BALTIMORE, Maryland (BP) -- Touting the explosive growth of evangelical Christianity in Cuba as inspiration for Southern Baptists' global missions effort, IMB's president challenged messengers to the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention to unite in "one sacred effort" to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
Speaking to more than 5,000 Southern Baptist pastors, leaders and church members gathered at Baltimore's convention center June 10, Tom Elliff said God used a trip to Cuba in late 2013 to radically touch his heart.
Elliff traveled to the small island nation, just 90 miles off Florida's coast, to survey the church-planting movement which has swept the country during the past 20 years. After conversations with many Cuban pastors, Elliff discovered the simple elements behind Cuba's spiritual transformation included prayer, hard work and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Elliff invited some of the Cuban pastors he met, such as Jose Enrique Perez, to speak to SBC messengers. At times, Elliff was brought to tears while acknowledging the sacrifices many Cuban believers such as Perez made to remain faithful to Christ during difficult periods in Cuba's recent history. He compared Cuban Baptists' resilience to the country's national tree, the Royal Palm, which can bend nearly horizontal during a hurricane and quickly shed all of its fronds to survive a storm.
"And when the storm is over, after a period of silence, that trunk of that tree begins to stand upright, and buds in the top of that tree begin to spring forth again," Elliff said, his voice cracking with emotion. "And the tree is more beautiful after the storm than it ever was before. That is exactly what has happened in Cuba."
During such challenging times, Perez said prayer was the church's one sustaining effort. (See infographic, "Cuba: revolution to revival.")
"When these things happen, God takes control, and He makes the changes," Perez said. "It was like in the Book of Acts, before Pentecost; the church only had one program -- praying together."
By the early 1990s, Cuban Baptists began to see the results of that prayer. Through a spontaneous spiritual awakening that Perez believes can only be attributed to the movement of the Holy Spirit, new believers began flooding Cuba's remaining traditional churches, which quickly reached capacity. Unable to obtain permission to construct new church buildings, Cuban Baptists remembered the house churches that sheltered them during the darkest days of the revolution. Soon, Perez said, house churches began to spring up across the country by the hundreds and thousands. (See related video.)
"Many have come to faith in Christ," Perez said. "Many churches are being formed. Today we're seeing the glory of God in Cuba. Our fathers prayed for that."
Hard work, unflinching obedience
But as the Holy Spirit stirred Cubans' hearts, Elliff said gathering the spiritual harvest meant hard work and unflinching obedience for the Cuban Christians who evangelized and discipled new believers. (See related video.)
Cuban pastor Daniel Gonzalez was a young man when God called him to share Christ on the Isle of Youth, off Cuba's southern coast. For five months Gonzalez slept on a park bench during weekend visits to the island as he began his ministry, sharing the Gospel door-to-door. Today, as a result of the 10 years he labored there, more than 10 government-recognized churches and a network of more than 200 house churches are thriving, including a small seminary. The island is regarded as the most evangelized area in the country, and churches there have sent Cuban missionaries to Mexico, Nicaragua and Vietnam.
"A person who is called to plant churches doesn't see it as a sacrifice but as a privilege," Gonzalez told SBC messengers.
Now working as a pastor in Havana, Gonzalez is part of Cuban Baptists' "Urban 20-20 Project," aimed at mobilizing traditional Baptist churches to start house church networks in each of Cuba's 20 largest cities.
"Our heart is that by the year 2020, there won't be one neighborhood in any of these 20 cities in Cuba that does not have Baptist churches," he said.
"What we are able to see in Cuba is because you have been supporting us," he told those gathered in the convention hall. "You are our heroes. Please keep being strong. Thank you for everything you have been doing for the church in Cuba." (See related video and read more about Gonzalez' work on the Isle of Youth.)
SBC messengers also heard from Juan Carlos Rojas, president of the Western Cuban Baptist Convention. Though Rojas pastors Cuba's largest Baptist church, Calvary Baptist in Havana, he cautioned Southern Baptists not to depend on buildings.
"Let's not limit ourselves to our temples," Rojas urged.
"Please, offer your homes that there might be in your home a place where you worship, where you teach God's Word, where you share God's Word -- that there might be a church in your home.
Elliff strongly affirmed his sentiments, targeting a key word he'd like to see deleted from Southern Baptists' church planting vocabulary: building.
"With the power of God, with prayer, and with hard work we could see a movement of God in our nation," Elliff said. That's all that's necessary to "bring the lost to Him and then to catapult them around the world."
Rojas added that Cuban Baptists are excited about walking alongside Southern Baptists as they find their place in international missions.
"We as Cubans are now thinking about the nations," Rojas said.
"And we pray for this time next year to be sending Cuban missionaries to the nations. We want to be a part of this sacred effort."
In his report to the convention, Elliff unveiled IMB's theme for 2014, "One Sacred Effort," encouraging every Southern Baptist to "find your place in God's story." For more information on IMB's theme and how to get involved go to imb.org/one.
Elliff's report detailed the activities of Southern Baptist missionaries in 2013. But rather than highlight the total numbers of new believers and baptisms witnessed by Southern Baptists and their national partners, Elliff instead chose to focus on the efforts of the roughly 4,800 IMB individual missionaries.
He divided the results by the number of missionaries to reflect the work of a single missionary, an individual whom Elliff said participated in leading 49 people to faith in Jesus, walking with 24 of those believers as they expressed their faith through baptism.
"Seventy-five percent of the people in this world live in nations that are hostile to the Christian faith," Elliff said, citing a recent email from an IMB missionary which caught his attention.
"How do you baptize 1,200 people on one Sunday morning in a Muslim country? It staggers the imagination."
In 2013, an "average" IMB missionary also:
-- Assisted in systematic, ongoing Bible training for 90 individuals and personally mentored five additional potential leaders;
-- Participated in training and encouraging six different churches and personally led in the planting and establishment of at least one new church;
-- Joined others in pointing 3,861 believers toward extended, formal theological training;
-- Welcomed to the field the 1,918 Southern Baptist churches and entities that have committed to embrace UUPGS (unengaged, unreached people groups) across the globe;
-- Witnessed the engagement of 120 UUPGs by Southern Baptists during the past three years and participated with other evangelical groups in engaging 919 previously unengaged, unreached people groups.
Elliff thanked Southern Baptist churches and the Woman's Missionary Union for their role in making those numbers a reality by giving the largest Lottie Moon Christmas Offering in history in 2013: $154 million, $4.8 million more than the 2012 offering.
Recognizing this will likely be his last SBC annual meeting as IMB's president, Elliff also thanked Southern Baptists for the opportunity to serve. In February, Elliff announced God is leading him to leave IMB once a successor could be found.
"We believe people support what they help create," he said. "And it seems we have an entire generation of Southern Baptists who've yet to have an opportunity to help us create who we are. There comes a time when leaders need to be cheerleaders.
"Jeannie and I have been so privileged to serve in this role for the past three and half years. This has been one of the most incredible blessings of our life; the joy of serving you (Southern Baptists), of serving our personnel, of serving with our board of trustees."
Messengers expressed their appreciation to Elliff with a standing ovation.
Don Graham is an IMB senior writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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