The final leg of our cross-country trip brought us to a sequestered zone where the church is thriving. After flying over multiple states where the majority of congregations are stagnant or shrinking, we arrived in a land where church leaders are scrambling to keep up with the growth.
This healthy church zone is a hundred miles wide and stretches for approximately 700 miles. This place is Cuba. Yes, just 90 miles from Florida, the church is booming.
My recent intensive exploration on the ground in Cuba revealed that all sectors of the church are growing–conservative, progressive, rural and urban. Through an immersive trip with Lifetree Adventures, our group of American ministry leaders and lay people met with pastors, members, seminary faculty, and denominational leaders. We joined them in worship and prayer.
And I wondered, what’s different here? What might we learn here? I was struck by several factors.
Cuban congregations are mostly small–by American standards. Almost all are house churches that serve their immediate neighborhoods. As a congregation increases and outgrows its limited space, it typically reproduces into another congregation down the street.
Denominationalism and church brands are de-emphasized. There are no marquees, clever branding, catchy slogans, or denominational posturing. The president of the Cuban association of churches told us the churches work together with common purpose. The top professor at a prominent seminary said if students come in with denominational hubris, they soon lose it when they realize the true focus is Jesus. Simply Jesus.
Cuban ministry is deliberately relational. The churches grow through one-on-one relationships, building friendships, establishing trust, serving their next-door neighbors, and enjoying one another. The old camp song kept running through my head: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
They don’t fret about religious persecution. Yes, this is a Communist country with strict limitations on religious institutions. But the Christ followers here work with what they have–being the church. Discreetly staying under the public radar seems to focus their attention and love on their invisible Lord and their visible brothers and sisters.
The church exudes the joy of being the family of God. Sunday mornings turn house churches into jubilant celebrations of togetherness. I marveled as the pastor turned up the recorded salsa and rhumba music. Congregants leapt out of their seats and danced to the front of the room, singing along with the familiar lyrics. The congregation reveled in the simple enjoyment of being in the presence of the Lord and one another.
Money does not control them. The average wage here is $20 per month. There’s little ambition in the churches to build a financial empire. Yet the people still give freely from their meager pockets. National church leaders told us that a congregation is financially self-sustaining with just 20 members.
Near the end of our excursion we asked the president of the association of churches what they need from us American Christians. Without hesitation he said, “Most of all, we need your friendship. Relationship.” Classic. And then he added, “You don’t need to bring Jesus to Cuba. He’s already here.”
So, my question for the American church: What can we learn here?