During high school, Jules Martinez, now a pastor and theology professor, sought answers about the spiritual world. Living on the north coast of Puerto Rico, the Martinez family were “cultural Catholics,” and some practiced Santeria, which Martinez describes as “a combination of Caribbean spiritism and Catholicism.” In his search for answers, Martinez  read “evangelical books on demon possession and the occult. It was pretty sensationalist literature, but it drove me to the Bible to find out what it really said about those subjects.”

A Bad Blend

Prior to the Spanish-American War in 1898, the population of Puerto Rico was nearly 100-percent Catholic, mixed with Afro-Caribbean spiritism and Santeria. “One of the main elements of Santeria is that the spiritual world is populated by semi-deities and the spirits of the dead. When I read the Bible, I looked at the Gospels’ portrayals of Jesus’ exorcisms. I read Ephesians 6, Revelation, Jesus’ temptation, and the parts of Acts when the apostles cast out demons. My interactions with Scripture gave me confidence that I wasn’t constantly battling the spirits of my dead relatives.”

In recent years, as Protestant denominations have become more popular in Puerto Rico, Martinez has noted a new phenomenon: mixing Santeria with Protestant beliefs and practices. “It used to be that Protestant evangelicals would accuse Catholics of being syncretistic. They argued that the theology of icons and the veneration of the saints were reflected in Santeria. But now some Protestant traditions are falling into the same patterns. The gifts of the Spirit are being used almost in the same way that a person would consult a medium. I believe in the gifts of the Spirit, but some churches are misusing them in a way that is reminiscent of past accusations against the Catholic Church.”

Asking Questions

Questions about the end times also fueled the teenage Martinez’s passion for reading Scripture. “At the time, the Left Behind books were beginning to emerge, and there was a lot of speculation about the future. I went back to Scripture to read Daniel and Revelation together. I was constantly asking, ‘Wait a second. Does the Bible teach this?’ They are strange subjects, but eschatology and demonology both served as a trampoline for me to take the Bible seriously. I learned to not put my hope in a specific account of how Jesus is coming, and I learned to say, ‘I need to trust that Jesus will come. The resurrected Messiah will come.’ ”

By the time he was a senior in high school, Martinez was heavily involved in the local Christian and Missionary Alliance youth group where he first heard the gospel. His family was skeptical of his newfound religion, but over five years, Martinez saw the rest of his family, including his 76-year-old grandfather, baptized. Then, as a student at the University of Puerto Rico, Martinez began teaching at a local youth group. “After my first talk, I was exhausted. A friend encouraged me by saying, ‘Jules, I think your ministry just started today.’ As more opportunities came my way, and I began teaching and preaching regularly, people around me affirmed, ‘I think the Lord is doing something with you.’”

Martinez and his wife, Ana, graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, with the assistance of ScholarLeaders International, a ministry that supports Christian leaders in the majority world. The couple then returned to Puerto Rico to minister in San Juan. Today, Martinez teaches at two seminaries in the capital city and serves as a teaching pastor for his local church. He spends any spare time with his family and on various writing projects, including his blog, theodrama.com. Martinez thrives on the busy schedule. He believes his involvement in church life is vital to his academic career: “I want to serve the church as one who is part of the church, not just as an outside voice commenting on theology.”

Cultural Influences

Martinez sees community as a vital part of spiritual development—a viewpoint he attributes to his native Latin American culture. “I think that’s the main difference between believers in Latin America and believers in the United States. In the U.S., I noticed the more immediate reaction toward a text is, ‘What does this mean for me?’ But in the more rural parts of Puerto Rico, a person might read some of the New Testament Epistles, and his reaction will be more community focused—that this is something that addresses all of us. Both cultures get to the community aspect eventually, but the order of evaluation is different.”

Martinez strongly encourages believers to seek out group Bible studies. “Of course I encourage everyone to read the Bible on their own also, but I always try to connect people. It gives them a sense of cordial accountability. I don’t want to make someone feel guilty if they have trouble reading the Bible consistently. I want to give encouragement that when you go to the gospel, you will be exposed to a different reality, and that’s a world to which you are invited.”

In his own devotional time, Martinez puts aside the academic lens through which he normally views Scripture. He follows a five-part plan—prayer, meditation, contemplation, reflection, and doxology. “I want to leave behind the competing voices that exist in formal training. After I begin with prayer, I read, trying to follow the sequence of the message by reading a full book or passage without interruption. I ask some basic contextual questions as I go: ‘Who is speaking, and to whom is this directed? What was the historical situation?’ I want to establish a framework for reading and understanding the passage. That’s the meditation phase. Then I try to imagine myself within that story—that is, to the extent that the narrative is about humanity. ‘What are the analogical situations in which I could live something like this?’ That’s my contemplation phase. Reflection usually involves paying attention to words and phrases in the text, and perhaps getting clarification from a commentary or dictionary. I finish with prayer and singing a hymn.”


Challenges to Ministry

In ministry, Martinez finds that many challenges confronting pastors in America are relevant to pastors in Puerto Rico. Proximity and a territorial relationship put the island on the same political and philosophical trajectory. “The speech of those who are related to the church—Catholic or Protestant—is publicly ridiculed in Puerto Rican society. … The result is that the cultural understanding of common language from the Christian tradition is gone. For example, 30 years ago, everybody knew that terms like ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ came from the Christian faith. But now, as in other parts of the world, when you talk about sinfulness, you could be talking about chocolate cake. Pastors need to be aware that the culture has changed these assumptions. We need to re-evangelize people who believe that they’re Christians. We need to revisit why the gospel is good news because our people lack a deeper view of it.”

Re-evangelism is especially important in Martinez’ ministry; the trend toward secularism isn’t necessarily driven by ignorance of religion so much as by over-exposure. “Puerto Rico has one of the highest proportions of churches per square mile in the world. There is literally a church on every corner—like Walgreens or Starbucks. People think they’ve heard everything they need to hear. The saying ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ is often true of how people respond to the gospel.”

Although the Bible is more available than ever before—“everyone in Puerto Rico seems to have a Bible app on their phone”—Martinez says that “understanding is fragmented. I think we still struggle with illiteracy of the whole story of the Bible. People often tell me that they know what the gospel is and that there’s nothing new for them to learn there. You know what? You never will be able to graduate from the gospel. There’s no ‘next level’ of Christianity beyond that. The gospel is sufficient to encompass all your life and eternity. And it’s complex enough to keep you amazed at what God is doing in Christ to reconcile all things to himself.”

These challenges confront churches regardless of their language or culture. “We need to grow more, not only in proclaiming the gospel, but in offering grace to sinners who know that they are sinners and to those who are the most vulnerable in society—to battered women, to impoverished families, to orphans, to fragmented families, and single moms. The Church has always been aware of and a place of refuge for these people, but we need to be holistic in our approach. We can’t halt the divisions of either proclamation of the faith or good works. We need to marry them.” 

Jessi Strong is Senior Writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com

Jessi Strong is Senior Writer for Bible Study Magazine. She blogs at JessiStrong.com

Jules Martinzez received support and assistance from ScholarLeaders International, a ministry that encourages and enables Christian theological leaders from the Majority World. To learn more, visit ScholarLeaders.org.