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Missionary Spotlight – Madagascar’s religions

September 2003 | by John Williams

 

The Malagasy people are a unique mix of Indonesian and African. Their religion is based on ancestor worship. Madagascar is famous for its cults of the dead.

 

The capital is full of boutiques, internet cafes and cars — yet most Malagasy live far from ‘civilisation’ and cook home-grown rice on wood fires, dwell under thatch and rarely using wheeled transport.

But a more ‘civil’ people one cannot find, as measured by a wide, toothless smile no dentist ever saw, and a courtesy that kills the last scrawny chicken in the village to provide a meal of welcome to a passing stranger.

An elderly missionary lady cautioned me early with these words: ‘I’ve been here thirty years and still don’t understand the Malagasy’. With this in mind, this article can only bring a limited, personal view.

Syncretism

About 50% of the Malagasy are ‘churched’. Half are Roman Catholic, the others, in the main, either Reformed or Lutheran.

Church attendance is high in some tribes and cities, with congregations of hundreds of people common — and thousands not exceptional.

Islam is spreading fast, but is still a new and largely ‘foreign’ religion. Cults are spreading rapidly. Superstition is rife.

But whatever religious position is affirmed, 90% of nationals still adhere to ancestral beliefs and practices. For example, a respected deacon may listen to a Bible-based sermon on Sunday but, later in the week, have no qualms about participating in a ritual where the spirits of the dead are invoked and placated.

The ‘morality’ of this is pragmatic — even a scandalous ancestor is a powerful spirit who needs placating. So the deacon will please a benign God on Sunday and an awkward ancestor on Thursday! Many pastors turn a blind eye to such inconsistency.

Nominalism

It would be wrong to regard all Malagasy church attendance as nominal. Indeed, ‘the Lord knows those that are his’ (2 Timothy 2:19) — but the end of that text needs consideration too!

About half the Protestants adhere to the (politically active) Reformed Church — the FJKM. Nominalism is high, but the denomination has many godly people.

Most Malagasy are illiterate. Pastors are few, and poorly trained and equipped. I have visited one supervising 52 widely scattered congregations!

This is one reason why some groups, including the IFES-affiliated UGBM (with whom we work amongst students) have recently been producing cheap, easy-to-use booklets and tapes in the Malagasy language.

Churches

The situation in other churches, whether ‘mainline’ denominations, Pentecostal or Independent, is similar to that described above.

Getting folk ‘churched’ is not the same as presenting the gospel to them, and many congregations follow a routine that is purely liturgical. But some people have come to true faith, in the denominations.

Lutheranism’s influence is spreading. Originally planted in the south by Norwegians, it has experienced dramatic growth in the pagan eastern coast areas.

However, the Malagasy Baptist Church, which has existed for over 70 years, has barely grown in decades and lacks vision for evangelism.

Evangelicals

The situation is stronger among Evangelicals. The Madagascar Evangelical Church (METM) originated some decades ago through an unusually gifted evangelistic worker, who successfully planted churches in previously unreached situations. The Africa Inland Mission is currently working with METM.

Another noteworthy group is the Indian Ocean Community of Evangelicals (CEIM). This federation of Independent churches, now some 30-40 strong, has been successful in the south amongst the unchurched.

Its small, non-denominational college, now 10 years old, is one of the few seminaries where a Christian can receive consistently evangelical Bible teaching.

Evangelicalism in Madagascar functions also through organisations like the Bible Society, Scripture Union and IFES.

Many Christians have been helped through their intensive Bible studies. Leading members of Christian churches and societies are often active participants in these organisations.

The future

In the past, Malagasy churches have provided a variety of social and cultural activities for their communities, but traditional activities — such as choirs and boy scouts — have reducing appeal in an increasingly secular and materialistic society.

The country areas of Madagascar remain deeply pagan, although there has been some response to the gospel among the poor.

Today, expatriate missionary involvement in Madagascar is tiny. Its spiritual needs are vast. For example, my wife Cathy and I are the only evangelical missionary couple in a province the size of England.

‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’ (Luke 10:2).

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Madagascar