This update is related to the God’s Design for the Church in Africa campaign.
Making Soap to Preach the Gospel
“I’m not interested in your claims about Jesus and those dead languages of Greek and Hebrew, but what I really could use some help with is making soap.”1 Ranavalona I, queen of Madagascar during the mid-1800s, had no interest in missionary James Cameron’s work in bringing the gospel to her people. What she really wanted, instead, was soap . . . and for Cameron to leave her country, taking with him all of his crazy ideas about Christianity that she didn’t agree with.
What the queen didn’t know about Cameron was that he had an innate ability to use local resources to make pretty much anything he set his mind to, including bricks, yarn, and sulfur. So, two weeks after the queen asked them to take their gospel message and go home, Cameron returned to the queen with a bar of soap. That bar of soap allowed Cameron and other missionaries to remain in the country for another decade.
Why is this important at all in the history of Madagascar? Aside from the hygienic benefits that this soap has provided to Malagasies for centuries since, James Cameron’s ingenuity in using local resources to allow him to stay as a missionary in Madagascar resulted in the translation and publication of the first Bible in the local language (Malagasy).2
James Cameron came to Madagascar to preach the gospel. And yet it was the creation and manufacturing of soap that allowed for gospel work to continue, even when the devil attempted to destroy their efforts. And what Cameron did in making the Bible available in Madagascar has led the way for gospel growth and additional ingenuity in sharing it across the country.
Using Modern “Soap” to Proclaim the Gospel
Today Madagascar Christians aren’t faced with religious persecution like they were in the 1800s. In fact, nominal or syncretistic Christianity makes up around 85% of Madagascar.3 The problem, instead, is the poverty that so many of them face. Over 75% of the Malagasy people live on less than $2.15 per day—the latest poverty threshold.4 Because of that there are very little, if any, extra funds available to Christians for theological resources and training. Today, the “soap” that is needed is ingenuity in getting these theological resources into all corners of the country.
The ministry Madagascar 3M has found a way to use crops as their “soap” to strategically reach pastors in poor, rural settings with the gospel. Managing Director Faly Ravoahangy reflects that he recently spoke with one of these pastors who
gets from the congregation the equivalent of $1.50 per month. That’s wrong in lots of ways, and the congregation needs to be educated in supporting their pastor for this work, but in the meantime, he needs to eat. In response we’re trying to help him with growing his crops, and then we will help him sell his crops so that he has extra income to provide for his family, and then he will be able to focus on the spiritual welfare of his flock.
Many misguided habits have resulted from the reality that pastors of these churches simply don’t have the energy needed to put toward caring for their congregations. For example, Faly explains that “people have never been encouraged to just read their Bible. . . . That’s just an accessory you bring so you don’t come to church empty handed.” Faly and his team are actively making strides to address this by starting at the root, with the pastors.
We want to be involved in raising the next generation of church leaders in Madagascar because we realize that the problem in most churches is the church leader. Either they were not trained or they were there for the wrong reasons.
There is a saying that Christianity in Africa is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” and Faly and his ministry team have committed to addressing that through training pastors to be equipped for ministry. They have found that this can most effectively be accomplished through conferences which are held in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar. For each of these conferences, Faly invites a group of pastors from 3M’s ever-growing list of connections all over Madagascar. They receive training from speakers, spend time in discussion groups, and receive theological resources, including God’s Design for the Church by Conrad Mbewe.
Through a recent Crossway initiative to resource church leaders in Africa, donors to Crossway provided for the distribution of 300 copies of God’s Design for the Church, translated into French, to this year’s conference attendees. Because of this generosity, even pastors who have had to live on $1.50 per month from their congregation have been given the gift of a theological resource to guide and encourage them in their ministry. Pastors throughout Madagascar are growing, and as a result their congregations are growing in their knowledge of and love for the Lord.
Cultivating Gospel Growth Through Ordinary Means
Additionally, a few of these books were taken to the eastern part of Madagascar, to an area where there is often even less access to theological resources. Faly could see that there was little understanding about how the Lord has called the church to be stewarded by its pastor. While visiting one church, he gave a copy of God’s Design for the Church to the pastor.
They read the book and really enjoyed it, and then they started to use it to guide their ecclesiology class. This in itself is amazing, because it is working in a church that is not normally where you think it ought to be theologically. And because of . . . the ecclesiology class, I have had two young men from this apply to 3M’s preaching institute. One of the books that drew them to that decision was reading God’s Design for the Church because they have a better understanding of what it means to be faithful in the pulpit and to the mission of the church. They were so sad to see that what the church should be doing is unfortunately not happening in the church that they were going to. They want to study [at the institute] so they can be an influence in the ways that are mentioned in the book and implement that in their church.
Through ordinary means like making soap, building relationships, and meeting needs, pastors are coming to understand their calling and are creating change in their churches too. Praise the Lord with us for the work he is doing in churches throughout the country of Madagascar!
Would you consider supporting Crossway as a partner as we continue in our effort to resource the church around the world?
Pray for the new preaching institute that 3M has opened to serve pastors by training them according to the Bible’s principles of church leadership.
Pray that the recipients of God’s Design for the Church would humbly look at their churches and consider how they might call their congregations to correct the practices that are not in line with Scripture.
- This paraphrasing is meant to emphasize the oddity of the request. It is not a direct quotation.
- Cameron, James. Dictionary of African Christian Biography, accessed September 15, 2023.
- “2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: Madagascar”. U.S. Department of State, accessed September 15, 2023. https://shorturl.at/btvU9.
- “Poverty & Equity Brief, Africa Eastern & Southern Madagascar”. World Bank, April 2023. https://shorturl.at/cprA5.