After nearly 30 years of holding Acquire the Fire conferences across America, Teen Mania will take its flagship event a destination off-limits until recently: Myanmar (Burma).
Next might be another closed country even easier to reach: Cuba.
Neither nation has ever ranked among the 25 most popular short-term mission destinations. Instead, both Cuba and Myanmar regularly appear on lists of the world’s worst persecutors.
But recent diplomatic détentes between the Obama administration and the Communist island (in December) and Buddhist nation (in 2013) suggest that Western ministries may soon have an easier time serving both countries.
Long-term missionaries readily acknowledge the benefits of a freer state. But they also express concern that short-term teams might not have the education and tools to positively reach the once-closed countries.
“Just because access is broader doesn’t mean that the ministry that pours in will be effective or necessary,” said Sam Metcalf, president of Church Resource Ministries.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, 83 Western ministries partnered with the Russian Ministry of Education to provide biblically based ethics training in Russia’s public schools. During its 5-year run, CoMission raised more than $60 million to send 1,500 short-term missionaries to implement the program.
However, it rarely consulted long-term missionaries and local believers already behind the Iron Curtain. Though many Russians heard the message of Christ, it came “at a high cost,” wrote Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Donald Fairbairn in an East–West Church and Ministry Report analysis. Their missionary work provoked “the angry reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church” while “ignoring the three million indigenous Protestants in the former Soviet Union.”
Would-be missionaries to Cuba can’t afford to make similar mistakes, says Octavio Javier Esqueda, a professor at Talbot School of Theology. His dissertation examined Cuban theological education. “In Cuba, they call people who come and start new ministries ‘Christopher Columbus.’”
Amid poverty and government repression, Cuban churches are indisputably flourishing. They do need resources, said Néstor Medina, a Regent University professor who has taught at Seminario Evangélico de Teología Matanzas near Havana. “[But] Cubans want to have their own church, and they want to have their own sense of identity.”
Some say that an influx of new ideas could upset the church’s equilibrium more than an influx of short-term teams would.
“Cuban Christians have been a little bit insulated by the embargo and by their own government,” said Twyla Hernandez, a missions professor at Campbellsville University who directs the Hispanic Bible Institute. Now that the United States and Cuba are making travel and commerce easier, she said, “Christians are afraid new cults or sects will come onto the island and have a detrimental effect.”
Meanwhile, cell phones, cable television, and Internet access have already come to Myanmar, spreading secular values. In part to combat this, the Myanmar Evangelical Christian Fellowship invited Teen Mania to host its first overseas Acquire the Fire conference in Yangon this July.
While Teen Mania is primarily recruiting US teenagers to staff the event, the
conference is being organized by a 30-person committee made up entirely of Burmese. Founder Ron Luce, whose ministry also hosts short-term trips to Cuba, wants to be “respectful and cautious” so his group isn’t “poking a sleeping bear” that then turns on Burmese Christians.
Some Myanmar experts, such as Steve Gumaer of Partners Relief and Development, warn that Western Christians shouldn’t let government-approved access gloss over religious freedom abuses. But others, such as Steve Van Valkenburg from Christian Aid Mission, believe it’s possible to share the Christian faith without getting involved in politics.
“We’re not trying to overthrow governments,” he said. “Often what the government finds is that when people become Christians, they’re really better citizens and better for the country than they were before.”
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