"So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers." -- Acts 16:5
It was a Saturday evening and I was sitting in the back of a Haitian church building on the island of LaGonave. I had gone to that little island off the coast of Haiti to visit the church in Zabriko, a little village up in the mountains.
This particular Saturday evening the church was having its monthly members' meeting. The next morning communion would be served in the worship service. By getting everyone together on the Saturday nights before a communion service the church leaders hoped to clear up problems. Thus, the church would be prepared spiritually to celebrate the Lord's Supper.
At that members' meeting, the major item to be cared for was a man asking to be readmitted to the good graces of the church. Three months before he had been caught in adultery. This act of infidelity had damaged his family relationships. Church members felt betrayed and it had hurt the church's testimony in the village. As a result, this man had been strongly disciplined. He had been barred from doing anything in church. He couldn't sing any special songs in services or give any kind of public testimony.
Three months had gone by and now he had come to the membership meeting asking for reinstatement. Neither the pastor nor the church board wanted to take full responsibility for the decision. So they had referred it to the entire membership.
When the meeting started, they asked him to sit in a chair up at the front of the little church building. Several members of the congregation asked him some pointed questions. At the end of the discussion with him, they concluded that he wasn't really repentant of his sin nor sorry for the disgrace he had brought upon the church. They had the impression that he was sorry to have been caught and that he just wanted to be back in everybody's good graces. So, they told him to come back in another three months to another all-church meeting.
With such public questioning of church members, one could be tempted to think that church growth in Haiti would be somewhat limited. One might think that people would be reluctant to join or would quit when confronted with such strict discipline.
That's not what is happening, however. On the contrary, the Church of the Nazarene in that little Caribbean island nation has had astounding growth. Over a thirty-year period Haitian Nazarenes have averaged ten percent growth per year.
What are some of the factors that have produced 9 districts with more than 800 churches in that little country?
During our four years in Haiti as missionaries, I saw at least eight major transferable or reproducible church growth principles at work in Haiti. These are:
1. The fiery evangelistic fervor seen in most ordinary believers. For these Christians, talking about Jesus and His work in their lives is part of what they do in the marketplaces or in the fields. Haitian believers go about chattering the gospel. Witnessing is not confined to special times of the day or week. Few Haitian Christians have studied witnessing in any kind of special training course. Yet, they are successfully winning their village neighbors to the Lord.
The visible discipline used by local churches may even foster a sense that being a member is good standing is something special and something to be desired. Prospective members must attend a membership class and maintain almost perfect church attendance through a probationary period prior to their baptism and reception into church membership.
2. A fairly homogeneous population that today is extraordinarily receptive to the gospel. Haiti is a country of one people. Almost all are descendants of African slaves. Almost all speak Haitian Creole as their mother tongue, even though French is also spoken by the well-educated elite. There are few social, linguistic, or racial barriers to the spread of the gospel.
Among the reasons for Haiti's high receptivity to the gospel is the strong supernatural aspect of the Haitian worldview. Voodoo is the predominant religion in Haiti. Its followers worship the spirits which they believe live in trees, in water, and in the crossroads and who come to possess their followers. Thus, the average Haitians are very conscious of the supernatural in their daily life.
This consciousness makes it easy to talk about the God who sent His Son to die for our sins and who now lives within us through His Holy Spirit.
3. The church-planting focus of Haitian Nazarenes. Both pastors and laymen have a next-village mentality. That is, they are always thinking about how to start a Bible study/evangelism group in the next village. Following in the steps of John Wesley, they think as much about starting new groups as they do about winning individual converts.
Most Haitian pastors do not think of themselves as pastors of a single church. Rather, they see themselves as being responsible for a particular area with a commitment to planting as many churches as is necessary to reach that area.
4. A ready supply of pastors who enjoy high status conferred on them by Haitian society. Many Haitian pastors only preach once a week. The other services of the week are led by laymen and the preacher or exhorter will be one from a group of laymen that the pastor is training.
The Haitian church places a heavy emphasis on lay participation in all areas of ministry, including preaching and especially in evangelism and church planting. A significant number of the Nazarene churches planted each year in Haiti will have been started by laymen who aspire to be pastors.
While we do have a residential Bible school, much of the training for local pastors is provided by a Theological Education by Extension program where the school goes to the student. Often the pastors studying in that program will go back home and two days later teach what he has just learned to his own group of lay preachers.
5. Inspiring church services characterized by joyous singing, intense prayer, and the interaction of people with sermons while they are being preached. Visitors to Haiti always go away talking about the excitement of those services with joyous rhythmic singing and sermons punctuated by frequent responses from the audience.
Haitian church services are characterized by a strong sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In addition to lots of activities throughout the week, local churches use frequent revival meetings and evangelistic crusades in their own towns and in neighboring villages where they hope to plant churches.
One of the big events in Haiti not long ago was to hold eight simultaneous large crusades all across Haiti. Total attendance in those crusades reached 35,000. The results of these crusades included the planting of about half a dozen new churches.
6. Bi-vocational district superintendents geared up for growth and church planting. None of the nine district superintendents in Haiti is a full-time superintendent. All of them pastor churches and some even run businesses on the side. Not having time for everything, these superintendents have developed a focus on the critical few activities that promote evangelism, growth, and outreach. They have had to find innovative ways to delegate major responsibilities and to involve local churches in extension growth. One of their key tools is the use of strong zone or area pastors in dealing with problems and helping struggling churches.
7. The use of facilities to house growth rather than the expectation that facilities by themselves will create growth. Buildings, though seen as important in Haiti, are somewhat secondary to the winning of the lost.
8. In the midst of their aggressive evangelism, Nazarenes in Haiti are also known for their caring and compassion. Most Nazarene churches in Haiti run a little elementary school. We have 220 of these schools with 25,000 children enrolled. In addition, three of the districts run vocational schools giving training in carpentry, welding, tailoring, baking, and in secretarial skills. Several of the churches run little rural health clinics and some even do small agricultural projects.
Three thousand people baptized on a single day? It happened on the Day of Pentecost. It also happened a few years ago in Haiti. On a Sunday in September, Nazarene churches across the country all held baptismal services. On that one Sunday morning Nazarene pastors baptized nearly three thousand people (2,794 to be exact). The biggest service of that tremendous day was a district-wide one at Gonaives in north-central Haiti. There, down at the beach, one thousand people were baptized after testifying to Christ's saving power.
What an impressive evangelistic harvest is being gathered in that small little nation.
"I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest." -- John 4:35
-- Howard Culbertson,