New friends and frontiers in Cuba

Lissett, me, Kristina, and Maykel

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, my family and I had the privilege of hosting in our home the Reverend Maykel Baez Bruffau, pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Jordan and president of the Fraternity of Baptist Church of Cuba, and Ms. Lissett, a musician and worship leader in a sister Cuban church.

This was part of an ongoing partnership between the Fraternity and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Like the CBF, the Fraternity is comprised of churches that emphasize congregational ministry, women in ministry, and creative liturgy focused on the arts and missional engagement.

Maykel and Lissett attended the CBF General Assembly last week in Atlanta, and are making rounds in several churches to give testimony and to sing.  They will not be at First Baptist of Vero Beach this weekend, but they were nice enough to visit us in Vero Beach for a few days to get some rest and time off during their two-week stay.

Aside from my enthusiasm about this partnership (we at First Baptist are praying about joining a small team of pastors in November to reciprocate the relationship), I have been amazed at spending time with people from Cuba–a new frontier for missions and ministry since the easing of relations between the Obama Administration and the Castro regime a few years ago.

I had time to hear Maykel’s story.  Many families deal, for instance, with substandard housing.  Since resources are scarce, families work together to provide community enrichment, education, and support.  In Maykel’s case, he has a parsonage that was restored with the help of the church.

I asked him about things we take for granted, like appliances.  He gave an example and said that each family gets a Chinese refrigerator, which is infamous for leaks and too small.  Each family gets a voucher that barely covers the cost for the appliance, and it takes some families years to pay off the balance.

Other things, like infrastructure, also suffer under the communist dictatorship, although things have improved greatly under Raul Castro.  Small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to provide for a rise in middle-class demands, and the increase in American tourism has bolstered the economy.

The current Administration under Donald Trump threatens this delicate balance, and although communism is no pie in the sky, waning tensions between the two countries have provided the small island an economic step in the right direction–why close off an entire economy to quality refrigerators or microwaves?  We are too big and powerful a county to come under Castro’s sway, so why fear a better partnership?  (You’d think Donald Trump of all people would know a good deal when he sees one.)

Maykel also told me of his Christian upbringing.  He is pastor of the very church in which he grew up, and his pastor who raised him and encouraged him to go into the ministry retired only a few years ago.  Maykel considers her his spiritual mother, and he speaks with her on the phone almost daily.

In Georgia, I spent many days in conversation with communities and churches of color with whom my old church worked.  We spent many hours in dialogue and many more projects together to bridge racial divides.  My time with Maykel and Lissett provided me a new set of friends who spoke a language entirely different from my own, and we’ve been having fun trying to communicate with English and Spanish.

I found that I have become quite self-conscious of both my language and my belongings over the course of this week.  In my language, I use many figures of speech, and that does not translate well for people who only know rudimentary (and very literal!) English.  I’ve also taken note of how many things we take for granted.

We Americans do not know what it is like to go to a grocery store and not have an array of choices of things to buy.  We do not know what it is like to be forced to have all the same items and be confronted with a government and elite class that hoards so many resources even doctors need to barter to make ends meet (Cuba has a universal healthcare system, but patients are still expected to bring a “gift” to the doctor when the need arises).

Since most Cubans make about $20.00 a month, there is no discretionary spending on…well, anything.  Even getting a Coke or a belt is something of a luxury for Maykel and Lissett.

My new friends have taught me more than I can process this early on in the relationship.  Our time with Maykel and Lissett have opened our eyes to a bigger world, something I’d forgotten since my last mission trip to Ghana back in 1999.

I look forward to what God has in store for us who partner with the CBF and the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba.  More lessons, I’m sure–and hopefully a clearer call for justice, for Cuba’s and our own nation’s sake.

Where have the Charismatics Gone?

charismaBy Joe LaGuardia

In the spirit of Paula Cole, I’ve been asking, “Where have all the charismatics gone?”  Its been some twenty years since I found myself at a revival service, praying over a friend who had been “slain in the spirit.”

These days, I’m not so sure I have any close ties in that religious world where speaking in tongues, shouting, healings, and exhilarating praise was ubiquitous.

For those who are not up on their charismatic (or, sometimes called, “Renewal Movement”) parlance, being “slain in the spirit” is a physical act of surrendering to God–literally, falling on the ground–in a state of worship.  Like other manifestations of the spirit, it is an outward reaction to an emotional response.  Its something for which Pentecostals are known.

Unbeknownst to many of my friends, my home church in South Florida is a charismatic congregation.  We praised God with abandon, made for a multicultural community that valued “prophecy” and tongues, and danced in the aisles.

I was more subdued–always was a quiet guy (“Sorry, Mr. President, I don’t dance.”)–but I knew of the methods and means of revival, well-versed in the gifts of the Spirit as outlined in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and attended my share of retreats.

Charles Finney: A Face only a Mother can Love...

Charles Finney: A Face only a Mother can Love…

I even read several works by Charles Finney for the fun of it.

That was a long time ago.  I can only guess how the charismatic movement is fairing these days.  The only evidence of its presence that I have seen in Georgia of late has been in  the prosperity gospel movement and in some megachurches.

Some denominations, like the Four-Square church and Vineyard Churches, are still carrying on the work of revival and renewal–but they are few and far between.

Furthermore, many charismatic leaders, aspiring to find a sustainable relationship with the academy, became scholars and seminary professors.  Whether it evolved into the megachurch or the ivory tower, this kind of organization is often a spirit-stifling institutionalization that makes the gifts of the Spirit mere products to consume rather than experiences to cherish.

Also, the charismatic movement has not been without controversy and its critics. Pastor David Yonggi Cho of one of the largest charismatic churches in the world, South Korea’s Yoida Full Gospel Church, was sentenced last year for embezzling millions of dollars.

In Southern Baptist life, all things charismatic  is approached with contempt.   At one time, missionaries were not allowed to speak in tongues or “private prayer languages.”  Only recently did the Convention reverse the policy in light of a broadening constituency that struggles to balance diversity and dogma.

In 2013, author and pastor John MacArthur led a “Strange Fire” conference in which he openly attacked  Pentecostals and Catholics, calling the charismatic movement heretical and misleading.

Aside from these issues, churches in the charismatic tradition are actually the fastest growing churches in the world.  To answer my own question, the movement has not diminished, but has been outsourced.

In the global South, Pentecostalism is growing at an exponential rate, claiming the allegiance of over 25% of Christians worldwide.  I may not know any charismatics these days, but its influence across denominational and theological spectrums is undeniable.

Why have I been out of charismatic circles for so long?  Well, just as the charismatic movement has evolved, I have evolved too.

This is not to discredit my charismatic upbringing; quite the opposite: I am grateful for it because I am able to traverse Baptist life as an ordained minister with an intuitive eye on where the Spirit might be leading Christ’s Church.

For the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a break-off denomination from the more conservative Southern Baptist Convention (and the network I call home), this charismatic leaning may possibly afford a greater inclusive spirit to diversity, globalization, and pluralism that now defines many churches and neighborhoods.

I am not the only one with a charismatic background in the CBF, and my upbringing has benefited Trinity in continuing a strong foundation for missions, worship, and ministry that fits the eclectic and often-times multicultural milieu in which many churches now find themselves.

Although we have given up much ground to the prosperity gospel movement or an institutionalized consumerist Christian subculture, we who still cherish the Renewal Movement are better for it.

Report from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

CBF Commissioning Service/Dallas 2015-Courtesy CBF

By Matt Sapp

Julie and I along with several other members of our congregation spent three days last week in Dallas for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly. If you’re not sure what CBF is, Heritage was founded as a CBF church, meaning that we — and many other churches across the nation — pool our resources through CBF to support missions and ministry around the world.

The meeting, as always, was uplifting and hopeful, so I came away from the Assembly as I usually do, encouraged by the progress and energy of the Fellowship.  So let me share some of those good feelings with you.

Here are three observations from this year’s assembly that give me hope for our future together:

The Fellowship is moving forward.  We’ve upped our game in the last several years, and there’s no reason to think that trend won’t continue.  A most noticeable difference is in our public image. For a few years our branding was clearly dated, and we fell behind the curve in our graphic design and live production capabilities.

This year at the General Assembly our live production work was flawless. The lighting and sound worked perfectly. Our video production (both live and recorded pieces) was top notch. In short, we looked like we knew what we were doing.

More importantly, the new color scheme and logo were showcased in fantastic ways, giving new energy and attractiveness to our printed materials, video segments, and online presence.

This might sound superficial, but image matters.  It matters a lot.  We live in a world that won’t look beyond our dated facade to hear our message.  If we believe we have a message worth sharing, what we look like and how we share that message matters.  A 2015 image is a REQUIREMENT to reach a 2015 audience, and the CBF nailed it this year.

Second, we’ve almost completely transitioned from our founding generation to a new generation of leadership. That in and of itself isn’t a good thing.  It’s just true.  Next year we’ll celebrate 25 years of CBF, and the Fellowship is going to miss the active, every day leadership of people who could say, “I was there from day one.”

We’ll miss their leadership for a number of reasons.  We’ll miss them for their courage, their conviction, and their moral clarity.  We’ll miss their personal history with theological controversy.  They understand the stakes of denominational leadership in ways that those who weren’t there never will.  And we’ll miss their integrity—integrity proved by the willingness to stand on principle even when the costs were high.

Our founding generation understands what’s required organizationally and spiritually to create something new on a national scale.  Think about it: They created seminaries, missions infrastructures, publishing houses and Sunday School literature, youth and children’s programs, state agencies and organizational partnerships.  And they did it all from scratch—or nearly scratch.

Even more, they led churches — big churches and small churches, urban churches and rural churches, progressive churches and conservative churches — to let go of past affiliations in favor of a new dream. Did I mention their courage?

But the good news is that there’s another generation behind them. Not an “up and coming” generation anymore, but a generation that is leading right now.  And there’s a third generation of leaders behind them!

The test of any dream is whether it can survive beyond the lives of those who birthed it.  The good news — the GREAT news — is that CBF will.  That’s not new news, but it is good news, and it was re-affirmed for me at this year’s meeting.

Finally, there are A LOT of creative people doing creative things to grow the Kingdom of God who are proud to be a part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.   That makes me proud to be a part of CBF, too.  As part of the Fellowship, we partner with creative and talented missionaries and church planters and chaplains; with leading theologians and ethicists and creative thinkers; with gifted artists and musicians; with inspiring preachers and teachers; and with dedicated deacons and choir directors and Sunday School teachers.

We partner with leaders who start new churches and renew old ones, with some who find new ways to proclaim the gospel in well-tilled soil, and others who blaze new trails to share Jesus with people who have never heard that name before.

Through CBF we support people who are dreaming new dreams, trying new things for Christ, and finding new ways to put their faith into action.  The collective newness of what they’re doing, the creativity they bring to their tasks, and the risk-taking involved in stepping into the unknown bring much needed energy to our fellowship.

As the world around us changes and as churches change, CBF Christians are finding more ways to use their talents for their churches and God’s kingdom — as writers, photographers, graphic designers, video producers and technology gurus — and as pastors, worship leaders, scholars and missionaries who are willing to re-imagine the church for the 21st century.

We are excited about much and proud to be a Fellowship church. We should never overlook the enormity of our accomplishments or the hope of our futures together.  There’s never been a better time to be a CBF church than now.

This article first appeared on the Heritage Baptist Fellowship blog.  Used with permission.