Imagine a huge auditorium with rows of chairs stretching until the far back. There was a balcony in case the first floor does not accommodate all the people who intend to attend. A stage occupies the front. It was quite a spectacular sight: complete with a screen projecting lyrics of a song, lights, and a musical ensemble. At least six people on stage were busying themselves with guitars, a drum set, and other instruments. Three people lead the song. Eyes closed, sometimes hands up in the air, you can sense their passion as they sing. Sounds like a concert? Actually, we were participating in a religious service. This wasn’t something we expected to see when our informant brought us to Crossroads 77, a building dedicated to Bread of Life ministries.
Crossroads 77 was comprised of different levels and rooms complete with gyms, swimming pools, a parking lot and other facilities. As we were walking to the venue where the mass was supposed to be held, we chanced upon posters promoting different recreational activities such as wushu, zumba, and catechism classes. The whole building seemed to exude characteristics of most modern commercial complexes. Our informant led us to the main hall where we found people singing songs of praise. The audience was comprised mainly of young people, we noticed very few people who looked older than sixty. As mentioned, the venue for the service is quite spacious and can accommodate at least a thousand people. But during the time that we attended, a lot of seats were unoccupied. Our informant said that the hall is usually filled at the 12-noon time slot.
We grew up in a society where religion is an important aspect of our lives. The fact that the Philippines is a predominantly catholic country contributes to our basic understanding of what organized religion is. And although we are not as devout as most Filipinos, we are still very familiar with the traditional practices of Catholicism. We know that these practices are very conservative and rigid. They try to remain faithful to the scripture as much as possible. We’d like to admit that this perspective is very limiting, as it doesn’t take into context of modernity, such that Catholic teachings may be considered anachronistic (at least, this is how we feel). The Bread of Life congregation, on the other hand, with all its fancy, modern amenities, seems to differ from Catholicism in this way. We didn’t expect that a religious ceremony could be this elaborate. We realized that there was much to the program that could surprise us.
The singing lasted roughly from 10-15 minutes, and this was quite long considering that we arrived late. All songs were about praising Jesus or God. Our informant told us that most songs, if not all, are written and composed by the musicians of Bread of Life. It seemed more impressive that the followers know the songs by heart. We observed the participants of the mass to be immersed in this religious experience as they were swaying, closing their eyes, and raising their arms as they sang the songs of praise. It became evident that the service’s form of worship is mostly expressed in these songs. To us, it was a grand opening considering all the effort that seemed to be put into the production.
After the first song, people sat down at the request of one of the people on the stage. We expected a minister to come out and continue the service. Instead, the projector flashed different videos that elaborated on the different projects and activities, like the ones we had mentioned beforehand, that the ministry organizes. We noticed that these events were geared towards the youth, those aged 11-20. An example of such is “AngLahi” which is an unconventional youth camp dedicated to physical and mental development. Our informant mentioned that to him, it seemed like a pseudo-military camp where participants experience “finding themselves” through the program. He explained that self-improvement is one of the main doctrines that the ministry tries to instill in its followers, and though most participants join willingly, some, more troubled youth, are pushed by their parents to join in hopes of overcoming their difficulties. Other videos highlighted the ministry’s more distinguished speakers and lecturers, as well as international study opportunities.
Based on these nontraditional Christian projects, we can say that their approach to faith is modern and progressive. The activities seem to be more oriented to hands on experiences for individual improvement. The ways we see it, physical and mental development are essential to achieving spiritual growth and enlightenment. It seems to cater more to the active lifestyles of the youth. Much to the contrary of Catholicism, Bread of Life seems to introduce concepts of the bible into a more modern context, eliminating the anachronistic nature that Catholicism’s teachings had left us. The way we felt towards the next part of the service will likely explain this further.
Right after the “commercial break”, we were asked to stand up again to sing another song of praise. Then, a female minister in slacks and a blazer came out to read a passge from Corinthians 7. The passage spoke of marriage. She proceeded to lecture about the pros and cons of marriage in the context of the reading and explained that although marriage isn’t a sin, it is a responsibility that should not be taken upon lightly. She enumerated obligations of married life. It seemed like she was selling the “single life” to the audiences. On a general note, we felt like her insights were geared towards a more progressive way of lecturing about scripture. She wasn’t hesitant to use any kind of language, and though she quoted a very old piece, she found a way to apply it to modern times. She lectured for around an hour and a half about the passage. We asked our informant if the minister spoke for the entire congregation, and he compared the service to a theology class, where a lecturer would impart his or her insights and the students would listen and take note. It seemed to us that this was a more casual approach to what we know to be a traditional Catholic homily, which isn’t always appropriate to the present context. She cited particular situations where the passage could be used to relate to real life situations. An example of her appropriation to the modern times is the use of a Tedx talk to highlight her strong feelings toward “single life.”
To be honest, as we sat through the minister’s lecture, we began to notice that her approach to the reading became more and more close-minded; she gave many generalizations, which we didn’t entirely agree with. There were moments when her words seemed ambiguous, and though she meant to emphasize some part of the passage, it seemed like she agreed more with another.
Overall, it seems like this ministry is generally more casual than traditional Catholic. What we gained from this was a fresher perspective to the Christian faith. Maybe the minister wasn’t the most effective at conveying liberal, less conservative, ideals, but the program of the service, or lack thereof, introduced us to a more casual way to express our faith to God. The venue also helped as it felt like it was less exclusive, as opposed to Catholicism, which often has a dress code. The overall ambiance of Bread of Life, as we have stated over, and over, throughout this post, is that of a casual, more properly contextualized reading of scripture. This experience made us realize that there are different approaches to Christianity and faith in general. Our informant is a very good friend and we’ve never come up with a problem stemming from religious differences.
1. Our activity was a religious service, so participation entails listening and respecting the ceremonies. In our case, there is a fine line between participating and observing. We are really only observing, or taking down notes in our minds because it would probably take time for us to truly understand their religion’s interpretations. But externally, we stand up, sing the songs, and sway with the crowd. This was how we participated. Although they were simple gestures, we gained a sense of respect towards their practices.
2. A belief, or faith, is difficult to internalize. A religion takes long periods of time to truly appreciate. There were moments that we wouldn’t be able to understand the true aim of the ministry. Our friend gladly shared what Christianity was all about in their perspective. Most of our “why” questions were answered and were cleared up. Had we gone to the activity without an informant, we really wouldn’t have understood why the ministry provides classes such as zumba or wushoo, or why they just choose to sing as a sign of praise. He helped us put into context most of what was happening. If he hadn’t been there to guide us, our minds would probably be closed.
3. A questionnaire cannot substitute our attempts to understand a religion that people have been practicing for a lot longer than we have. Although it can supply us with concrete answers, experiencing is more in-depth. A questionnaire is limited to a mere description of what is perceived, while participation involves other senses (such as sense of hearing or touch in our case) and a more accurate understanding of the situation, event, or whatever it is you are asking about. Participation is more memorable; it helps us gain perspective.
4. A questionnaire is more efficient in the sense that it delivers your information quickly and effectively. It’s also more objective as purely participant observation could cloud one’s judgments. Objective activities would benefit more from questionnaires and interviewees such as observing an office environment, a sports meeting. Questionnaires may also be more useful when the observer may be at risk of breaching the scene, meaning his or her presence will affect the behaviour of those being observed, as may be the case of observing a family, or any other more or less intimate setting.