Cuban children learn to pray during a weekly meeting held in the home of two ladies with a passion to evangelize children. In 2010, the religious affiliation of Cuba was estimated by the Pew Forum to be 59.2 percent Christian (mostly Roman Catholic), 23.0 percent unaffiliated, 17.4 percent folk religion and the remaining 0.4 percent other religions. Wilson Hunter/IMB

Cuban children learn to pray during a weekly meeting held in the home of two ladies with a passion to evangelize children. In 2010, the religious affiliation of Cuba was estimated by the Pew Forum to be 59.2% Christian (mostly Roman Catholic), 23% unaffiliated, 17.4% folk religion, and the remaining 0.4% other religions. Wilson Hunter/IMB Photo from

President Obama’s announcement Dec. 17 that the U.S. will renew its relationship with Cuba had pundits talking about the political and economic implications. Meanwhile, many Christian leaders focused on what the decision could mean for Cuban believers.

Phil Nelson has traveled to Cuba 11 times since 2003, speaking openly about the gospel with college students and on one occasion, a university president.

“Everybody we met with, we talked with about the gospel,” said Nelson, pastor of Lakeland Baptist Church in Carbondale. The Cuban Christians he has worked with are “passionate about the gospel, unashamed about anything. They had a boldness that we just don’t know anything about here in the United States.”

Still, there is the specter of oppression, said Kevin Carrothers, who traveled with Nelson to Cuba in 2006. He remembers noticing from Cuban people and visitors to the country that no one wanted to draw attention to themselves. The stereotype most people apply to the Caribbean – bright clothing, a festive, celebrative atmosphere – didn’t hold water in Cuba, said the pastor of Rochester First Baptist Church.

Their mission team saw people come to Christ, though, including one woman who stopped them by the side of the road to ask for a drink of water. Nelson talked with her about the living water that Jesus offers; right there on the road, Carrothers said, she accepted Christ.

After Obama’s announcement, leaders weighed in on whether the decision would help or hurt people in the country. Nelson is skeptical that a re-opened relationship between the U.S. and Cuba will increase freedoms. Admitting he’s just one person assessing the situation, he said he expected the Cuban government to crack down even more. A contact of Nelson’s in Cuba reported three months ago that police had shut down student ministry groups.

There also is concern, Nelson said, that what happened in the former Soviet Union could happen in Cuba. Once the iron curtain fell in that region in 1989, the “prosperity gospel” went in. Nelson called it a “tsunami of heresy” that hurt the church, rather than helping it.

Other leaders with knowledge of Cuba also expressed caution. “This change is not going to help the Cuban people [under] a communist government in power for more than 50 years,” said Óscar J. Fernández, a Tennessee minister who holds political asylum from Cuba. “I will applaud if Cuba makes any concessions, but they are not [likely to do so],” he told Baptist Press.

But David R. Lema, whose family left Cuba for Spain when he was 7, said “any normalization of political ties between Cuba and the U.S., regardless of political implications or results, should prove beneficial for Christian work.”

“Travel for Americans going to Cuba would flow smoother and with less inconvenience—anyone that has gone to Cuba knows what I am talking about here,” Lema, director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for the Americas in Miami, told BP. “Churches and individuals will have more freedom to help the churches directly without having to worry about U.S. embargo violations.”

Carrothers said he didn’t know whether more mission teams will begin traveling to the Caribbean country. “What I do know, and what I think the reality is, is that where the church has been oppressed, and the church has been persecuted, the gospel has flourished.

“And that certainly was the case in Cuba, the gospel was flourishing in the midst of oppression.”

By Meredith Flynn, with additional reporting by Baptist Press

COMMENTARY | Growing up in a small rural Missouri community just 90 miles north of St. Louis gave me the opportunity to experience some of the best the city and its surrounding communities had to offer. My family made frequent trips to the St. Louis Zoo, the Museums of Art and Natural History, Six Flags, Cardinals baseball games, the Fox Theatre, and, of course, the numerous malls and shops.

I looked forward to any and all trips into the city. St. Louis seemed so fast and exciting compared to my sleepy little farming community. I still love St. Louis and look forward to any visits I can make there. It’s because of my heart for the city and the connections I have there that the recent events in Ferguson have particularly saddened me.

I’m Facebook friends with former classmates who now live in the metro area. I’ve been following one of my classmate’s posts in particular since the evening of August 29, when a white police officer shot and killed a young black man. She and her family live in a town adjacent to Ferguson and have experienced first-hand the events that have captured the nation’s attention.

She has chronicled the fear and frustration felt by many in the community. She has also shared about being a parent of four young children and how the unrest has affected them. Some nights they could hear the sounds of the protestors from their home.

My classmate has struggled to explain to them what happened, why people are angry, why school has been cancelled, and many other related things. Along with her husband, their top priority has been keeping their children safe and also making them feel safe.

I’ve read with joy when she’s written about her faith in the Lord and knowing He would keep them safe. I’ve read with sadness when she has expressed fears for her family. When the announcement was made that the grand jury had come to a verdict, she wrote that a friend in another town had offered to let them stay in her home if they felt unsafe in their own. She jokingly posted that she hoped they didn’t have to have a “slumber party” that night.

When the school reopened following the grand jury announcement, she wrote about walking her children in and reassuring them of their safety. She also shared about barely making it out the school’s front door before collapsing into tears from stress and worry.

What my friend and her family are experiencing doesn’t have anything to do with whether you agree with the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown. It’s about the sin that is in this world and our failure as a society to seek God.

May we turn to Him to ask for healing and understanding between all races in our nation, and for Him to be glorified through our words and actions.

JesusTHE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

How well do Americans fare at keeping Christ the center of Christmas? Pretty well, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research. 79% agreed that “Christmas should be more about Jesus,” and 70% said “Christmas would be a better experience if it had a more Christian focus.” 63% of people said the holiday should include a visit to church.

Even so, LifeWay reported, people are less sure about the season’s theological details: Only 56% agreed that Christ existed before Jesus’ birth.

As you send your Christmas cards this year, remember who’s on the receiving end, Kay Warren said in a Dec. 4 Facebook post and a later article for Warren, whose son, Matthew, committed suicide in 2013, said receiving cards with happy family photos served as sharp reminders of their own family’s grief.

As protestors rallied to speak out against grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission changed the theme of its second annual leadership summit to racial reconciliation. The March 26-27 meeting was set to focus on pro-life issues, but ERLC leaders announced the new emphasis in light of national response to current events, Baptist Press reported.

Christian leaders will gather today in Memphis, Tenn., to discuss the church and race relations. “It’s Time to Speak” will be streamed live from the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum. The event, organized by Memphis pastor Bryan Loritts, also includes John Piper, Derwin Gray, Matt Chandler and Darrin Patrick. Gray told The Christian Post, “This event will be a call for the local church to be what she was meant to be – a multi-ethnic and multi-class of communities of reconciliation, love, and unity.

The plywood nailed to the windows of homes and businesses reminded Stoney Shaw of living near the threat of hurricanes when he was younger.

“People would brace themselves for the storm that was coming,” said Shaw, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Ferguson, Missouri. “That’s exactly what is happening here; a devastating storm. But praise God things seem to be winding down and there is a lot of rebuilding going on, which is what we’ve been praying for.” Read the full story from the Illinois Baptist.

More than $30,000 has been donated online to help three families in the wake of a triple murder in Florida. Southern Baptist pastor Tripp Battle was one of the victims in the Dec. 4 shootings, which also took the lives of Denise Potter and Amber Avalos. Avalos’ husband, Andres, was arrested Dec. 6 in connection with the deaths, Baptist Press reported.

The upcoming movie version of Louis Zamperini’s life may not fully explore his faith, but the WW2 survivor’s conversion was in the spotlight leading up to the Dec. 25 release of “Unbroken.” The 1949 Los Angeles revival where Zamperini was saved not only changed him, wrote Religion News Service’s Cathy Lynn Grossman, but also transformed the ministry of the young evangelist preaching those nights.

Numerous fires were set in Ferguson, Mo., following the decision by a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Photo from by Victor Miller

Numerous fires were set in Ferguson, Mo., following the decision by a grand jury not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Photo from by Victor Miller

NEWS | Kayla Rinker

The plywood nailed to the windows of homes and businesses reminded Stoney Shaw of living near the threat of hurricanes when he was younger.

“People would brace themselves for the storm that was coming,” said Shaw, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Ferguson. “That’s exactly what is happening here; a devastating storm. But praise God things seem to be winding down and there is a lot of rebuilding going on, which is what we’ve been praying for.”

Despite the rioting and arson surrounding the grand jury’s Nov. 24 decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, Shaw said there are glimpses of hope among the ashes.

“On that very same plywood, artists have drawn pictures of encouragement and hope,” he said. “We are the real Ferguson people, black and white. As a whole we are not the ones marching and picketing, we are the ones getting looted and broken into. There are a lot of other narratives, but the reality is that this is a terrible tragedy and it does not have our best interest in mind.”

But because of that reality, it leaves Ferguson-area churches with a unique opportunity to minister to a broken and hurting community. Shaw said FBC is engaged with the city to promote positive changes.

For example, when the district closed a nearby school because of the impending threat of rioting, FBC opened its facilities to provide meals, tutors, and a safe place for the kids to be during the day. The City of Ferguson has also used FBC’s fellowship hall for their “Talk-Back” meetings for people to express their grievances and appeals for change to the mayor and city leaders.

“It’s exciting to be a practical part of the solution to a very complicated situation,” Shaw said. “I’ve said it before but we were at Ground Zero before it was Ground Zero. These are scary times and we are living in the shadow of that. God has called Christian people and churches in Ferguson to go and do what needs to be done together, in order to recover our fine city for Him.”

Sean Boone is pastor of New Beginning Christian Fellowship, an SBC church plant in nearby Hazelwood, Mo. “What I’m seeing and hearing is more about believers being white or black before being Christian,” Boone said. “As believers we must step back and ask are we rendering grace to both sides? Are we looking at everything through the lenses of U.S. citizens or (as) citizens of the body of Christ?”

He said only when believers answer these questions honestly can Biblical and fair solutions for all people be found.

“If we only rely on a system born out of the flesh of sinful man, we will constantly get flawed results,” Boone said. “One side or the other will always feel disenfranchised. Right not we are witnessing an expression of a group of people feeling hopeless. The church needs to address the reason for this hopelessness…which is sin.”

Shaw believes there are legitimate issues and injustices regarding the treatment and the voice of the majority of Ferguson residents. He said that more than anything, this tragedy has shined a light on those problems.

For starters, the African American subgroup in Ferguson makes up 70% of the city’s total population, but there is only one African American member of the city council. Shaw said the city needs to push for everyone to register to vote.

“We are blessed to have some neat African American ladies in our church who have started taking young adults in the 18 to 30 age range and teaching them the basics of our democratic republic,” Shaw said. “We have a nation of people who don’t know how it works. When only 10% of the majority 70% of the population is registered to vote in a city, it’s bad. People start to feel like they aren’t included and can’t change anything, which leads to looting and burning.”

And that idea of feeling included is what lays heavy on Shaw’s heart because he knows where it needs to begin: within the body of Christ. Though pastors and churches have come together to pray for one another in light of recent events, Shaw says that trend needs to continue.

“It sends a wonderful message that we are united as one body of believers,” Shaw said. “We need to get back to really associating with each other and that may require churches, whether predominately white or black, get out of their comfort zones: team up, serve together, go on mission together, fellowship together and even periodically do a pastor swap.”

“We are only racially divided if we want to be,” Shaw said. “We need to be living like Christ throughout this crisis.”

Special to the Illinois Baptist. Kayla Rinker is a reporter living in southwest Missouri.

Nate_Adams_Dec15HEARTLAND | Nate Adams

Have you ever found yourself heading into the Christmas season feeling blue? I have. In fact, this was one of those years.

I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I felt down, other than the fact that several things haven’t turned out the way I would have hoped this year. It appears some of the key measurements we set for our work at IBSA are not going to be met. In arenas outside IBSA that I care about, several decisions were made this year that were very different than what I thought best. Several people disappointed me. Even as I looked around for things I could call personal successes, well, I just couldn’t think of many.

The second factor that contributed to my blueness was just the sheer volume of work and challenges that seemed to still lay before me. After working so hard and seeing so little of the success I was looking for, it was hard to find the energy to dig in again.

In my blueness, I turned to music for some encouragement and reassurance. I found on my iPhone a playlist of 13 songs titled “Colorado Renewal 2013” that I had made two summers ago, during some personal retreat time. The first song, “Disappear,” by Bebo Norman, quickly gave expression to what I was feeling:

On a day like this I want to crawl beneath a rock
A million miles from the world
, the noise, the commotion – that never seems to stop.
And on a day like this
I want to run away from the routine
Run away from the daily grind
that can suck the life, right out of me.
I only know one place I can run to…

A place to run to is what I was looking for. And the song didn’t disappoint.

I want to hide in You, the way, the life, the truth so I can disappear
And love is all there is to see coming out of me
, and You become clear as I disappear.

For the next few minutes, I ran to Jesus, and disappeared there. I found sweet relief in the reality that Jesus’ completed work on the cross is all I need. I don’t have to earn or deserve anything more. Hidden in Him, everything returns to its proper perspective.

Then, just as the words of the first verse helped me express my discouragement, the words of the second verse helped me set a new direction, and a new motivation for the future.

I don’t want to care about earthly things
Be caught up in all the lies that trick my eyes
, they say it’s all about me
I’m so tired of it being about me.

As I looked back on the things that were making me blue at Christmas time, I realized they really were all about me, and what I could accomplish or control, what I could perhaps call success. And I realized that somehow I had indeed been deceived into thinking that my work, my successes, or even my ministry were the sources of my joy.

I recently watched a documentary about Bing Crosby that credited his classic “White Christmas” with being the song that first secularized Christmas. Until then, most Christmastime songs were sacred, Christ-centered. But after White Christmas, lots of writers and composers began creating sentimental Christmas songs with someone or something other than Christ as their focus. Of course one of those was Elvis Presley’s now famous lament, that it will be a “Blue Christmas without you.”

A Christmas season that depends on successes, or other people, or anything other than Jesus is bound to be blue. Maybe that’s one reason the shepherds fled their work and their despair and their longing and “came with haste” to the manger. That’s exactly where I want to run to and disappear this Christmas.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

Nick_RynersonCOMMENTARY | Nick Rynerson

It’s that time of year again. Christmas pageants, Advent sermons, beautifully lit homes, crowded malls, and—of course—television commercials showing you “the perfect gift for this holiday season.” Consumeristic binge-shopping and “once a year sales” have become as much a part of American Christmastime as trees, stockings, and the Nativity scene.

Modern Christians are quick to point out the gross consumerism that surrounds the celebration of Christ’s birth and we often viciously fight to curb and challenge Consumeristic Christmas™.

Perhaps rightfully so. As we all know, Christmas is more than just an excuse to spend money in excess, get together with family, and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Christmas is a time to celebrate that God loved humanity enough to send His Son to free us from the unsolvable mess of sin we’d gotten into. Christmas marks the beginning of the end for humanity’s sin problem.

And, amazingly, we live in a culture that recognizes that.

Our culture may not recognize that they recognize it, but think about it for a second: probably almost everyone you know (if you live in the United States) changes up their life rhythms to spend prodigious amounts of money on other people, make an effort to get together with estranged relatives, and even go to church (sometimes)!

Christmas shoppingWhenever I think of how most non- Christian Americans celebrate the Christmas season, I’m deeply moved. The secular “holiday spirit” reminds me of Paul’s words to the Greek pagans in Acts 17:

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for, ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:26-28 ESV).

If we set aside our criticisms to consider the Christmastime shopping habits of most people, we will glimpse something that echoes the woman in Mark 14:3-8 who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive oil—people spending reckless amounts of money on gifts for their children, parents, friends, and relatives. At the mall, masses of people seek to communicate the deep and Christ-reflecting love they have for their families and neighbors in the best way they know how: through gift-giving.

While there are clearly sin issues at play in American consumerism, let’s be encouraged that—at least at Christmas—the generosity of Jesus flows through our malls and checkbooks. And when we talk with our non-Christian neighbors about Jesus this Christmas season, we, like Paul, can affirm God’s image, God’s love, and God’s common grace in them.

Nick Rynerson is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and works for Crossway Publishing in Wheaton.

Leaders debate in wake of grand jury decisions

THE BRIEFING | Meredith Flynn

The Christian Post reports on a disagreement among some Southern Baptist leaders, following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Missouri teenager Michael Brown.

The_Briefing“Seems to me that racial reconciliation is a good thing and is a social issue, not a doctrinal or theological issue, and certainly not a “gospel demand,'” blogged Texas pastor Randy White. “If there is something Biblical that expresses racial reconciliation as a gospel demand, I’ve missed it.”

White’s Nov. 26 post at was in response to Southern Seminary vice president Matthew Hall, who wrote about racial injustice after a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death. Hall blogged the gospel demands racial reconciliation and justice, and gave five reasons why Christians ought to heed its instruction on the issues.

“…It’s high time that we start listening to our African-American brothers and sisters when they tell us that they’re experiencing a problem in this country,” Russell Moore said after a Staten Island grand jury did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. In a Questions & Ethics podcast recorded after the verdict was announced Dec. 3, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President denounced racial divisions in and among churches.

As a 13-year-old, Christian rapper Lecrae went free after harassing people with a pellet gun, he said in a Dec. 3 Facebook post. “One officer decided not to arrest me years ago but instead challenged me to get in my Bible.” The post was published on the same day as the Cleveland funeral of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a police officer while carrying a pellet gun.

A Southern Baptist pastor in Florida was killed Dec. 4 by a gunman who also took the lives of two women. Baptist Press reported police arrested Andres Avalos in Bradenton two days after the murders of Pastor Tripp Battle, Amber Avalos (Andres Avalos’ wife), and Denise Potter. Battle was the pastor of Bayshore Baptist Church in Bradenton; his father-in-law, Keith Johnson, was formerly on staff at FBC Machesney Park and Vale Church (Bloomington) in Illinois.

Six in ten Americans say the government shouldn’t define or regulate marriage, according to this recent LifeWay Research study, and more than half say clergy should no longer be involved in the state’s licensing of marriage.

A group of religion leaders, including Pope Francis, have pledged to do everything they can to end human slavery by 2020.

Religion News Services wonders how Christians will respond to “Unbroken,” the Louis Zamperini biopic from director Angelina Jolie. The film reportedly doesn’t deal with Zamperini’s Christian faith, chronicled in Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book from its beginnings at a 1949 Billy Graham Crusade.