The beginning of the work in Venezuela started in Germany. Young Fredrik Franson was on an evangelistic trip when he heard that Hudson Taylor would address a group of Christians.
That evening, Taylor challenged his audience to mobilize 1,000 missionaries for China. God spoke to Franson, and he promised God he would try to recruit 100 workers.
Franson kept that promise, and his recruitment and training efforts were the beginnings of an organization that he named The Scandinavian Alliance Mission. The first workers went to China, but as he traveled the world, he saw opportunities in Japan, India, Africa and Latin America.
The first missionaries with The Scandinavian Alliance Mission to enter Venezuela arrived in 1906 when T. J. Bach and his wife, Anna, along with John Christiansen and his wife (also named Anna), landed in Maracaibo. There were no welcoming committees, nor was there any language school. What’s more, the Catholic leaders of the city viewed these missionaries as a threat, and sometimes mobs of people threatened their safety.
Besides building relationships and demonstrating God’s love, the Bachs and Christiansens came up with an idea to print a magazine called La Estrella de la Manana (Star of the Morning). Initially, the purpose of the magazine was to present the gospel in written form. Sharing the gospel through spoken words was essential, but having an attractive magazine for people to take home was also effective. There were challenges, including threats to the businesses that printed the magazine, but the experiment worked, and people began to ask questions and attend Bible studies. At first, the work focused only in Maracaibo, a port city for Western Venezuela. Then in 1914, the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company began to pump oil from the vast reserves beneath the inland gulf called Lake Maracaibo. Venezuela’s economy grew, and opportunities grew with it. The missionaries set their sights on areas beyond the city. At first, they used a boat to cruise the lakeshore, making contact with villages. Later, newly paved roads enabled them to travel inland by car. In the more remote regions of the Andes, they rode horses to visit small villages nestled in remote valleys.
Eventually, Anna Christiansen developed health problems from the tropical climate in Maracaibo, and they decided to relocate to a higher elevation. They eventually settled in Rubio, a small Andean town only 20 kilometers from the much bigger city of San Cristóbal.
Wherever they went, they were met with resistance, but they persisted in building relationships, sharing their faith and trusting God for results. As the work went forward, so did the number of missionaries. The church established in Maracaibo began to reach out into the city and smaller towns near it. The same thing happened in the mountains around San Cristóbal and Rubio. Because the Colombian border was fairly permeable, the two countries were basically considered as one field until the mid-60s when mission leaders in Colombia requested they separate.
Missionaries recognized early on that it would be impossible for them to reach the entire country, so they emphasized personal evangelism and sharing the gospel with family, friends and neighbors. They started a program called Seguidores (Followers). These individuals tried to share their faith with one person every week. Then the following Sunday, they would share with others in the church the results of their efforts.
As new missionaries came, they began to see they would need to address the educational needs of their children. New missionaries, Norm and Jeanette Chugg, came up with the idea of working together with other parents to teach the kids, and that idea led to the establishment of Christiansen Academy, in honor of pioneer missionaries, John and Anna Christiansen. The school grew in size and sophistication, and missionaries from Venezuela as well as Colombia, Trinidad and the Netherlands Antilles sent children to the school. Occasionally the school welcomed children whose parents were involved in education, government jobs and various professions.
As the numbers of churches grew, so did the need for tools to teach new believers and equip them to share their faith. Clara Carlson initiated a Christian education office that eventually provided not just materials but teacher training as well. Early on this office was staffed by both missionaries and Venezuelans.
Venezuela was proactive in educating its people, and new believers wanted books and Bibles. Missionaries established bookstores in larger cities to provide these important tools. Eventually they partnered with the Evangelical Free Church to form a publishing ministry called Editorial Libertador. As the circulation of the magazine Estrella de la Manana grew, TEAM imported actual printing presses to accommodate its production. The “print shop,” called TEA or Tipografia Evangelica Asociada, was also a joint project with the Evangelical Free Church. This work grew to include the printing of books, tracks, calendars and even commercial jobs.
Interestingly, La Estrella de la Manana changed its focus to become a voice for the various evangelical churches and ministries around the country. It contained news, resources, articles and announcements of upcoming meetings, conferences and opportunities for fellowship and service.
With the growth of the church and its ministry to young people, Maranatha Camp was established on the eastern shores of Lake Maracaibo. As new churches came into being, the need for pastors also became evident. In 1931, the 25th anniversary of the arrival of the first missionaries, the Bible Institute of Maracaibo was established. One of its first graduates, Astrubal Rios, became editor of La Estrella de la Manana. Rios was one of the most respected evangelicals in the whole country and became known as “Mr. Evangelical.” Eventually the Bible Institute in Maracaibo relocated to San Cristóbal. Its new name became Ebenezer Bible Institute, and it still functions to train church leaders.
To ensure that future leadership of the work would be in Venezuelan hands, church leaders and mission leadership jointly decided to form a church association that became known as the Venezuelan Organization of Evangelical Christian Churches (OVICE). Parallel with TEAM’s work was an emphasis on the urban areas of north-central Venezuela by the Evangelical Free Church. At the same time, another group that became known as the Orinoco River Mission focused on eastern Venezuela and the indigenous groups along the vast Orinoco River Basin. The churches that grew out of ORM’s ministry also formed a church association known as ASIGEO (The Association of Evangelical Churches in the East). ORM’s ministry included a Bible Institute and a school for missionaries’ children. As the number of missionaries with ORM began to decline, they initiated discussions about merging with TEAM. That took place in 1980, expanding TEAM’s work to eastern Venezuela.
In the early 1980s, the leaders from The Evangelical Free Church Mission approached TEAM about working together to start a seminary to provide a higher level of preparation for future church leaders. Seminario Evangelico Asociado (Evangelical Seminary Association) opened its doors in Maracay, a city just west of Caracas.
In 1959 when Castro’s revolution overtook Cuba, the goals of that movement were far more extensive than just one island in the Caribbean. Church leaders began to ask the missionaries what would happen if the missionaries were forced to leave. Venezuelan leaders and mission leaders began to talk about transition. By God’s grace, the country’s political system stabilized, but the talks and plans continued. In the late 1980s, a major shift occurred when TEAM decided to move its headquarters from Maracaibo to Caracas. This signaled more than just a change in location. It also meant TEAM was strategically focusing on evangelism and church planting in urban areas. The missionaries agreed to turn over the headquarters complex in Maracaibo to the national church. This building housed a large bookstore, the print shop, offices for both TEAM and OVICE, an auditorium, several apartments and guest rooms.
This action cast a vote of confidence in the national church’s maturity and capacity to not just maintain the work but take it forward. Various institutions TEAM had created were evaluated as to their effectiveness and usefulness in the long-term picture. Some were turned over to the national church, while others were discontinued. A renewed emphasis was placed on establishing new churches in unreached areas.
As the 20th century drew to a close, it became evident to both Venezuelan and mission leaders that it was time for the mission to celebrate the capabilities of the national church and to begin the process of withdrawal. At that time, TEAM’s top leadership emphasized the need to invest resources in world locations where the gospel was not known. Some workers disagreed about whether Venezuela was a place where the gospel was universally accessible, but eventually they made the decision to begin the process of withdrawal. This was a significant move, because it was rare for mission agencies to voluntarily and strategically withdraw from a given location. Everyone wanted it to go well. There was no sense of defeat or failure but rather a sense of anticipation and commencement.
During the final five years, the goal was to establish a network of “impact” churches, strategically located throughout the country. These churches would not only be capable of carrying on the work in their region but also provide resources to smaller churches.
There was a multitude of tasks to complete before the last missionary left. Nearly 100 years of ministry had left in its wake many blessings, but it had also left files, keepsakes, legal documents and buildings. For some of the missionaries, their ministries were shaped by handling complex legal matters and the selling of multiple properties.
One ministry saw closure as a wonderful opportunity to affirm relationships and to reach out to their community. Christiansen Academy in Rubio planned several events to which they invited city officials, special friends, individuals who had served them over the years and Venezuelan staff who had worked with staff and students. The school made the final graduation a reunion for former students and staff. These events enabled those who were a part of Christiansen Academy to leave well and to express their gratitude to a beautiful city that had been their host for 52 years.
In 2006, 100 years after the arrival of the Bachs and Christiansens, a few remaining missionaries, leaders from TEAM and Venezuelan believers from across the country met in Maracaibo to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the gospel in Western Venezuela. They held a three-day conference in one of the buildings the Bachs and the Christiansens had built for a church. This building’s foundations contained some of the stones hurled at them in those early years.
Within a few more years, all TEAM missionaries had been reassigned. For those who invested their lives in that beautiful country, leaving was hard. For those Venezuelan leaders who were now in charge, it may have felt like a huge weight was now on their shoulders … but the greatest comfort for all was that God didn’t leave, and his church is well-equipped to continue to use this vast, well-resourced country as a launching pad for ministry at home and to the entire world.
-Words by Bob Wright
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