Open borders, closed church?

Cuba | Evangelicals see opportunities, pitfalls in new era of U.S.-Cuba relations
by J.C. Derrick
Posted 12/18/14, 04:52 pm

WASHINGTON—Pundits and lawmakers scrambled on Wednesday to interpret the political implications of President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement that the U.S. will renew diplomatic ties with Cuba. Fewer noted the potential religious implications for a country that is home to the world’s fourth-largest church-planting movement, according to estimates by missions organizations.

In 1990, slightly more than 300 Baptist and Assemblies of God churches operated in mostly Catholic Cuba, but today that number has swollen to more than 19,000. During the last 24 years, the Cuban population has gone from 0.5 percent evangelical to more than 10 percent evangelical, according to Kurt Urbanek, author of the book Cuba's Great Awakening.

“Having been a missionary in Cuba for 18 years, I’ve never seen any place in the world where God is moving like Cuba,” Urbanek told me in a phone interview.

How will the spiritual climate change now? Possibly a lot. Although only Congress can fully lift the Cuban embargo, Obama’s actions will lift bans on most investment and travel between the nations—unleashing unprecedented economic opportunities for impoverished Cubans.

“You’re definitely going to get an explosion of materialism,” said Katharine Gorka, president of the Council on Global Security, a group that advocates for persecuted Christian minorities. Gorka, who worked in Eastern Europe in the 1990s after the Iron Curtain fell, said Western Christians wrestled with many of the same questions after the Berlin wall came down: “There was definitely a purity of the faith under communism.”

The Catholic Church has long pushed for the United States to normalize relations with Cuba and hosted secret U.S.-Cuba talks last year at the Vatican. Pope Francis, who personally participated in the negotiations, applauded the “historic decision” with “warm congratulations” in a statement.

But some evangelicals, while happy Cubans will have better access to food and medicine, quietly expressed concern the changes could squelch Cuba's church-planting movement, which is surpassed only by China and two different movements in India. The worry I heard from several missions leaders is that what happened in Romania or the former Soviet Union could repeat in Cuba—meaning the West shows up in all its glory and “destroys the church.”

“Missionaries flooded in … but so did pornography, so did gambling, so did sex tourism, so did cults,” said one missions leader who declined to be named because because Cuban Christians he works with could face retribution. He told me the embargo acted as both a fence and a filter: “The current situation in Cuba created a fertility to the gospel and to revival that is unprecedented in Cuban history.”

The goal is an indigenous church planting movement, something leaders say they have in a Cuban people who understand the church to be more than a place people go to worship on Sundays. They need Bibles and trained pastors, but some say they don’t need outside groups paying for pastor salaries and buildings.

“This is a time of pure harvest in Cuba,” Urbanek said. “If you put down your tools and build barns, you’re not harvesting.”

Missions leaders said they hope well-meaning American Christians will seek proper guidance before jumping into the Cuban field. They suggested going through local churches and denominations to find ministries already successfully engaged in the country.

Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, struck a hopeful tone, suggesting the policy change could meet both spiritual and physical needs: “I pray this decision will serve as a catalytic step in unleashing the followers of Jesus to be the church both inside and outside of the island nation.”

J.C. Derrick

J.C. is WORLD Radio’s managing editor. He spent 10 years covering sports, higher education, and politics for the Longview News-Journal and other newspapers in Texas before joining WORLD in 2012 and eventually becoming WORLD’s Washington Bureau chief. Follow J.C. on Twitter @jcderrick1.

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