American Missions and Cuba

From June 1 through June 8, 2015 I traveled to Cuba along with four other friends, two of which are mission agency executives. While this was their first trip to the island nation, it was my seventh. My wife was born in Cuba and that has allowed me access over the years in spite of the U.S. economic embargo against Havana. This was my first trip, however, in over a decade, and I was surprised to see the effect of the moderate economic openness which has recently been afforded to the citizenry. Whereas before everything was scarce and distributed by the government, there is now a burgeoning open market which has brought about eateries and small stores selling the necessities of life.

The goal of this trip, however, was not to evaluate the national economy or the freedoms of the populace. It was to ascertain the situation of Christianity in the country at this point in history, and more specifically to assess the future role that North American missionaries might play in a more open Cuba. We took advantage of the recently relaxed regulation of the U.S. embargo to travel under the invitation of a local church in the eastern part of the country. While no one knows what the final disposition of Congress will be toward the decades old division between the United States and Cuba, there seems to be growing willingness to restore relations and seek a new approach to fostering change in Havana. Assuming that change does come, we can anticipate a rush among American missionary organizations to establish a presence in Cuba.

skyline of havana

Skyline of Havana

The assumption of the average believer in the U.S. is that because American missionaries are not present in Cuba there is likely little Gospel activity there. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our visit revealed that the church of Jesus Christ in Cuba is very strong, very zealous, very obedient and growing very quickly. Again and again, as we traveled the length of the island, we came into contact with pastors whose churches were full of young, enthusiastic believers. In almost every case the existing churches had also started numerous daughter churches. Because the Castro regime prohibits the formal establishment of any new churches, these daughter churches are labeled house churches, or mission outreaches, of the recognized churches, but most have their own pastors and are functioning as subsidiaries of their parent congregations in name only. We interviewed many pastors who were leading their growing congregations while receiving no income except a few pesos a month from church offerings. Most of these men are bi-vocational and in the rural areas the majority are farmers. Their meeting places range from rooms in houses to make shift shelters to gatherings under a tree, but all of these congregations are growing through conversions and baptisms.

The Cuban church is characterized by joy, an appetite for doctrinal purity and a genuine hunger for sound, biblical teaching. Cuba’s current spectrum of evangelical churches reflects its missionary history, which dates back to the late 19th century. Many of the denominational groupings found in America are also found in Cuba, including Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists. The largest evangelical groups by far, however, are the Baptists, the Bible churches and the Pentecostals. In recent history, the Pentecostal churches seem to have been largely influenced by believers visiting from other Latin American countries and they reflect the typical patterns of excess (such as the health and wealth focus) found elsewhere. In the early years of missionary endeavor the Southern Baptist Convention made headway in the Western end of the island while the American (Northern) Baptist Convention gained ground in the East. From the time of the Revolution in 1959, the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba (American Baptist influence), headquartered in Santiago de Cuba, has had little to no connection with American church life. The Western Baptist Convention of Cuba (Southern Baptist influence), headquartered in Havana has continued to have filial connections with the SBC. Both conventions function similarly to the SBC in the U.S., with autonomous local churches associating themselves and cooperating with the programs of the convention. The concept of “independent,” or non-affiliated churches is foreign to Cuba (and most of the world) since it has not shared the same ecclesiastic/political history as have churches in America. As has been mentioned, there is also a strong Bible Church denomination called Los Pinos Nuevos (The New Pines) located primarily in the central region of the country (Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Camagüey Provinces). Picture1Each of these denominations has its own educational institution or “seminary” (in Latin America what we would might a Bible College is often referred to as a seminary). Our group visited the seminary of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba in Santiago and met with its director as well as with the president of the convention. This school has a spacious, well maintained campus with residence facilities, a functional library and adequate classrooms to serve nearly 200 students. The economic situation in Cuba, however, currently promotes an enrollment of around 40. The Eastern Baptist Convention claims around 630 churches, with another 4000+ mission outreaches or house churches. The situation for the Western Baptist Convention in Havana is quite similar with some 500 churches (100 in Havana alone) and 5000+ mission outreaches or house churches. Though the New Pines Bible Church denomination is not as large, it is also thriving and growing.

The predominant competing religion in Cuba is not Roman Catholicism. Catholic churches are largely empty, being frequented mostly by the elderly. Most converts to Christ come from a background steeped in Santería, the Afro-Cuban religion of spirit worship. Santería is essentially animism with a veneer of Catholicism, and involves animal sacrifices and spirit possession. Nearly every Cuban is affected in some way by Santería and in practical terms it is the largest religion in the country. Yet the power of Christ is breaking the hold of Satan over multitudes of Cubans who are finding their freedom in the Gospel.

Christianity in the island today reveals a stark growth pattern since my previous visits to Cuba. Over and over we were told that when the country passed through its “special economic period” or economic collapse following the withdrawal of Soviet funds in the early 1990s, God began to revive the hearts of believers and they began to boldly proclaim the gospel. The past ten years in particular have represented a phenomenal growth pattern with countless thousands of people who have come to Christ. This is taking place in a nation with a resident population of around nine million people. Since Fidel Castro stepped aside and conceded authority to his brother Raúl in 2008, the country has enjoyed a relaxing of some of the harshest restrictions against Christianity and the believers have taken advantage of this opportunity to share Christ and see His church grow.

Everywhere our group went, we asked the question, “What can the church in America do for the church in Cuba?” The most consistent answer was simply this – “Be our friend.” The leaders of the church in Cuba are humble, sacrificial, dedicated men who frankly do not need us to come and tell them how to serve Christ in their own land. Picture2They do need money, given the fact that most of the churches are in a desperate state of disrepair and most of their pastors are unpaid or underpaid, but economic needs will largely be met by the Cubans themselves if the economic embargo is lifted and the country experiences a return to a true free market system. There is also need for training, although the church leaders we met do not want us to come and do their training for them. Their system of providing Bible school training for their primary leaders and local church, or church based Bible institute level training for their outreach pastors is functioning well overall. Still, they recognize that there is opportunity for higher level academic training on one end and effective theological education by extension on the other. Future American missionaries to the island should carefully consider how they can assist existing educational endeavors for ministry training before thinking of starting competing programs. The Cuban church also needs help with discipleship. The church is growing so fast that discipleship is not always occurring well. That said, however, we were impressed with the level of commitment to making disciples on all levels that was evident in every ministry we encountered. What is probably least needed in Cuba right now is foreigners planting churches. The pattern of growth is so strong right now in Cuba that the best thing we could do from the outside is fan the flames by helping them do what they are already doing.

The bottom line in Cuba is that there is a very strong church movement which is functioning well with very little help from America. Could it function better with more help? Yes, but only if our help comes in the form of humble service to our brothers and sisters who have bravely paid the price to serve Jesus in the midst of hardship and persecution. One of the biggest problems we encountered in Cuba was the exodus to America for an easier life of men trained for the ministry. Those heroic servants of Jesus Christ who have remained behind to make disciples in in extremely difficult conditions deserve our admiration and our willingness to submit to them as they pursue their vision of making disciples for Jesus in their homeland.

After our group spent several days with one pastor named Daniél who has zeal, vision and determination in biblical proportions, he asked us to evaluate his work. I told him, “Daniél, all true ministry consists of loving Jesus with all your heart and seeking to serve Him with all your strength, and you are doing that. Jesus told us to make disciples and He promised that He would build His church. You are making disciples and He is building His church. My evaluation is that you should keep doing what you are doing.” I added, “I wish more churches in America were like yours. We should come here to learn from you.” May the Lord give us opportunities in the future to stand shoulder to shoulder with men like Daniél in Cuba for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of Christ.

Looking toward the possibility of more openness for American missionaries serving in Cuba, some of the questions that need to be asked are:

  • Is the concept of a fully independent church (not aligned with any convention) something which we are compelled to import into a thriving church culture? If so, is this because of biblical reasons, or (more likely) because we feel the need to franchise our own culturally influenced experience of Christianity in other places?
  • Can we allow the church in Cuba to be Cuban and not feel compelled to impose our American worship styles (either traditional or contemporary) on it?
  • Can we use money to assist without creating dependencies which will stifle the willingness of the Cuban people to serve Christ freely as they do now?
  • What avenues for providing ministerial preparation are most advantageous? How do we join in what God is doing there without simply bringing in our pre-packaged programs which may or may not be helpful?
  • How can U.S. churches use mission teams to genuinely assist the churches in Cuba by enabling them through partnerships rather than simply providing feel good trips for ourselves?

In part the answer to all of these questions is that we need to develop relationships before effective ministry can be accomplished. My advice would be to go to Cuba, spend time enjoying what God is already doing there, then begin to ask how and where we can help. This process is often rushed and results in a lot of money and effort being misdirected. The watchword of missions for Cuba (and for all of the world in the 21st century) is partnership. I pray that we will do that well.

Mark Vowels

Mark Vowels

Mark Vowels is the Director of Missions for Bob Jones University. He and his wife Cary are passionate about all aspects of missions. They have traveled the world to visit missionaries, taught in many countries, taken mission teams far and wide and invested themselves in the spread of the Gospel. In addition to his service to BJU, Mark is an elder and chairman of the missions committee of Heritage Bible Church in Greer, South Carolina. He is a member of the board of directors of Biblical Ministries Worldwide as well as the advisory board for IBM Global Missions.

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