By Tobin Perry
The North American Mission Board (NAMB) is adding Puerto Rico as one of its primary missions initiatives—meaning it will receive additional resources and missionaries from the Send Network and Send Relief ministries. NAMB president Kevin Ezell announced the new emphasis at the Feb. 6 meeting of NAMB’s Board of Trustees.
Over the last few months, NAMB has been moving toward establishing Puerto Rico as a major area of emphasis. Before Hurricane Maria pounded the island, NAMB was already investing more in church planting on the island and investigating ways to enhance its missions strategy there.
When Hurricane Maria struck, those plans gained more momentum. The needs yielded a sense of urgency and created a pathway for ministry.
“The storms created an open door for us to be there and to begin engaging with the local churches while also looping in many churches on the mainland for church partnerships,” said David Melber, president of Send Relief.
Despite the devastation left in the aftermath of the hurricane, Puerto Rican church planter Andres Laracuente said God has been at work.
Thanks, in part, to his participation in Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts since the storm hit, Laracuente has seen new opportunities to engage his community with the gospel.
“Hurricane Maria opened up many new opportunities to get to know my community better, to get to know the surrounding neighborhoods,” Laracuente said. “I’ve seen many kids that I didn’t see before Maria. I’m preaching the gospel with different people than I was before. My family has also grown more focused on the gospel and the Word of God.”
Now, through Send Network’s renewed emphasis on church planting on the island, Laracuente and other Puerto Rican Baptist church planting missionaries will have additional resources and opportunities to expand gospel ministry efforts in their communities.
The Send Puerto Rico initiative joins NAMB’s efforts across North America as the newest addition to its missions strategy. NAMB comes alongside churches to engage underserved regions of North America with the gospel through evangelistic church planting and mercy ministry.
As a Send region, Puerto Rico will receive more funding for church planting, resources for church planters and increased attention by Send Relief.
“We will continue to help with the physical healing and restoration of Puerto Rico, but we must also consider the spiritual well-being of its residents,” said Ezell. “Our Send Puerto Rico effort will bring new resources and increased attention with a special emphasis on starting churches. Those churches will be an ongoing gospel presence and places of strength and hope in times of need.”
Baptist work in Puerto Rico began in 1965 with the planting of a church near a military base on the island. That church planted the first Hispanic SBC church on the island soon after. Currently, there are 74 Southern Baptist churches on the island, engaging a population of more than 3.4 million people.
“We have 78 municipalities and about 40 don’t yet have an SBC church in them,” said Carlos Rodriguez, NAMB’s new regional missionary for Send Puerto Rico. “In San Juan, itself, we have two established Baptist churches. We’ve planned, already, these past few years three new churches in the San Juan area, but we still need more churches because the San Juan population is almost 400,000 people.” Nearly 2.4 million live in the San Juan metropolitan area.
Before becoming NAMB’s regional missionary for Send Puerto Rico, Rodriguez served as a church planting catalyst for Puerto Rico, the executive director of the Baptist Convention of Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands and as a church planter.
The new emphasis in Puerto Rico will mean an increased role in the region for Send Relief. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have been on the island since they received permission from federal authorities to help a few weeks after Hurricane Maria. Send Relief teams have also served on the island. Many Baptist collegiate groups plan to serve through Send Relief during Spring Break.
Melber described the humanitarian efforts of Send Relief as an opportunity to plant churches and see lives changed by Christ.
“We pray that, ultimately, as it transitions out of a humanitarian effort the result will be healthy churches reproducing themselves, reaching their communities by meeting the physical needs in their communities and proclaiming the gospel,” said Melber.
Send Relief has plans for at least two permanent ministry centers in Puerto Rico.
Rodriguez estimates that many Puerto Rico Baptist churches lost more than 30 percent of their attendees who fled the island for the mainland after Maria. But he also notes that the hurricane “has shaken the churches,” which is leading to a revival of sorts on the island.
“The churches, across all denominations, including Southern Baptists, have been the first responders to their communities,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of people are getting saved. Almost all our church planters are having people saved every time they are working in the community.”
Rodriguez asked Southern Baptists to pray for God to call more church planters to reach the people of Puerto Rico. For more information about the Send Network and Send Relief, visit namb.net.
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.
Published February 14, 2018