Thousands of Seventh-day Adventist across Venezuela celebrated 100 years of church heritage in their country this month, honoring the work of Adventist pioneers, showcasing church growth and challenging a new generation of Venezuelans to continue the mission of the church.
The August 8 and 9 event drew top church leaders to Venezuela, including Adventist world church President Ted N.C. Wilson, who marked his first visit to the South American country.
In his keynote address, Wilson commended the government of Venezuela for its commitment to religious liberty and reminded an audience of some 13,000 of their church's identity.
"We are people of hope, a hope in the coming of the Lord," he said. "We are a people seeking revival and reform, a people who are waiting to be transformed."
In his first official trip outside of North America after his election as Adventist world church president in June, Wilson praised the work of Venezuelan Adventists and challenged each member to move forward and "expand God's work in a dynamic way."
Local church leaders embraced the challenge, harnessing the momentum of the centennial celebration to strategize for greater church growth.
"This [celebration is] a turning point for the church in Venezuela," said Josney Rodriguez, president of the East Venezuelan Union, a newly formed church administrative body in the country. The centennial will spur younger church members to "move forward and finish the work the pioneers began," he said.
One young Venezuelan member, Rodny Emmons, 30, said his country's rich church heritage brings responsibility.
"I feel like my generation has a real challenge ... We live in a time when we have to be part of a force that can adapt the message to reach out through the means of communication, through social networks, to present the truth," said Emmons, who serves as treasurer for the East Venezuelan Mission.
For years, the church in Venezuela was part of the Colombia-Venezuela Union, headquartered in Colombia. In 1989, when the Venezuelan Antilles Union was established, the church was comprised of three conferences and missions and some 43,000 members. Today, the church boasts 12 conferences and missions and nearly 250,000 members.
"We wanted to use this event as a launching pad to let Venezuela know more of what the Adventist Church is all about and our commitment to contributing to a better society and spreading the gospel," Rodriquez said.
Several leaders from other church denominations spoke at the centennial, commending the Adventist Church for its growth, influence and unswerving commitment to upholding Bible truths. Representatives of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in Venezuela applauded the work of the church's humanitarian arm, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, for its work in the country's needy communities.
Church leaders in East Venezuela are committing 50 percent of their evangelism budget to television, radio and publishing to reach community members, especially in Caracas, the country's capital and its largest city with a population of over two million. Currently, nearly 20,000 Adventists call Caracas home.
Spreading the church's message of hope, not only to Caracas, but to the entire country, is in the hands of church members in Venezuela, said Israel Leito, president of the church in Inter-America.
"I encourage you, as you celebrate the past, the pioneers, the victories won, the institutions established here, I challenge you to fill the country with the message of life, of the soon coming of the Lord," he said.
Venezuela is home to nearly 250,000 Adventists worshipping in 849 churches. The Adventist Church operates a university, several clinics and dozens of schools in the country.