Editor’s note: The author of this post (name omitted for security reasons) is a WorldVenture missionary who has taught in Cuban evangelical seminaries.
I feel a nagging worry whenever I think of the Cuban church.
It’s not because the U.S. and Cuba have re-opened diplomatic ties, after a half-century of isolation.
It’s not because President Obama is trying to lift the trade embargo, or because the U.S. is easing travel restrictions to Cuba.
Personally, I am in favor of all of these moves, secure in my belief that this is the best way forward for both nations. I agree with the majority of dissidents and more than half the Cuban exiles in America: it’s time to shuffle the deck and have a new deal.
Nevertheless, I have this anxiety about the future of the evangelical church in Cuba.
Here’s why: when I taught in Eastern Europe, a leader of a church told me a bittersweet story. “Up until the end of the regime,” he said, “It was illegal for us to meet. But the church thrived despite it all. The church in Romania had grown strong. Suddenly, Romanian Christians gained the right to attend church. But they also got the right to earn money in the newly open economy. And some decided that if they worked on Sundays too, they could earn even more.”
“Be teachable…It’s best to assume that Cubans have an edge over you in how to serve the Lord in their own locale.”
This story sent a chill down my spine. The temptation was not that they became wealthy, but rather it was the “deceitfulness,” the illusion that they could make money and feel secure.
Some colleagues and I regularly teach in a few of the seminaries in Cuba, which are scattered around the island. We can testify that the rumors about Cuba are true: the church is in full revival mode, growing so fast that believers are running out of meeting places, pastors, and Bibles. One group has had to stipulate that a new follower of Christ must receive six months of discipling before receiving a Bible.
Once relations with the U.S. started to thaw in 2015, the Southern Baptists managed to send 83,000 Bibles to Cuba – a tremendous victory, but not a complete solution, not compared with the nearly one million Cuban evangelicals.
It is very possible that materialism, disunity, American religious domination, and false teaching pose significant threats for the currently strong Cuban church. But what of future amigos of Cuba, those of us who are mentally making airline reservations for 2015? Havana is a short 90 miles south of Florida, and I can just picture the tsunami of Americans, disembarking and running back and forth on the island because it is this year’s cool place for “missionary tourism.”
A Cuban family I know has one group after another meeting in its front room. They host an iglesia casera, a house church, as well as youth meetings, a Bible institute, and seminary courses. All of the above are extralegal activities; the government could shut them down at a moment’s notice and evict them from their home. These fragile spiritual micro-enterprises will not thrive in the age of “selfies.” And so I have some advice to give to American Christians considering a trip to Cuba:
- 1.Pray first, second, last. God gives wise guidance to those who ask. The phenomenal growth of the Cuban church is due to prayer.
- 2. Don’t put pictures on the internet with the caption, Wow, look at [so-and-so] and how he fights the man! And he’s my friend!
- 3. Have a strategic plan and ask for direction from knowledgeable people. Your denomination or favorite missionary agency might have a “Cuba point person.” Don’t head your fishing boat to Cuba and follow your nose once you get there.
- 4.Remember, short-term missionaries should not go to boost their own spiritual growth, or to take a look around to see what’s happening, but to be useful in some concrete way. Don’t just travel in order to “come alongside of” local Christian leaders: you’ve got to have a really good justification for being there. The brothers and sisters I have worked with, especially the pastors, are working themselves beyond exhaustion, and hosting curiosity-seekers is one more drain on their time and resources.
- 5. Be careful with money. The Cubans are poor, and one way in which the churches can help them is an infusion of resources. Still, this is a tricky business. If a church that is used to a budget of a few hundred dollars is suddenly handed a check for thousands, chaos can result. In addition, a pastor might tell you he’s the only one who’s reaching the lost or really preaching the Word in his town; but when you look closer, you realize he is at the least exaggerating and at the worst scamming you. Get references. Require they set up a budget with you and a system of accountability.
- 6. Be teachable. Listen more. And still more. And then, maybe then, share your insight. Someone asked me how he could get into Cuba for a tour of duty. “I want to teach them how to do church-planting,” he said, quite sincerely. I was polite, but pointed out that, of all the places around the globe where Christians are planting churches, it’s Cuba that is doing the most amazing work. In other words, he should ponder if they really need him to show how it ought to be done. It’s best to assume that Cubans have an edge over you in how to serve the Lord in their own locale.
- 7. Stay out of trouble. Be discreet. You are not Brother Andrew; this isn’t “Mission Impossible.” The situation now is that, if you enter Cuba with only a tourist visa, with some daring plan of (illegally!) sneaking around and ministering, you are putting future ministry at risk. And if you attract official attention, it will be your Cuban friends who get called to police headquarters, not you.
Let’s be prayerful, careful, caring, smart, wise, humble, and thoughtful. That’s all.
Dios le bendiga, iglesia cubana. God bless you, Cuban church. May the Lord use us to bless you, and may we receive a blessing from you in return.
WorldVenture has previously written about a better way to do short-term mission trips, developed by a missionary in the Philippines.
(Photo credit: Flickr/PL Tandon)