The first resident evangelists in Venezuela, and the first formation of an assembly, date back to the 1880s, but one believer who came shortly afterwards offered this evaluation of the work: “For lack of due care in testing the profession of some who said they were saved, the worth of this testimony suffered greatly.” (Has that ever occurred afterward, or anywhere except in Caracas?)
Later another wrote: “We found the folks so accustomed to revolutions that, even when truly converted to Christ, they show a desire to be identified with one or another party among the Lord’s people, to the extreme that it will always be difficult to maintain a collective testimony.” Thank God, he was wrong.
In 1898 the peripatetic John Mitchell and three other expatriates broke bread in Valencia. A young woman was baptized out of the public view, as the circumstances required in those times of intense persecution. She was like a Stephen: a brilliant testimony, a short life lived in adversity, and a bellwether of what would be common decades later. Small-pox, typhoid fever, and malaria took turns in decimating the missionary community as well as the largely illiterate, intensely Roman Catholic populace.
The transition to the second phase of assembly history took place in the 1910s with new workers, new focus, and new national government. Transition to the third phase came in the 1940s, with new national and expatriate workers and new opportunities due to economic conditions. The fourth phase dates from the 1980s, when some leaders went to their rest; the assemblies survived internal strife and increased their penetration of areas outside of the core near the central Caribbean coast.
Venezuela’s population of 25 million has become highly urban and is made up of a mixture of races. Over half the populace is below the poverty line. “To the poor the gospel is preached.” To the extent that the congregations that are the subject of this article have embraced the shrinking white collar segment, it has been thanks to the upward mobility of the second and third generations of the less privileged.
Valencia has the greatest concentration of local churches, followed by Puerto Cabello and Caracas. Pioneers are opening up the eastern states, the indigenous area in the south-east, the foothills and the mountain states, but numbers are relatively small and distances great. Venezuelans are lending support to the work in certain areas of Colombia.
Possibly a new phase is being brought about by winds of change in society and government that are rattling the windows of Christian homes and Gospel halls (and liberty for Gospel preaching later on?) Let us pray that our brother’s fears about revolutions and their backwash not be realized more than one hundred years after he expressed them.
Most of the one hundred and fifty assemblies that there are at present in the Republic consider their forerunner to have commenced in Puerto Cabello in 1916. The Lord’s people there earned the honorable epithet (that stuck through two generations) of “rockbreakers” because they broke stones for the foundation of the Gospel Hall, cum school, cum missionary residence. It has been said that William Williams and Gordon Johnston were seen hugging each other like children, so that the latter (at least) would not drop from exhaustion. Other workers would come in due course from Canada and England, later from Northern Ireland, and latterly from Australia.
Many a rock was broken spiritually as the gospel moved westward in the 1920s and 1930s. Sound principles of Christian conduct and church practice were imparted by both example and precept. An intensely evangelistic culture was instilled in God’s people. By and large, colportage work ceded to on-site gospel campaigns. In new places, those men and women “sat where they sat,” in Ezekiel’s words. “Basic evangelism” is still the norm. Back-yard meetings, tent meetings in marginal areas, neighborhood Sunday schools, tract and text distribution, and open-air preaching are at least as important as are the series of meetings by visiting and local preachers in assembly halls.
Institutional work is highly esteemed, but only as an adjunct. There are six weekday schools, two of them with an enrolment of seven hundred. Some of these give free tuition and some charge a modest sum. They maintain order in a disorderly society; the community knows that if parents want the quality education (and obligatory instruction in the Scriptures) that those born-again teachers give, their sons and daughters will have to behave themselves. Two homes for senior citizens with assembly background have won the hearts of the Lord’s people. They attend to the needy who receive no pension, and are supported entirely by gifts, mainly from within Venezuela.
Literature produced locally is on the increase, but more than ever before is in a never-enough situation. That is, Gospel tracts are in great demand and are exported. There are two magazines for the Lord’s people, and these also have subscribers in several countries. And, belatedly, some of the younger generation (which abounds in the assemblies) are reading sound doctrinal expositions!
The Second World War would end before the first national workers gave themselves to full-time service. Today there are approximately seventeen married couples in that category, plus half as many from abroad, plus various single ladies in assembly-related ministries. It was by coincidence that it was on the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Valencia assembly that Miss Minerva Rincn went from Venezuela to El Salvador to serve the Lord there. Also, Harry Rodrguez and Gilberto Torrens are in His work in Mexico. Three Venezuelan-born-and-raised workers have been commended by assemblies in the United States and Canada to full-time service: Jack Saword in El Salvador, Nelly Urbano Baker in the States and David Alves in Mexico.
The Venezuelan tends to be a good gospel preacher, and the improving quality of ministry for Christians by overseers and others in recent years is cause for thanksgiving. National and regional three-day annual conferences are a key element, to the point that most of them are a crush. Valencia believes that their answer should be a semi-rural conference hall for two or three thousand souls. Saturday bi-monthly ministry meetings are held in rotation within each of ten geographic zones. Almost all the local churches own their own buildings, most of them inadequate due to lack of money or lack of foresight.
Who are the enemies of the gospel? Certainly we have to admit that materialism and indifference are not as significant as in the more prosperous societies. Rome would be the first answer to come to most minds, but spiritualism is a contender. However, possibly the wisest answer to this and other questions came from the late Jos Naranjo when he said that the devil had transformed himself into an evangelical. No doubt he had in mind Neo-Pentecostalism as well as false professions.
Withal, “this is a day of good tidings,” and greater is He that is in us than he who is in the world and who makes every effort to be in the assemblies of God’s people.