After more than 50 years of silence, the U.S. and Cuba have started talking again. In fact, this past July the two countries announced a formal restoration of diplomatic relations, and President Barack Obama said that the U.S. and Cuba had struck a deal to open embassies in each other’s capitals for the first time in half a century. The politics are controversial, and the changes elicit different responses across the political spectrum.
But there’s another “thaw” taking place throughout Cuba, one that breeds hope among all God’s people. God has sparked a fire in the hearts of Cuban men and women. As a result, there’s been a profound Gospel renewal and an explosive house-church movement.
God has sparked a fire in the hearts of Cuban men and women.
A Law-bound Legacy
The PCA’s part in this story begins in 1928, long before Castro and the Communist revolution. An American missionary named Elmer Thompson moved to Placetas, Villa Clara, to start a theological seminary. He and B.G. Lavastida, a Cuban evangelist, founded a new denomination called Los Pinos Nuevos (the New Pines). During the next several decades, hundreds of churches sprang up focusing on holiness and cultivating a pietistic faith.
In the 1950s, Elmer’s son Allen took over as the seminary’s president. During that time, Allen began to notice that the churches had drifted from piety toward legalism. “It was very rule-bound,” he explains.
During his tenure, Allen Thompson tried to steer the denomination toward the grace of Christ and His work. After the Revolution and following his intermittent trips back to Cuba, Thompson took the helm at World Team, a missionary organization with Cuban roots. In 1990, Thompson joined the PCA and was influential in establishing the Church Planting Assessment Center. He then worked as Multicultural Church Planting coordinator for Mission to North America (MNA) and was later recruited by Redeemer (NYC) and worked with his son-in-law John Thomas to write the church-planting curriculum for Redeemer’s City to City partnership.
In 2008, Thompson got a call from the president of the Los Pinos seminary; he needed help. In the years since Thompson had left Cuba, the denomination had sunk deeper into legalism.
“They would say, we’re saved by grace and sanctified by obedience. But it was really ‘by works,’” Thompson explains.
The Los Pinos president asked Thompson if he’d be willing to return to Cuba and help figure out how to loosen legalism’s grip on the denomination. Although it had been 48 years since he led the seminary, Thompson responded to the pull at his missionary roots.
The Spark of Grace
In 2010, Thompson showed up on the 770-mile long island with a mission to reintroduce Gospel principles at the church level, not at the seminary.
The problem with formal academic education, Thompson says, is that it takes so long to reach the heart. Thompson was interested in how nonformal instruction would work; if there might be the possibility for greater impact.
He started by training two church leaders in two cities on either coast — Holguín in the East and Havana in the West. By strategically targeting these two cities, he believed the church would see the greatest amount of growth in the shortest amount of time. Thompson then had each of the church leaders — Alfredo Forhans in Holguín and Norberto Quesada in Havana — select 20 other pastors to be trained who could then return to their churches and train leaders in 20 more churches.
For four days, the 40 pastors came together to eat, sleep, and discuss two topics: “What is the Gospel?” and “How do we live it?”
All the trainees returned to their homes equipped with a new understanding of God’s grace and a handful of Gospel materials borrowed from the City to City model that they could begin sharing in their home communities. Each of these original 40 would return for future Gospel training, but not before entrusting the previous message to 20 other people. These 20 would then train 20 more and so on.
Since Thompson met with the original 40, the Gospel has exploded all over Cuba. During the past five years, 12 “generations” have been trained in the curriculum. From churches born out of Los Pinos and 19 other denominations, 324 have become “training centers” for these Gospel modules. In 2014 alone, more than 17,000 people participated in the modules.
Some are transformed out of legalism into a new understanding of grace. Many more — often young people who are disillusioned with the atheism of their parents’ generation — are discovering Jesus for the first time. With enormous numbers coming to Christ, there haven’t been enough church buildings to hold them. And since it’s illegal to construct new church buildings, house churches have been springing up in the tens of thousands. To date, there are more than 40,000 house churches dotting the island.
“The really important thing is that lives [are being] transformed by the Gospel,” Thompson said. “You see it by a tremendous hunger for the Gospel.”
“The really important thing is that lives [are being] transformed by the Gospel. You see it by a tremendous hunger for the Gospel.”
Spanish River Church in Boca Raton, Florida, cares about church planting. A lot. In fact, it has directed 20 percent of its budget toward planting churches — in the PCA and outside, in the U.S. and beyond. When members saw what was happening in Cuba, they took notice and decided to get involved by coming alongside Thompson to help lead the Gospel modules. More recently, they’ve begun funding training centers that produce house churches.
“It’s basically a church in a house,” explains Ron Tobias, Spanish River’s executive pastor, who returned not long ago from a visit with Forhans in Holguín. With resources from Spanish River, Forhans recently purchased a two-story house to serve as a gathering place for one congregation. Forhans and his family live on the second floor, while the training center and church meet on the first floor. To help fund the church, Forhans runs and operates a farm. To date, Spanish River has invested in three training centers, two farms, and one tractor.
In addition to Spanish River, Perimeter Church in Atlanta has contributed its “Life-on-Life” discipleship curriculum to the house churches. Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has partnered with Birmingham Theological Seminary to give credit to leaders of the house churches who complete courses through Third Millennium Ministries. And several other churches have contributed to the printing of more than 50,000 copies of Tim Keller’s “Gospel Christianity” to disseminate among the house churches.
A Movement of God
After visiting Cuba last year, Tobias was amazed to see the growth that had occurred over 12 months. One church he visited had 100 members and wasn’t even in existence a year ago.
“[In the United States], I think a lot of people go to church for the wrong reasons,” Tobias says. But in a place like Cuba, he points out, people go because they have faith, they believe, and they’re excited about what God’s doing in their lives and communities. “They want to share with other people,” he says.
Forhans says that it’s important to remember that this Gospel renewal is “a movement of God.”
“There are many lives that are coming all the time to Christ,” he says. “One of the most recent stories is a sister named Aimé. She came from a very legalistic religious background and had no understanding of the Gospel. She was very full of fears and doubts. Immediately, we began to share the Gospel and the grace of God with her and her daughter. Right now, in their home, we have a small group, and there are 20 new lives who hear the Gospel in their home.”
In addition to the numerical growth, the church has also experienced a new passion for mercy ministry.
“The churches that were legalistic were always inward-centered,” Thompson explains. “Now they are missional and outward-centered.”
There’s such a rich example of this in one of the most broken neighborhoods in Old Havana — home to one of the original Los Pinos churches. In this part of the city the elderly are vulnerable, often having no family to care for them. The congregation once turned a blind eye, but in the wake of its own revival the church sought government permission to start a program to take food to 25 elderly residents in their apartments. The initiative was so successful that government leaders approached the church and asked if it could care for 50 more.
“Personally, it’s been a great transformation to see how the Gospel can move through the layers of sin, whether it’s from ‘elder brothers’ or ‘prodigals,’” Thompson says. “It transforms so that they’re open and vulnerable and free. People are transformed not just in their lives, but in their homes and in their society.”
Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis. She has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, BreakPoint Radio, The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Times, and World magazine.