David Gilliam went on his first mission trip as a member of the youth group at Royal Oak Presbyterian Church when he was just a teenager. A group from the southwest Virginia town of Marion built a house in Mexico, and a seed for ministry was planted.
Now 40 years old, Gilliam is an ordained minister who is looking to spread that seed of ministry sown so many years ago. His plans to do that revolve around planting a church in the Philippines.
In November 2013, Gilliam was in the Philippines in Cebu City when Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful and destructive Pacific typhoons, struck the island nation, killing more than 5,700 people, displacing six million and leaving 1.9 million homeless.
Two months from now, he will return to the Philippines to plant a church, seeking to share the Gospel and the transforming work of Jesus Christ with residents in the Palawan city of Puerta Princesa, located on the southwest side of the chain of Pacific islands.
Taking God’s Word to a foreign land
Ordained as a minister through Calvary Alliance of Churches, Gilliam has served as the associate pastor and worship leader at Calvary Church of southwest Virginia in Chilhowie for the last year. His work in the ministry has spanned 17 years, leading him on a number of mission trips to Jamaica, Thailand, Myanmar, China, Tibet, Nepal and the Philippines. On those trips he has coordinated or assisted with retreats, seminars, camps, concerts and other events to proclaim the Word of Christ.
But it’s a return trip to the Philippines, where he lived from 2001-2004, he feels God is calling him to make. And this time, he’s being asked to plant a church to share Jesus Christ with a city teeming with young people.
“I’ve always had the desire to plant churches, and I feel our ministry is getting ready to take a real turn toward planting them overseas,” said Gilliam, who serves as the director of Encounter Generation, a ministry focused on providing events and media for youth and young adults. “To be part of that in a more direct way, I’m relocating to the Philippines in April to plant a church there.”
Gilliam said he has carried a burden to share the Gospel in Asia, particularly the Philippines, a former Spanish colony for 400 years that has a strong Roman Catholic cultural influence and a strong Islam presence in the south.
“I fell in love with the people when I was there before,” he said. “Any investment we can make in the Philippines is beneficial because it is a nation known as a sending country. Estimates show that 11 percent of the population leaves the country to work in other places. So, if we share the Gospel with some of those who leave, there’s a good chance some of those people we reach will go out as missionaries and further spread God’s Word.”
A heart for reaching the lost
Through his work at Encounter Generation, Gilliam seeks ways to develop revival in the hearts of people, allowing them to experience a spiritual awakening and become workers in the fields of harvest for the Lord. The church that he will be planting will start as an independent and may choose to affiliate with a specific denomination at a later time once Gilliam has turned the reins over to a Filipino pastor.
“This is what God has called me to do,” Gilliam said. “I feel a real calling to this because I have a heart for lost people. They matter to God and, therefore, must matter to us. I want people who don’t know Jesus to have the opportunity to experience Him, and church planting is one of the best avenues to reach the lost and share God with them. People need to meet Jesus, get to know Him and discover His unique calling for their lives. We need to be developing followers of Jesus who become leaders.”
Royal Oak, the church Gilliam’s parents still attend, helped forge his interest in the ministry, especially mission work. From trips abroad to work in the local mission field, Gilliam’s calling came to be at the Smyth County church.
“The seeds for this calling were planted when I was a teenager at Royal Oak,” he said. “That church has been really instrumental in this ministry and my life, and has expressed a desire to get behind what we are doing to plant churches overseas. I realized how important mission work was at an early age, and I am always encouraging churches to take their young people on mission trips.”
Dealing with disaster
The Filipino people have been decimated by natural disasters in recent months. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the island nation in mid-October, about 40 miles from Cebu City, and killed more than 150 people. Less than a month later, on Nov. 7, the powerful typhoon tore through the chain of islands, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Gilliam was a witness to nature’s wrath. He arrived in Cebu City just days before the storm unleashed its fury to scout areas for a possible church plant.
“The Philippines is a country that has been hit really hard by natural disasters,” he said. “The people there are used to the typhoons, but they have not occurred on such a large scale. The impact of (Typhoon Haiyan) was sort of like (Hurricane) Katrina affected the U.S. (in 2005). It covered such a wide area and did such major damage.”
The eye of the storm was predicted to pass directly over Cebu City, the second largest town in the Philippines, but veered north instead. The eye moved across the island of Leyte and Tacloban City where most of the devastation occurred with wind speeds in excess of 200 mph and storm surges up to 20 feet. Roads were blocked and the airport was destroyed.
In nearby Cebu City, winds reached 150 mph, toppling trees and signs, damaging homes and other buildings. Still, the damage was not as bad as it could have been where Gilliam was, and he was spared.
“It was bad, but not as bad as it was in other areas,” he said. “The storm was so big, the damage so widespread. It was heartbreaking to see. You realize that could have been you, and you are filled with compassion for those people. There are many physical needs in those areas, and they will be rebuilding for years. The best thing I knew to do was pray and to ask others to do the same.”
While physical needs remain a top priority for the Filipino people, Gilliam does not want to overlook their spiritual needs, hence the desire to plant a church. He sees a young population in need of a personal relationship with Jesus. He said about 60 percent of the population of the Philippines is 26 years old or younger, and the up-and-coming city of Puerta Princesa has a strong university presence ripe for sharing God’s Word.
“All the doors have opened there, and it just seemed God was leading me in that direction,” Gilliam said. “There are so many people there who need a genuine encounter with Jesus and to find the purpose in their lives. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to be a mentor to them, to be there for them as they seek an authentic relationship with Christ. It’s a nation full of young people who really need Jesus and direction. I want to help them meet Him.”
Some challenges to meet but …
Gilliam certainly is aware there will be challenges for him as he plants a church. First and foremost is the language barrier. He said some English is spoken by the native people, but it would be considered a second language. He plans to overcome that barrier by learning Tagalog, the native tongue spoken in the area.
“I want to learn it, to make it easier to communicate with the people. It’s necessary to reach them,” Gilliam explained.
As with any church plant, there is the challenge of fundraising that Gilliam already has started, as well as living in a new place for his first assignment as the pastor of a church and learning its culture while trying to communicate with its people. And make no mistake, there is a bit of trepidation for Gilliam as he begins his task of heeding God’s call.
“There is an inner confidence that I am stepping into what God has called me to do, but I am human,” he admitted. “There are times when I wake up and think, ‘What am I doing?’ Then I say, ‘God, I’m trusting You.’ There is no greater provider, and He will always help me fill His call. I sense deep down once more that this is the right thing.”
A passion for spreading the Gospel and its transforming message continues to motivate Gilliam as he prepares to start a new church from the ground up.
“I believe in the power of the Gospel to transform lives and transform culture, and I know that is what is driving me,” Gilliam said. “When it is preached and people follow it, it can change them and their city. I don’t have a pie-in-the-sky attitude that anything I will do will change anything. But God’s Word can. I’m going to plant the Gospel among these people, and His power will take over.”