As he approached the starting line, sweat already began to bead on Dr. Cruz Paniagua’s forehead. Although it was hours before the sun would come up, Ecuador’s humid summer was in full force. It can take six months to one year to train for a half-ironman, an elite triathlon consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and 13.1-mile run.

This was his first half-ironman, and Cruz was nervous. He steadied his mind thinking about his trainer’s reminders that much of the next six hours would be mental endurance. (This same trainer decided to follow Christ after months of Cruz’s ministering to her in their preparation for the race.)

A church planter often referred to as a “modern-day Paul,” Cruz is a tall, young Venezuelan who emigrated with his family to Ecuador due to oppression in his home country. An engineer and an ordained bishop of the Church of God, he has served as a local pastor, national director of education, and founder of the Theological Seminary of the Church of God in Venezuela. Before being equipped as a Haggai leader in 2019, Cruz had the vision to plant 300 churches in Latin America. But at the Haggai Leader Experience, God stretched Cruz’s plans with two new visions: to establish over 1,000 churches per year and to complete an ironman.

“I knew that planting 1,000 churches per year would take really hard work and I thought, ‘You need to be like an ironman to accomplish those goals,’” Cruz says.

“Doing God’s work is similar to an ironman. It takes a long time of preparing spiritually, training, and investing in people.”

Today, Cruz pulls from both his physical and spiritual training as he travels all over Latin America by train, foot, car, bus, and boat to plant churches, disciple pastors, equip leaders, and passionately preach, sleeping in friends’ cars when he needs to.

“After being equipped through Haggai, the way I lead my ministry has radically changed. I now understand that it is not possible to plant churches without making disciples and it is not possible to make disciples without appealing for a verdict to as many people as possible.”

In the last two years, despite a global pandemic, nearly 2,500 churches have been planted across Latin America through Cruz’s faithful ministry, with over 60,000 reached with the Gospel.

“I’m taking all that I learned through my experience with Haggai and trying to multiply it to as many people as I can.”

Cruz has clung to John 1:5 as he travels across Latin America: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” When he started his first-ever half-ironman this summer, the sun hadn’t yet risen. But five hours, 50 minutes, and 15 seconds later, Cruz ran across the finish line in the full light of day. Hungry and his whole body depleted, yet joyful to fulfill something God placed on his heart.

And even more than multiplication, Cruz understands the need for discipleship. That’s why every person baptized at the church plants is accompanied in the water by two people: the pastor and the person committed to walking with them in their faith journey.

Men and women Cruz equipped are now advancing the Gospel and going on to disciple others in profound ways: like bringing an entire tribe — reached only by foot — to Christ, planting churches that are transforming a port city on Ecuador’s central coast, and leading a life-changing baseball ministry for refugee children.

“With this transformation, we’re seeing bars become churches, bringing light in those places where darkness was before,” Cruz says. “To baptize people in a place that before was a bar, and bringing them to the Light, is the picture of ending Gospel poverty.”