In 2013 Tyndale House began a partnership with Cuba For Christ to teach Bible languages to pastors. Now a movement for doctrinal depth is flourishing in the country.
Cuba's population is one sixth the size of Britain's but it has roughly the same number of Evangelical Christians. In the past 25 years, Communist restrictions on Christian worship have eased a little, leading to a rapid growth in the number of Cubans discovering or rediscovering church — both Catholic and Protestant. While this is a cause for celebration, growing congregations are not without their problems, particularly a lack of well-qualified leaders to pastor the increasing number of believers. While many in Britain dream of facing the pressure of rapid expansion, the challenges it brings are real.
Cuba was dominated by the Roman Catholic church until Fidel Castro’s Revolution in 1959 resulted in the imposition of atheistic communism. In the early 1990s the Church gained more freedom, but to this day it still operates under strict limitations, including a rule that no new church buildings may be built. There are also curbs on the size of house churches, meaning that they tend to be small and numerous, which in turn increases the number of leaders needed. These factors, combined with a persistent emigration of church leaders, creates a lamentable lack of trained ministers and an ever-growing demand. In the two main Baptist denominations there are twice as many officially recognised churches as ordained ministers — and this does not include the many unofficial house churches that are planted by each officially recognised church.
Among those who do put themselves forward for leadership, a lack of solid Bible teaching has contributed to the growth of santería — syncretic African religions which flourished under the Revolution, as well as during Roman Catholic days.
In the midst of these “growing pains” a group of British Christians came together to form a network to support the Church by providing theological education. Called Cuba para Cristo (Cuba For Christ) it began responding to the huge demand by running conferences in seminaries to help ministers train lay leaders in biblical theology.
For all the intensity of study, the aim is to cultivate a genuine humility before God and his word.
In 2010 it helped arrange the travel for a Cuban delegation to the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, an international conference of leaders from around the world to encourage evangelism. The journey involved a lay-over in London during which Hermes Soto, Rector of the Havana Baptist seminary and a pastor in Cuba since the 1960s, shared his concern for the Cuban church. He outlined Cuba’s crisis of leadership, and particularly the critical lack of depth. The Cuban church had a dearth of leaders, he said, who could teach at MA level, and those courses that were available at MA level were designed by foreigners for foreigners, and delivered by foreigners, who typically flew in for a week to teach them, usually through a translator. What Cuba desperately needed was orthodoxy within its home-grown theology.
The solution proposed by Cuba para Cristo was to train a group of seminary professors to teach MA-level subjects in biblical studies and doctrine. They would need to be sent by their seminaries, with a commitment to return to Cuba to teach others. This model, which became the template for a partnership between Tyndale House and Cuba para Cristo, means that those coming to study in the UK are trained to teach others to teach others — and in this way to break the dependence on foreign lecturers.
Faced with so many competing priorities, the choice of what sort of theological education to invest in was key. It had already become clear that the level of biblical languages amongst pastors was next to non-existent, and that such training as there was equipped them more to use software tools than to read and understand Scripture for themselves. The seminaries Cuba para Cristo works with were clear as to their priority — biblical languages, they said, were the essential foundation on which all other courses should be built.
Laying the foundations
There are in Cuba, as sadly elsewhere, those who would exploit the power inherent in knowledge for their own ends. Some churches are being split by factions and authoritarianism. Teaching biblical languages to Cuban professors at Tyndale House enables them both to grow tremendously in their ability to read the original text for themselves, and to see how much there is still to learn. For all the intensity of study, the aim is to cultivate a genuine humility before God and his word. The fellowship of the community at Tyndale House, of academics at different stages in their career all seeking to serve the worldwide Church, encourages this.
The programme was launched in 2013. Because places were limited it was vital to make sure that they went to the participants who had the most capability for studying and making progress. A large number of denominations were contacted with the offer of training their professors in biblical Greek. Those who showed interest were given resources to help them study in Cuba over a number of months, and an exam in February 2016 tested the progress made. Knowing the challenges of ministry in Cuba, this provided a helpful and fair filter for the enthusiasm with which the project was received.
In January 2017, six professors from four denominations came to Tyndale House to study Classical Greek (taught in Spanish), and by the end of this time they were confident in their reading of Plato. They returned to Cuba with a commitment to train others, and a promise from Tyndale House that the best of the group would be able to come back, God willing, in 2018.
The summer of 2018 saw five Cuban professors of Greek visit Tyndale House for almost six weeks’ intensive studies in the Greek New Testament. They came from four different denominations and five seminaries or affiliates, spread across the country. Three had studied Classical Greek at Tyndale House in January of 2017. The two additions had never been to Cambridge before (one had never been outside of Cuba) but had demonstrated an exceptional ability to learn whilst in Cuba, and had reached the same standard as the other participants.
The intensive course enabled the Cubans to read a quarter of the New Testament and half as much again outside the New Testament. Language lessons were followed by daily, hour-long discussions of issues raised in the texts. The aim was to equip the group to read the New Testament in its original language for their own devotional use as well as for pastoral work. The programme also sought to equip delegates to confidently engage with commentaries based on the original text.
The Cuban professors were taught by Revd Dr Steffen Jenkins, lecturer in Greek and Biblical Studies at Union School of Theology. Jenkins has been involved in the theological education of Cuban ministers in Cuba for 15 years. He comments: “It has been an absolute joy to teach these brothers so intensively at Tyndale House this summer. We have achieved in five weeks what it takes me two years of normal teaching to teach, albeit as part of the wider theological studies at Union.”
Seeds of hope
The challenge for the Cuban professors now they have returned is to teach what they have learnt to others in their seminaries. At a meeting under a tree in the garden of Tyndale House this summer, they admitted this would take them some time. One week of their learning at Tyndale House is equivalent to many months of what they could teach in Cuba. That said, each was committed not just to teach others, but to seek to influence the curricula of each seminary to ensure that biblical languages are more integrated into all that is studied.
In the midst of a burgeoning need, the partnership between Tyndale House and Cuba para Cristo is a seed of hope which is already bearing fruit. Alumni from the Tyndale House teaching programme have formed a new group which they call CENALEB (which translates as National Centre for Biblical Languages). This consists of a dozen or so Cuban professors, from more than half a dozen denominations, working together to encourage each other in the study of God’s word in its original languages.
Those in the Greek group hope to emulate their Hebrew colleagues, who also learnt their Biblical language at Tyndale House, and who now meet every six months for one week, with one person leading the teaching of a book of the Bible. This is resourced by Cuba para Cristo, which sends out commentaries in advance to help the professors in their preparation.
Cuban alumni from the Tyndale House/Cuba para Cristo partnership have not only taught in Cuba. There are seminaries in Miami and Panama which have benefitted from Hebrew intensives taught in Spanish, which are modelled on what was taught in Cambridge. The professors are always on the lookout for opportunities to go elsewhere or receive people in Cuba to pass on what they’ve learnt.
Thus, from small beginnings, Cuba para Cristo is rising to the challenge of teaching a nation where many are eager to learn more about the Bible. Alex Sal Perdomo, a pastor and teacher at the seminary of the Free Baptist Convention of Cuba, and one of the participants in the Greek-language programme, wrote to Tyndale House on his return: “With this preparation we are not only developing our teachers, our pastors, leaders and seminary students in biblical languages, but we are changing the story of Cuba.”
Carl Chambers is an Anglican minister in Brighton, UK, and has been chairman of Cuba para Cristo for 20 years