head!!!

  18. forestsfailyou

    This is spot on with my observations.

  19. Thanks, Forests, I wrote this three years ago, and it still seems and feels current re-reading it again today.

    Considering William Carey’s 11 Commandments of Mission, I think the failure of many missionaries is the failure of:

    * cultural contextualization.
    * making friends.
    * leadership by imposing one’s leadership model onto the next generation rather than letting them lead.