Come as you are; welcome to the church for imperfect people
There will be a distinct time in your life when you get to choose what you believe in. For me, that was at 19, a junior in college caught in a whirlwind of one dizzying activity after another—trying desperately to fill that deep, impenetrable hole within with short-lived triumphs. On the outside, I was a success story; on the inside, I have never felt more alone and I was running on empty.
You can spend years educating yourself with endless theology but still not be transformed. You can hear the deafening and persistent words “surrender,” “salvation” and “grace” without understanding how your life is a ferocious, meandering example of it all. God can be so near yet feel very distant. He may be your Creator—your Genesis—but you can spend years being strangers. In the confines of my room, with the effervescent glow of the night light and the slow hum of the A/C, I made the irreparable decision to know Christ—and make Him known.
Inside Favor Church
Favor Church is situated on the corner of the last level of Shangri-La Plaza in Ortigas. There is an overflow of attendees present—to the point that they had to create a fifth service on Sundays. There are no glass mosaics, no pews, no statues and no cross in the middle of the stage. The lights are so dim—where tears can remain unnoticed and prayers stay hushed—centered on the podium. (It’s almost as if I were about to watch a play.)
There is an eclectic mix of people: college students, young adults, mothers and fathers. It is a “multi-generational” church. More than that, it is a place for imperfect people—outcasts and social pariahs—where one can rest in this promise: Come as you are; you are welcome here. After all, the church is a refuge for the sick.
The energy is palpable. It is the type of experience that you would want your friends to know about. Phones are out as attendees capture the vigorous, emotional experience of worship—with palms wide open, swaying rhythmically and muttering the chorus of redemption. From my peripheral view, I see a man in tears; this is the result of an intimate encounter with God, one I have had countless of times, one which I pray never to be desensitized to.
On the corner is a surprising sight: a volunteer doing the sign language the entire service (even if this meant catering to a single person.) This is the heart of the people; it does not matter if the audience remained 5 or 5,000. It is about bringing the “unchurched” to Christ.
“God will call out who you are—even before you become it. Your weakness is your greatest advantage; God will move what you can’t. Answer your call, it has nothing to do with your ability but His faithfulness.” From an outsider’s point of view, these are holy words from self-help books—the type you either highlight to your heart’s content and put on your nightstand or simply set aside. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who keep coming back, it’s exactly what they need for that season.
At the end of the service, I witness the senior pastor—a kind Australian in his mid-30’s—personally reach out to as many attendees as possible and thank them for coming to church. This is his third service of the day. It is not an easy feat but he does it every week, without fail.
It all started with five people in the confines of Pastor James Aiton’s condominium in Ortigas. Make no mistake, the Philippines is his home. As a child of missionaries, his parents shepherded a church in Las Piñas where he lived for 11 years. He actually refers to himself a “reversed coconut:” brown on the inside, white on the outside.
They set out to plant themselves in Metro Walk and in a bar—of all places. He shared, “Starting in a bar was great because it just made everybody feel uncomfortable, but comfortable at the same time—especially [for] the people we were reaching. They felt comfortable walking into a bar because they go to bars all the time, but they felt uncomfortable because they didn’t think the church could be in a bar. We really had a great time in there but we were just getting too big for it.”
After months of construction, in May 2018, they opened in Shangri-la. Their cornerstone is reaching the “unchurched,” and the thrust is family. He explains: “Our whole church is Bible-based but there’s a difference between preference and principle. Your preferences change however you’re feeling. The style will change and flow and ebb as society changes, flows and ebbs. What I wanted to do is focus on a church [wherein] we were very strong in our principle—it was the same message of Jesus—but wrap it up in such a way where it made people feel comfortable, where people didn’t feel bad for coming to church but wanted to come.”
We had people that would go to other churches but felt dry, felt empty, felt no fire in their relationship with God. We don’t water down anything; in fact, we’re quite boisterous about what we believe. A lot of times, you can see churches that are full of tradition and full of preferences that have become principles, and they worship the preference like it’s a principle.”
Can church really be this cool and still be Christian? He acknowledges that people may have misconceptions about Favor, that it’s—for a lack of a better phrase—the “cool church.” He points out, “We haven’t tried to go after being cool because being cool is nice for about two seconds…and then you want depth. People will refer to us as being cool but that’s not something we chase after, we’re just who we are.”
Honoring Creativity, Making God Famous
The church has grown rapidly through word of mouth and the integration of a recognizably strong online media presence. This can be attributed to their “honoring of creativity.” Pastor James shares, “We’ve had so many people come to our church because they’ve seen their friends post about it. We have people write [to us] and go, “Is it available to all people? Do you accept walk-ins? How much does it cost to come?” I laugh at that because we want everyone and anyone to come to our church; it’s not for the chosen few.” As a leader, he births ideas but lets others execute them. He notes, “We encourage creativity. I value and honor the creative gift on people’s lives; you’d be surprised how many people don’t.”
On Empowering Women
Kate Aiton, alongside James, are the senior pastors of Favor. This is not a possibility for other churches—much so for other religions—where women stay behind-the-scenes. He personally believes that women aren’t second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom. He adds, “I believe that women should be allowed to preach and women should be allowed to lead. If you read the Bible theologically correct—and not just pick one verse out—you’ll see God can actually speak to women and use women. My wife is a phenomenal preacher. I love seeing women empowered to be all they can. If men have a problem with that, it’s probably more reflective of their hearts and their insecurities as men.” Having his mother and sisters as preachers adds to this conviction.
From 200 to 2,000 people in the short span of 14 months, Favor Church has attracted men and women from all ages, socio-economic backgrounds and faith. In the future, Pastor James hopes to start other locations in the Philippines and even internationally. Favor College is in the making, a place to train and develop people—not just in theology and doctrine but in practical approaches—to learn how to plant churches. For now, he is seeking out a new location where more people can attend church on a regular basis.
It’s Not A Competition
I am a firm believer that regardless of your belief, there is room for you on the table. Pastor James believes the same. He closes with this thought, “My heart is not that you would come to Favor Church, my heart is that you would go to church—and that you would find a church. If a church doesn’t do what we do, I’m not upset at that. I love them, God bless ‘em. I’m glad that they’re there because there are a lot of people that don’t like our church. It’s not more spiritual or less spiritual to have the music louder or softer; we just choose to have it the way we do.
We’re all on the same team. If I can reach people you’re not reaching, and if you can reach people I’m not reaching then that’s good. At the end of the day, if you don’t believe it, I’m not trying to win you over. I’m trying to win you to Jesus; as long as you believe in Jesus, then I’m happy.”
See, this is what “cool” gets you: an audience with a bigger audience to worship the One.
Photography Elisa Aquino
Art Alexandra Lara