Puerto Rico convention ‘a demonstration of what Southern Baptists can do’ together

By David Roach

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (BP) – Southern Baptists have hidden treasure in the Caribbean: the Convención de Iglesias Bautistas del Sur de Puerto Rico (CIBSPR) – in English, the Convention of Southern Baptist Churches of Puerto Rico. But it won’t be hidden for long if Luis Soto and Félix Cabrera have anything to do with it.

As Baptist leaders on the Spanish-speaking island of Puerto Rico, they are determined to hold up God’s little-known work in the U.S. territory as a model of cooperative ministry for the entire Southern Baptist family.

Convention of Southern Baptist Churches of Puerto Rico executive director Luis Soto baptizes. Baptisms in Puerto Rico churches are up 68 percent since 2017. CIBSPR photo

“Puerto Rico is a great example of shared resources and joint ministry,” said Cabrera, vice president of Send Network Español, the Puerto Rico-based Spanish church planting ministry of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). “Here is a demonstration of what Southern Baptists can do when we work together.”

The advance of Puerto Rican Southern Baptist work over the past five years has been remarkable – spurred in part by increased focus on the island following Hurricane Maria in 2017. Soto, the CIBSPR’s executive director, reported on the progress last month in New Orleans at a meeting of the National Baptist Hispanic Fellowship.

  • Baptisms reported by Puerto Rican Southern Baptist churches are up 68 percent since 2017, according to data from the SBC’s Annual Church Profile.
  • The number of churches in Puerto Rico has increased more than 60 percent over five years to nearly 60 congregations. A joint goal of NAMB and the CIBSPR is to have at least one church in each of the territory’s 78 cities.
  • The CIBSPR’s Cooperative Program giving to SBC causes has increased 278 percent from approximately $4,800 in 2015-16 to more than $18,000 in 2021-22. The convention forwards 18 percent of its CP receipts to SBC causes.

The Puerto Rico convention also is active in collegiate ministry, with a presence on at least four university campuses. The Woman’s Missionary Union of Puerto Rico hosts three women’s events per year.

Félix Cabrera, vice president of Send Network Español, calls Southern Baptist work in Puerto Rico “a great example of shared resources and joint ministry.” NAMB photo

Baptist work in Puerto Rico has been a case study in cooperation. While NAMB helps fund church planting and Send Relief supports compassion ministry, the local convention funds the island’s other ministry endeavors.

“The [Puerto Rico] convention is strong in its work with pastors,” Cabrera said. “But we recognize that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If NAMB has a process for church planting and for compassion ministry, or to help us with chaplaincy or student ministry, we unite forces to work together.”

Last year, a Send Relief Ministry Center opened in Puerto Rico, culminating the compassion ministry that had occurred since Hurricane Maria. The center helps coordinate the work of mission teams from the continental U.S. To date, dozens of churches have participated in Puerto Rico mission trips.

But can progress continue at this pace? Yes, says Soto, if Southern Baptists will continue coming to help.

“We know where the needs are in our local churches,” Soto said. “We need help in construction, evangelism, in establishing economic partnerships to bring missionaries from your churches.”

Amplifying the need for ministry partners, he said, is the reality that “most of our pastors are bivocational. Sometimes they don’t have the financial support to expand various ministries of the church. Sometimes they don’t have a team to do evangelism or work at VBS.”

The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) is among the Puerto Rico convention’s ministry partners. Texas Southern Baptists have begun a multiyear partnership focusing on church revitalization. The partnership kicked off in February with a team from Texas leading a marriage retreat for Puerto Rican pastors and their wives.

CIBSPR executive director Luis Soto speaks to students at a local high school. CIBSPR photo

“Our aim in the partnership is two-fold,” said SBTC missions mobilization associate Colin Rayburn, “to mobilize our churches towards disciple-making movements and take years off the runway for the Puerto Rico convention to achieve their Great Commission goals.”

Among other state conventions to launch or consider Puerto Rico missions partnerships are Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan and the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Send Puerto Rico invites pastors to see the partnership opportunities in church planting and compassion ministry for themselves on vision trips each February and November.

Churches of all sizes and from all 50 states can join the labor in Puerto Rico, Soto said. Mission trips can be coordinated by contacting either Send Relief or the CIBSPR through their websites.

Benefits of Puerto Rico missions are not confined to the territory’s churches, Rayburn said. Their example inspires Southern Baptists on the mainland.

“I would encourage the churches and conventions across the SBC to not neglect missions for other more localized ministry needs,” Rayburn said. “Domestic and global missions are the perfect way to keep our local church from becoming too inwardly focused.”

Visiting Puerto Rico also is easier than many imagine, Soto said.

“One unique advantage of doing mission work with the churches here is that you don’t need a passport,” he said. “It’s like traveling to any state of the United States.”

Published July 28, 2023

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David Roach

David Roach is a writer from Mobile, Alabama.