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NAMB Vision Tour to Puerto Rico ignites passion for island’s lost

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (BP)–Most planes, when landing at the San Juan international airport, fly over the Moscoso Bridge.

Newcomers to Puerto Rico looking out their plane window are struck by the many flags planted on the bridge at even intervals — two U.S. flags opposite each other, then two Puerto Rican flags, then two U.S. flags and so on — alternating for the entire span of the bridge.

It is a poignant picture of the island itself — at once both decidedly American (think shopping malls, fast food and highways) and thoroughly Caribbean, with a mix of Spanish, African and island influences (think black beans, brightly painted houses and palm trees).

It is in this interesting place that Baptist leaders are beginning an ambitious church planting operation — 50 in the next 10 years is the goal.

That would double the number of churches in the two-year-old Convenciòn Iglesias Bautistas del Sur de Puerto Rico (Convention of Southern Baptist Churches of Puerto Rico), which also covers the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In an effort to help the Puerto Rican leaders reach this goal, the SBC North American Mission Board hosted a Vision Tour to San Juan in the fall of 2004.

A Vision Tour is a way for the leadership from a newer or smaller Baptist convention to show outsiders the lostness of their area.

Other NAMB Vision Tours in the last two years have focused on places like Alaska, Portland, Ore., Montana and Southern California.

“The whole thesis [for the Vision Tours] is to get some of our key leaders, let them see, feel, touch the needs firsthand,” said Richard Harris, NAMB vice president for church planting.

David Thompson, NAMB trustee and pastor of North Pointe Community Church near Nashville, Tenn., was NAMB’s initial contact when trying to put the tour together. Thompson approached pastors in his area who he thought would be interested in partnering to help plant churches. He and the other team members were encouraged by the Baptist leaders in Puerto Rico.

“[We were] very impressed with their education, their abilities, their passion and their desire to reach their cities for Christ,” Thompson said. “They were extremely open and receptive to our being there to partner with them.”

Thompson said he was keenly aware of the need there.

“It’s a place of tremendous need and great opportunity,” he said. “The window for the Gospel was open. People are receptive.”

Harris said the spark NAMB hoped for was ignited during the tour. Thompson and other pastors began to envision ways their churches and other churches in the Nashville Baptist Association could help.

Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, was on the tour.

“We met some awesome people with incredible vision,” Shrum said. “We looked at five different locations in San Juan where they were thinking about starting churches.” Shrum said the Vision Tour team immediately started laying the foundation for a second trip.

That second trip happened in March, this time to begin strategizing about ways Tennessee churches can help Puerto Rican churches.

Shrum already has ideas for his church.

“I see us partnering with a church and a specific area of the island. I don’t think we’re capable of reaching the whole island, but I see us connecting with a church that would impact an area or a region of the island.”

Thompson has a similar vision.

“Our church is interested in participating — as well as trying to encourage other Baptists in the Nashville area to get on board and participate. We want to not only lead the way but take others with us and work through the local association to create at least a five-year partnership with Puerto Rican Baptists.”

NAMB church planting officials said that is exactly what they would like to see happen as a result of a Vision Tour.

“When you have 10 or 12 on a Vision Tour, or 30 or 40, someone will step up and say, ‘We’ll do this,’” said Bob Sena, manager/field partner service representative in NAMB’s church planting group. “Over the long haul, these outside partners are going to collaborate with Puerto Rico. They’re going to invest in helping them to carry out their primary strategy which is church planting and evangelism.”

Harris agrees.

“We’ll get the pastor there,” he said. “But he has to bring either a staff member of a key layperson, so that if he moves on in a couple years, somebody else there carries the passion. It’s gone beyond what we imagined. It’s missions at its best.”
To find out if your church can participate in a Vision Tour, contact the director of missions at your state’s Baptist convention.