Adventists in Madagascar Grow Church By Asking God to Send Seekers
By Mark A. Kellner, news editor, with reporting from Henriette Randriamanantena and Andre and Penny Brink
Antananarivo, Madagascar—In a land where ancestor worship still dominates—to the point at which many of Madagascar’s Malagasy people still disinter the remains of their relatives to reclothe them in new garments—becoming a Christian, let alone a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, isn’t a step taken lightly.
“This is not an easy choice. It will turn your life inside out. Everything will be different,” declared Seventh-day Adventist pastor and regional church president Paul Ratsara, himself a Malagasy. “Jesus will make your life better. But everything will be different.”
EVERYTHING WILL BE DIFFERENT: Regional
Adventist Church leader Paul Ratsara, himself
a Malagasy, told new believers a total life
change is expected.
Ratsara made that declaration during a May 12 outdoor event at which nearly 1,200 new Adventists—the first wave of an expected 30,000 new church members—were baptized. Many from a crowd of 3,000 who came forward that May afternoon are due to be baptized June 9, and by the end of the year, the balance are expected to become members. Adding 30,000 members would raise Adventist membership in the nation of 19 million people by about one third, from about 92,000 in 2005. That would still make the ratio of Adventists to non-Adventists roughly 1 in 155 people. But that’s far better than the 1 in 206 figure of just two years ago.
The current evangelistic wave in Madagascar is unlike those occurring in other places at earlier times. Instead of simply inviting an overseas speaker to fly in for a series of meetings, the Antananarivo experience is the result of the uniting of several different projects, in which the church focused on the island nation’s spiritual needs as well as the preparation for baptism of the new candidates.
How to find the prospective church members? Well, that was different, too, and extended beyond just the traditional methods. A significant amount of the effort came from a mass media advertising campaign in the Central Madagascar Conference, which includes Antananarivo and the surrounding area, and used billboards and mass distribution of Bible study invitations. Those who enrolled in the correspondence courses were visited by nearby Adventists.
But there was another approach undertaken, and that, observers say, made all the difference. Ratsara and his colleagues went beyond traditional evangelism methods. Malagasy Adventists were urged instead to pray: “God, send our neighbors to us to ask us about You.” Those 11 words, spoken with sincerity and conviction, kicked off a drive that has brought the 30,000 prospective members—and perhaps a total of 50,000 people—into contact with the Adventist message.
Those who ask their Adventist friends and neighbors about the differences now visible in their lives are met with home Bible studies that are simple, Christ-oriented, grace-centered, and truth-filled. Some 2,000 church members were trained in daily, four-hour meetings to present the studies and nurture new contacts.
Lolona Raharilaia, with her husband and
daughter gave up customs of ancestor
worship to follow Christ in baptism.
The spiritual soil of Madagascar is markedly different from that of other nations. The country of 587,000 square kilometers (226,657 square miles, slightly twice as large as the American state of Arizona) has a majority of its population involved in what one authority calls “indigenous beliefs,” centering on the worship of deceased ancestors. The tombs of these dead relatives, according to an authority, are often more elaborate than the homes of the living: “Among the Merina and Betsileo peoples of the central highlands, the custom offamadihana (‘placing’ or … ‘turning’ of the dead) reaffirms the link between the living and the dead,” the report states. “This occurs when a person is taken from a temporary to a permanent tomb in the tanindrazana [family burial ground] and the remains are taken out of the tomb to be wrapped in new shrouds, or when a body is moved from one tomb to another.”
Moving from such a belief and practice to an affirmation of the Adventist belief in the “state of the dead”—that death “is an unconscious state for all people”—is a challenging transition, but according to one on-scene observer, becomes easier when the question is framed in terms of truth.
“The most important truth for [the Malagasy] is the Sabbath,” Dick Duerksen, whose photographs accompany this report, explained in an interview. “The idea of a weekly appointment with God, that ‘He wants me there,’ spoke to them. Then, it was the idea of Jesus being their Savior and their friend. And at the core is the Bible—they’re so into it!”
A reflection of how “into” the Adventist message some Malagasy people are became evident one evening. An Adventist member of the Senate, Raberdison Jeanot, visited the region to support a small children’s Bible study in anAntananarivo neighborhood.
“Walk this way with me,” he said after the meeting.
“Isn’t it dangerous to walk here with all their equipment?” asked a visiting church leader.
“I am well known in this area,” Jeanot said, “because my home is here among the people. It will be fine.”
Jeanot took the small party up a cobbled street and stopped outside what would be a food stall by day, selling baguettes and other traditional food. A church member and her two daughters were using their business space as a venue for a small group by night—with a difference. This space was just for children—about 50 of them, crammed into about 2.5 by 2 meters square (or 8.2 by 6.56 feet), singing the zinc roof off. The goal is to have regular Sabbath school classes after the campaign.
Duerksen, who works with church-constructing organization Maranatha Volunteers International, urged, “There is going to be a huge need” for new churches in Madagascar as well as the rest of the Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Adventist Church region. While Maranatha may not get to Madagascarimmediately, Duerksen said the Adventist lay organization will certainly consider projected needs there; right now, it’s concentrating on a 1,000-church building program for nearby Mozambique.
But before buildings are constructed, disciples must be made. The Adventist Church in Madagascar is committed to fully discipling its new believers, says pastor Robert Rasolonomenjanahary, treasurer of the local union.
“The Church in Madagascar has a strict policy with regard to discipling. Before a candidate may be baptized, they have to understand and accept the Adventist beliefs and practice the Adventist lifestyle, and refrain from following [certain] cultural practices,” he said.
Those beliefs center on accepting the Sabbath—customarily a school day and trading day in the nation—and abandoning famadihana, Rasolonomenjanahary said, but also concern marriage and family relationships.
“The practice of common law marriage is often the way in which families are bound in Madagascar, and polygamy is common practice, especially in the more traditional and rural areas,” Rasolonomenjanahary noted. “The church accepts baptismal candidates with only monogamous marriages and legal [marriage] licenses.”
Lolona Raharilaia, who along with her husband and daughter was being baptized May 12, said that giving up famadihana was a choice she readily made: “Well, we decided to give it up now and follow [Adventist] beliefs,” she said. While her family had attended Adventist worship “on and off for a number of years,” it was only during this time of personal outreach by church members that the Raharilaia family decided to follow Jesus through believer’s baptism.
“A neighbor, who is an Adventist but attends a smaller church farther away, gave us the Bible study lessons and began visiting us often,” Rharilaia said. “She shows [so] much care for us. She invited us to attend a small group. And now we have decided to get baptized.”
Malagasay native Doraine Mazava is a theology student at Zurcher Adventist University, just south of Antananarivo, and a pastor’s daughter. During the campaign she was involved in working with some who were interested in joining the church. It was a “small group,” Mazava said, just 90 people getting together.
They used a local version of the movie The Book That Wouldn’t Burn and studied Bible lessons provided by the Voice of Prophecy, a Seventh-day Adventist media ministry. How did she get so many to attend?
Neighbors were invited, and in turn they brought friends and family, she said. The house was very full.
“A campaign like this is important,” Mazava continues. “One of my relatives, who has been resisting all his life, came to the meetings and approached my father, asking him to baptize him! Some people are just waiting for that call.”
More of those calls are expected to be made during the rest of 2007. If the anticipated number of people answer, one Adventist family will more than double, and an entire nation will be blessed as a result.
Nation's President Challenges Adventists to be Green
By Andre Brink, Southern Africa-Indian Ocean Division
“I have a vision for our country,” Madagascar’s president, Marc Ravalomanana, told some 30,000 Seventh-day Adventists gathered on May 5 for the opening day of an outreach effort in Mahamasina (or, sacred) Stadium in Madagascar’s capital. Referring to the effects of deforestation on the island nation, Ravalomanana urged those gathered to help make Madagascar a “green island” once again.
He indicated that the Adventist Church can and is playing a significant role in the environmental development and moral health of the country and its people. He especially noted the work of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Madagascar.
Turning to the spiritual impact of Adventists in the country, Ravalomanana congratulated them for “daring to share your faith in such a large public gathering, and in such a place as this.” He then urged the audience to “convey such a faith not only here, but in the rest of the country.”
President Ravalomanana was joined by the president of the Senate and the prime minister. Several other high-ranking government officials were also present, including Adventist Senator and member of the Pan African Parliament, Raberdison Jeanot.
While Ravalomanana was pleased with the church’s role in the environmental development and moral health of the country and its people, he was concerned about the condition of Adventist church buildings.
“People will judge your faith by the appearance of your buildings,” he said. “Lift up Christ through your places of worship, too.”
He then thanked the church for the special offering taken up at the meeting for the victims of the recent cyclones that devastated parts of the countryside.
[This wasn’t the first time the national president had participated in an Adventist meeting. Nearly four years ago, Ravalomanana had “dropped in” on a women’s ministry conference whose theme was “Women victorious, united in Christ.”
[“I am unexpected by you people, but not by God,” the state president declared at the time. “You would like to be victorious, ladies. You cannot do it by yourselves, but God will do it.” Recognizing the commitment of Adventist women in the country, Ravalomanana pledged a personal donation of US$40,000 to their efforts to be used in the fight against AIDS.]
The 2007 Adventist outreach meeting was held in the same place where Queen Ranavalona, who ruled Madagascar from 1828 to 1861, used to throw Christians off cliffs. That infamous place formed the backdrop for this Christian gathering with “Lift up Christ” as its theme.
The May 5 Adventist meeting marked the first day of a one-week series of public meetings that is the culmination of four months of small-group evangelism and Bible study programs. In January church members handed out Bible study invitations in their communities.