Adventist Advance in Latin America

The 1990s mark the centennial of Adventism in Latin America. As the church in this fast-growing region enters its second century of life and ministry, the author looks back at history and looks forward to the future, and sees the unmistakable hand of God in it all!

Seventh-day Adventists in several Latin American countries are celebrating their centennial. When Adventism was planted in the Hispanic soil 50 years after it began in the United States, it was like the parable of the mustard seed—small, insignificant, and unnoticed. But today Latin American Adventism has grown to gigantic proportions, bursting at the seams, with a membership leaping over the 2.5 million mark. This remarkable growth of Adventism in a strange and hostile environment bears witness to a history of faith and toil, adventure and sacrifice, God’s leadership and the church’s obedience to that call.

As we celebrate a century of God’s blessings in Latin America, it would do well to reflect on the hallmarks of the early beginnings, strategies of growth over the years, and the challenge for the future.

Hallmarks of early beginnings.

Like in most other parts of the world, three significant factors characterize the beginnings of Adventism in Latin America.

First, the influence of literature. Adventist publications arrived in various countries of Latin America between 1880 and 1890. In all the known cases, the immigrants in these countries were the first to receive such literature, mostly in their native languages. German publications arrived in Brazil in 1879 and were distributed in some German colonies in the southern part of the country by those who were not yet Adventists. French magazines and tracts reached French and Swiss colonies in Argentina around 1885. About the same time, English publications were distributed in Honduras and Beliz.1

Second, the witness of laypersons. Before any salaried denominational employee could establish a foothold for Adventism, laypersons had begun the job. A housekeeper was the first to share her faith in Honduras in 1885. Adventist farmers, settled in Argentina, organized a Sabbath school in 1890, the first in South American territory. An Adventist tailor had his rendezvous in Mexico City in 1891. Such participation of the laity and volunteer workers was not only fundamental to the beginnings of Adventism in Latin America, but, as we will see later, has been a key element in the dramatic expansion of the church in later decades.

Third, the work of self-supporting missionaries. The Foreign Missions Board of the General Conference, organized in 1889, sent the first three self-supporting missionaries(literature evangelists) to South America in 1891, and very soon these workers were sharing the gospel in four countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. The trail cut by these colporteurs led to the organization of the first Adventist churches between 1894 and 1896.

Another group of self-supporting missionaries—in this case doctors and nurses—established themselves in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1893, in the first attempt to organize Adventist medical work outside the United States.2 As a result, the first church in Mexico was organized in Guadalajara.

Strategies for Growth

Adventist pioneers may not have been quite aware of the technical terms for the strategies they employed in developing and building their churches in various countries of Latin America. However, a study of the evangelistic, pastoral, and administrative principles employed by those pioneers in building a strong church reveals what contemporary missiology considers “modern” strategies of church growth.

First, the principle of “homogeneous units.” A homogeneous unit is a population group that is perceived to have something in common—color, race, income bracket, or any such bonding factor. As one church growth expert states: “When marked differences of color, status, income, cleanliness, and education are present, mend men understand the Gospel better when expounded by their own kind of people. They prefer to join churches whose members look, talk, and act like themselves.”3

Adventism in Latin America thus grounded itself first in homogeneous units of population rather than among the natives. The first congregations in the Latin Caribbean, Central America, and the northern countries of South America were organized among English- and French-speaking colonies. In the rest of South America, Swiss, Russian, and especially German colonies were the first to receive and to accept the Adventist message. With the passing of time, the Adventist faith extended itself from these homogeneous people groups to the native population of diverse territories.

Second, the principle of social responsibility. This issue has provoked heated discussions in religious circles, especially after the emergence of “liberation theology” in Latin America. Adventists, nevertheless, had received, from the very beginning, inspired counsel that related to the issue of social responsibility. The definite advice was to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who, “by the good He accomplished, by His loving words and kindly deeds,… interpreted the gospel to men.”4

Adventist pioneers in Latin America followed that kind of “hermeneutics.” Besides preaching the gospel, they lived it and practiced it as they related to their neighbors, especially those who were oppressed and needy. Several analysts of Protestantism in Latin American conclude that this was one of the secrets of success for Adventists in this region of the world. A Catholic author states: “The missionary work of Adventism is not limited to preaching, albeit this supersedes everything else. Because in reality Adventism preaches with its schools of different levels, with its agricultural industry, its hospitals and schools of medicine. And all of that is spread around the world. It is the practical and positive work of one church that while awaiting the end of time, does not do so, at least, with folded hands.”5

A German anthropologist who studied Adventists in the Bolivian highlands states: “The ‘praxis’ of the Adventist mission was since the beginning and at all times something more than the realization of the gospel mandate. Together with the expansion of the Biblical word were the ‘acts of mercy’ that were manifested through the medical attention and in the scholastic education.”6

The Peruvian highlands also illustrate this second principle of Adventist church growth in Latin America. When Fernando and Ana Stahl arrived on the shores of Lake Titicaca at the beginning of the century, they immediately realized that education was one of the most felt needs among the native population. They began to establish elementary schools and to prepare native teachers for that work. A decade later, dozens of schools were caring for hundreds of native children. Teaching rather than preaching yielded massive conversions. Organization of churches followed the schools, and by 1920 more than 3,000 members had joined the church in the highlands of Peru alone.7

The Amazon basin in central South America offers another illustration. Here the strategy of “preaching and living the gospel” not only produced an extraordinary growth, but also brought in recognition and appreciation to the church from the population in general and government authorities in particular.

Religious scholars took note of the work of Seventh-day Adventists. J. B. Kessler in 19678 and David Martin in 19909 in their works on Protestantism in Latin America concluded that Adventists have been agents in the “upward social mobility process.” That is to say, Adventism improves the quality of life of individuals and communities that accept its message.

Third, the principle of lay involvement. The third strategy in the growth of the Adventist movement did not begin until about the mid-1950s and still remains a key element of growth: lay participation. Almost every country in Latin America has had a high degree of inclusiveness of the laity in both evangelistic outreach and church leadership. Space limits a detailed analysis of factors that produce such a vast lay mobilization, but we need to note some general factors.

Since World War II, Latin America has undergone tremendous social, political, and economical upheavals. These factors do affect church growth. For example, financial crises have forced most conferences and missions into a situation where they cannot maintain pastors at a rate commensurate to that of membership growth. As a result church leaders have to involve the laity in the performance of evangelistic and pastoral duties. In Latin America, it is not unusual to se a pastor in charge of five or more large churches and a score of companies. The only way the pastor can do this is to train and equip the laity to assist in ministerial duties.

Central America provides an extraordinary illustration of church growth through lay involvement. Nicaragua reached a 348 percent decadal growth rate (DGR) between 1970 and 1980. In the last decade, Honduras reached a 360 percent DGR, surpassed only by two African countries, Uganda and Gambia. Surprisingly, during this same time, the proportion of the number of pastors in relation to the membership dropped drastically. In El Salvador, for example, there was one pastor for every 250 members in 1960. In 1990, there was a pastor for every 2,000 members! But church growth did not stop for that reason. In 1960 there were 1,700 members in El Salvador; currently, there are more than 60,000.

This growth pattern is seen in almost all areas. The Latin American Seventh-day Adventist Church has organized a lay leadership supported by pastors and administrators, and has developed what missiology defines as “a model of church growth easily reproducible.” This model allows a church to begin a new congregation without waiting for the arrival of an ordained minister on payroll and under an authorized budget. Lay leaders can easily leave their own church and begin a new congregation without the financial limitations of an ordained minister. The “easily reproducible model of church growth” also allows a church to reproduce itself in many units, without waiting for new church buildings: an open field, as well as a family home or a rented room, can serve as the starting point for the new congregation.

This “easily reproducible model of church growth” is, indeed, the key for the success of Latin American Adventism. Both Inter-America and South America have already surpassed the mark of one million members. Because they are adding more than 100,000 new members every year, the second million mark for each is not far away. With the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and with an ever growing army of volunteer workers, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Latin America is preparing a multitude of believers for the coming of the Lord.

Challenges for the Future

So far so good. The saga of Adventism as it marks its centennial in Latin America is one of joy and thanksgiving. But what of the future? The greatest challenge confronting the Adventist Church in the near future is related to the changes in Latin American society. For 500 years—since the discovery of the Americas—the participation of the church in the historical process of the Latin American society was accepted without questioning. But in recent decades the new social theologies, such as the liberation theology, are calling for a complete change in the church. Some Catholic and Protestant authors call for a new ecclesiology, a new Christology, and a new hermeneutic. They see a church too far removed from the people, and they want the distance closed. They ask for a “poor” church and a “people” church. They ask for a new Christ, more active among the people and different from the suffering Christ of the crucifix. And finally, they cry for a new hermeneutic, an interpretation of the gospel that takes into account not only the “text” but also the “context”: the situation of misery and oppression in which large masses of people live.

Although Adventists do not agree with the combative philosophies behind these new theologies, they do feel the responsibility of introducing a new religious perspective in Latin America. And, in reality, they are in the best conditions to do it. Following the Pattern, the Lord Jesus, they come closer to the poor, the needy, the oppressed. They show in their own lives the living Christ who heals, feeds, comforts, and saves. And in introducing the gospel to the people, they not only preach it but practice it, as the Lord did, and as the Adventist pioneers did in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru, in the Amazon basin, and in other areas of Latin America.

The church must also confront the increasing challenge of urbanism and secularization. By 2001 Latin America not only have the largest city in the world—Mexico City—but also dozens of cities with millions of inhabitants. Urbanism accelerates the process of secularization, leaving God and religion out of the lives of people.

As it enters its second century of life and mission in Latin America, Adventism is conscious of its role in the new order of the 21st century, even as it anticipates the fulfillment of the prayer of all ages, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”

Born in Uruguay, Juan Carlos Viera (D. Miss., Fuller Theological Seminary) was recently appointed secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate, in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. The title of his doctoral dissertation was, “Seventh-day Adventists in Lain America: Their Beginnings; Their Growth; Their Challenges.”

Notes and References

  1. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1976), pp. 67, 143, 183.
  2. 2. F. M. Wilcox, “The Work in Many Lands,” Review and Herald (July 10, 1894).

    3. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), p. 227.

    4. Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1952), p. 56

    5. Ignacio Diaz de Leon, Las Sectas en America (Buenos Aires: Editorial Claretiana, 1984), pp.101,102.

    6. Juliana Strobele-Gregor, Indios de Piel Blanca: Evangelistas Fundamentalistas en Chuquiyawu (La Paz, Bolivia: Hispol, 1989), p. 190.

    7. Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, p. 1105.

    8. J. B. Kessler, A study of the Older Protestant Missions and Churches in Peru and Chile (NV: Oosterban and Le Cointre, 1967).

    9. David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Santa Cruz, Calif.: Blackwells Publishers, 1991).