We had the privilege of going with a team of people from various backgrounds through an organization called Strategic Sports International. SSI has taken dozens and dozens of groups into Cuba to serve the house churches there. The agenda on the trip was focused on pastoral training, a medical clinic, assisting new house churches, and youth mentoring. I was able to visit several house churches and preach at them and Kelly had the opportunity to speak at a women's conference.
Fundamentally, things are not complex for the church in Cuba. I don't mean that they don't face hardship. On that front, they face far more than we may ever have to worry about. But from a logistics and administrative side, church life is simple. They just show up, (mostly in people's homes) to read, pray, sing, fellowship, and preach. Then they go back to their homes and tells others about Jesus. There aren't complex programs, capital campaigns, communication strategies, and online social networks involved. They simply live life together. That's pretty much all they have.
On that note of living life together, the Cubans have such a strong sense of community-- it seems both partly due to their culture historically but also due to the political environment that has existed for years. This has forced them to be more communal in nature due to size limitations established as house churches. They were all so very welcoming and affectionate. It was nothing at all for us to just basically walk straight into someone's home. Most of them did not seem bound to a schedule whatsoever, so time and life are fluid and relationships always trump agendas. It was also beautiful to see the multi-racial nature of life there as Cuba is filled with people from all over the world- Europe, Africa, and South America.
One of the things that struck me was the simplicity of life. Again, not simple in the sense of being easy or lacking in hardship, but simple in the sense being free from many of the distractions we as Americans face. Here in the States, we often have a confusion in the categories of needs, wants, and rights. "My way right away" is the general motto of our consumeristic culture. On top of this, we are bombarded with constant information and the allusion of socializing via technology. While there, I was not able to call anyone, email anyone, text anyone, Google anything, tweet what I was doing, or Facebook what I was eating. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it can also bombard you with information (often useless information) and create a complexity to life and relationships that is both overwhelming and frankly, not very genuine. In Cuba, if you want to talk, well, you just have to talk to the person next to you. This simplicity of life in general seems to be driving much of the simplicity to church life and community living that is expressed.
There is an uncanny receptivity with the people. In fact, it was a bit startling at first when you are expecting the normal American response of rejecting the message. While there were many cultural barriers, a large one being language that made it difficult to know what level of understanding each person had as we talked, there were clear evidences of something unique and real (as I would see people who would hear the Gospel cry, say they had asked God to send someone to share this message, and then immediately go take us to a neighbor). There was a very child-like, impressionable disposition with many, many of the people we encountered. Yes, this means you also must be very careful one is truly understanding what they are hearing and truly grasping it. But we must also learn to not be surprised when God is moving. There can be a degree of skepticism (albeit many times justly) in our tradition of evangelicalism both due to the excesses of revivalism within American church history and because many people seem to have to hear the Gospel countless times before they embrace it here in the States. But we must not not let this skepticism dampen excitement when God really does seem to be moving. Why would be surprised to see God do tremendous things? Isn't this what we pray for!?
Church planting in Cuba is simple. You go out and share the Gospel with neighbors for a couple weeks, do a youth activity at someone's house to build bridges with their parents, and then within a week or two, you start holding a gathering in someone's home. When that home gets too full, you do it again. The network of churches we were working with had established 70+ house churches out of the original one. You can find books, seminars, conferences, websites, and degree programs all dedicated solely to church planting these days. In Cuba, in the time you've taken to read a book on starting a church, they probably just actually started a new church.
One of the evenings, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of children in a family's house. I spent about 15 minutes walking through the story of redemption, from Creation to Cross (using the iPad app version of God's Love: A Bible Storybook). My presentation was very simple. I didn't go into a complex treatise on original sin and it's transmission to all humanity thereafter. But God was taking it and applying my plain words powerfully to one young girl's mind. This little girl, Maria, to the left, was afterwards coloring very intently and with focus. Many of the other children were just coloring boats and animals. But Maria, with a Crayon, was putting to paper a theological presentation. We asked her what she had drawn and she explained that on the front side it was Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit on the tree. She had drawn a black heart that was broken indicating that God was displeased. And in Spanish she had written "el primer pecado," that being "the first sin." That side of the paper represented sin. On the backside, she explained that she had written her name there because it was clean and white, representing cleansing and forgiveness of sin. As this was translated to me, I stood there in amazement. I had not really gone into all that detail and was baffled she had taken that much information in, much less that she was able to articulate it with a unprompted drawing. This reminded me again of the beauty of the Gospel and how even little children can understand and embrace and actually explain complex truths behind it. This also reminded me how God is doing much more with our words than we can ever understand or comprehend.
Pray for the house church movement. Something dynamic seems to be taking place there. In some ways, it might be the closest modern-day version of 1st century church life. Things are spreading so rapidly that establishing a strong core of Biblically-literate leadership is crucial for the health of future church plants throughout the country. And pray that God would continue to cultivate child-like faith in the people and that they would not be deceived by falsehood or become calloused to the Gospel.
If you'd like to learn more, check out the International Mission Board Connecting Magazine with stories from SBC work taking place in Cuba. You can also read more from the Commission Stories website as well. The organization went went through (Dusty Change/SSI) also has stories and information on their website as well
From one of the IMB articles:
"Even the occasional skeptic is staggered by the growth of Christianity and Baptist churches in Cuba. And they are even more amazed at the depth of Biblical understanding, sacrifice and commitment expressed on a daily basis by Cuban Baptists who often stand and quote from memory the pastor's Scripture text during the weekly services. Most of these believers were ardently discipled for at least a year before being baptized, reflecting a determined effort on the part of Cuban Baptists to make genuine disciples."