Churches in Madagascar: Growing Deeper and Wider

Article
04.27.2016

Please join me in rejoicing at how God’s Word is at work in Madagascar, and also in praying for the spread of his Word in that needy place.

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When most people today hear the word “Madagascar,” they think of the movie, not the country. They might even think of King Julian, the lemur, not King Jesus and what he is doing on a real island, the fourth largest island in the world, with over 23 million souls.

Over the past five years, our church has had the great privilege of an annual mission trip there. Through having Malagasy members and interns in our church for many years, God has given us a love for this island and its people; we have learned much. To that end, let me share with you a few encouragements of what Christ is doing in his church in Madagascar, as well as a few ways you can pray for this vast island.

A CHURCH BIRTHED IN PRAYER & SUFFERING

When William Carey went to India in 1793, he wrote this while sailing past Madagascar: “I hope . . . that the multitudes of heathen in the world may hear the glorious words of truth. Africa is but a little way from England; Madagascar but a little way farther. . . . A large field opens on every side, and millions of perishing heathens, tormented in this life by idolatry, superstition, and ignorance, and exposed to eternal miseries in the world to come, are pleading.” That plea was heard by an older Bible school teacher in Wales, who had a great burden for Madagascar, and began praying and challenging his students to go there.

Two young Welshmen soon took up the challenge and in 1818 arrived in Madagascar with the gospel. But only one of them, David Jones, survived—after losing his wife, family, and coworkers all to malaria. Yet by 1835, Jones and his team had finished translating the entire Bible, just before an outbreak of fierce persecution and expulsion of missionaries.(The Malagasy Bible was the first African Bible translation of the modern missionary era.)

An evil queen believed Christianity was a threat to her kingdom and to their animistic ways. If believers would not renounce their faith, they were hurled to their death from high cliffs in the capital city (where martyr monuments still stand today). Yet the Malagasy church now had God’s Word , so portions of Scripture were hidden and smuggled by believers from village to village. They stood firm during these fiery trials until religious freedom returned, 30 years later. (See Triumph in Death, by F. Graeme Smith, a moving story.)

A CHURCH WITHSTANDING LIBERALISM & PRAGMATISM

Nearly 200 years later, the original missionary church plants have mostly gone liberal, plus there is a large Roman Catholic presence (due especially to French colonization from 1896 to 1960). Yet one group of churches that has remained conservative is the FFBBM (Malagasy acronym for “Association of Biblical Baptist Churches in Madagascar”). They began when another Welsh missionary, Brinley Evans, came in the 1930s and established a faithful, Bible-teaching church in Antanarivo, the capital city.

Today, that original church is still going strong, and is only on their third pastor in 80 years! They have planted many churches and led a movement that now has over 100 churches across the island. They were originally called “Bible Mission” churches, but then in the 1960s the government required that they identify with a major denomination. So they chose Baptist. Yet the older leaders still today will remind you, “We are biblical first, then Baptist.” Their churches have been largely elder-led, Calvinistic, and non-charismatic.

Visiting these churches is like stepping into a time warp, as if these Baptists missed the entire twentieth century! They have had the biblical discernment to resist the pragmatic church growth trends that are so rife in Western churches. I recently interviewed the current president of the FFBBM, Pastor Willy, and here were some of his insights:

“We are very cautious when baptizing teens, because they must be ready for fully active church membership. All candidates must first take a nine-month course; then they will be examined by some elders and deacons, or sometimes before the whole congregation. Only after membership would we invite them to the Lord’s Table.”

Willy then notes,

“This lengthy process has made us unpopular with some missionaries who want more results to report to donors. But we know the Malagasy people and the great cost for them to leave animism and the old ways to follow Christ, so we cannot rush it. We want quality over numbers.”

I asked if their churches practice church discipline. He said, “Yes, because it’s biblical, Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5. We have no choice; we must keep the church pure, and we must restore those who stray and bring them back.”

He also said, “The youth will not change our music; we do choir for all ages, we sing songs for the whole church. It must not sound like the world, we will not move our bodies like the world.” I have seen firsthand how their churches love to sing God’s praise together joyfully and beautifully – they are a very musical people.

What an encouragement and confirmation to visit churches in a very different context, yet holding the same biblical convictions. Not that these Baptists don’t face plenty of their own challenges, but clearly some good biblical foundations have been laid.

A CHURCH GROWING DEEPER AND WIDER

Many of these Baptist pastors are eager to learn more about expository preaching, which has been the main purpose of our visits. One hundred pastors from across the island travel far (some taking 2-3 days) to attend our training, as they sit for long hours and days on wooden chairs or benches, craving biblical knowledge. Many have little or no theological education. Pray for the Lord to raise up much more training for these pastors, so that they can impart truth to the next generation and have well-fed, thriving churches that exalt Christ. Pray also for more Bible study tools to be translated into Malagasy and for good French books to be supplied to church leaders.

Pray also for them as they seek to plant churches in some of the least reached and remote parts of the island. Due to decades of corrupt leaders, the country is extremely poor, with little infrastructure and few roads. Though the gospel came to their island nearly 200 years ago, there are still thousands of villages that have yet to hear the name of Christ. If you visit some villages and ask, “Who is Jesus Christ?” they will answer, “He doesn’t live here. Maybe try the next village over.”

Tourism books rave about this fascinating country, about all its exotic plants and animal species. Yet it also makes me think of the Lord’s rebuke to Jonah for caring more about a plant than about lost people with eternal souls, for whom Christ died (Jonah 4:10-11).

Please join me in rejoicing at how God’s Word is at work in Madagascar, and also in praying for the spread of his Word in that needy place.

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Author’s note: This article was written with the help of Faly Ravoahangy and Haja Ralambomanana.