"With no end in sight to the war, we persevere in seeking to be faithful to God."
In the early 1980s, something good happened in the church here. Christians, especially in the newer charismatic churches, began taking the gospel to the rural villages (most Christians lived in the cities), and churches began springing up in areas where there had previously been no Christian witness. Many Buddhists and Hindus came to Christ—something that rarely happened in the past. This evangelistic fervor hit segments of the older mainline churches too, and they began planting churches in non-Christian areas, often creating new structures to accommodate these new churches.
This is a welcome development in a country where the number of Christians has dropped from about 10 percent of the population at the start of this century to 7.5 percent in the early eighties, with Protestants accounting for just 0.7 percent. This is happening in a context where Buddhism—the religion of 67 percent of the population—is the national religion (though the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian minorities have the freedom to practice and propagate their faith).
There are several reasons for this growth spurt. The first is that Christians began to talk in a new way about practical ways of fulfilling the Great Commission. This reflects the influence of the emphasis of "reaching the unreached" in the great international conferences on evangelization attended by Sri Lankan Christian leaders in the sixties and seventies. Many had been praying for revival in Sri Lanka, and revival came in the form of a revived interest in evangelization. Larger churches have sponsored the starting of daughter churches in unreached areas, and giving toward such missionary activity by Sri Lankan Christians has increased markedly.
A second reason is that this fresh growth of the church coincided with the intensifying of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka into a full-blown civil war. About 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the two major conflicts in the past 15 years. In this time of uncertainty and fear, the idea of a supreme God who cares for us and meets our needs has become very attractive to the people. Most non-Christians have come to faith through friends taking them at a time of need to a Christian meeting where needs were prayed for.
A third reason for the recent church growth has been the disillusionment with Buddhism many have felt. After independence there were great expectations that with the country's possession of a pristine form of Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism), Sri Lanka would become the launching ground for a worldwide missionary thrust. But many have become disillusioned with the few numbers of people, even among the clergy, who actually practice the noble ethic of Buddhism.
A fourth reason is the witness and challenge of Christian servanthood. A Hindu journalist for an Indian newspaper attributed three reasons for the rapid growth of the church among the tribal people of India. First, he said, Christian missionaries (usually from South India) go where others don't go—to the most interior parts where these tribal people live. Even government census workers usually make their own estimate of the population living in remote mountain tribal areas without actually visiting the areas. Second, Christian missionaries hand over leadership to the tribal people very soon. And third, Christianity is a cheap religion because it usually costs nothing to receive the services of a Christian "priest," unlike in Hinduism.
These points apply to Sri Lanka equally well. The Buddhist monk is one who has renounced possessions to live on people's charity. But the people regard the giving of alms to a monk as a meritorious act which helps them accrue good karma. Thus usually a monk who performs a service is given alms. The result is that alms becomes almost an essential payment if one is to receive their services. This makes it difficult for the poor, who may have to hire a taxi, provide a good meal, and give a gift if they want a monk to come to them. The Christian minister, on the other hand, will go to a place of need and offer his help to alleviate suffering.
Christians have been in the forefront of relief operations in connection with the unrest in Sri Lanka and also in connection with alleviating poverty. This has made the people receptive to the gospel. My wife and I belong to the majority Sinhala race, and over the years we have kept several Hindus from the minority Tamil race in our home during times of tension for the Tamils. I know of at least two of them who are now Christians.
Understandably, the growth of the church has resulted in much opposition to evangelism in the country. There is the constant talk of unethical conversion, where Christians are supposed to be winning converts by bribing them with financial and other inducements. Organizations have been set up to monitor Christian activities and oppose what they call "proselytization" resulting in these "unethical conversions." Attempts are being made to introduce legislation that restricts the freedom of expression of faith "in the interest of religious harmony." The opposition has also taken more violent forms with the torching of as many as 21 churches over the past few years and with assaults on Christian workers.
Some of those who joined the church have reverted to Buddhism as the opposition has intensified. Because of this, we are learning how essential it is that people attracted by the power of God are introduced to the other aspects of God's nature and salvation. Many churches in Sri Lanka seem to be weak in this area. Through observing the pattern of professed conversion and falling away, I am convinced that while most people come to Christ to meet a personal need, they stay with Christ because they know the gospel is true. After many followers of Christ had left because of his "hard teaching," Peter said that the disciples could not leave him because he had "the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).
This lack of teaching of the "whole counsel of God" may also account for evidence of a lack of godliness amongst a significant portion of the leadership of the church. Leaders often leave the group they belong to and join another group when they encounter problems (and there are foreign sponsors who are waiting to grab them as their representatives in Sri Lanka!). It is heartening, however, to see the new churches taking an interest in theological education. This is evidenced by the rapid growth of the four-year-old interdenominational Colombo Theological Seminary here in Sri Lanka.
The difficulties encountered by the church have also been an opportunity for great heroism. Lionel Jayasinghe was a Buddhist monk whose quest for the truth resulted in his becoming a Christian. On completing his studies at Lanka Bible College, he went as an Assemblies of God "missionary" to an unreached area in South Sri Lanka. After the church he started had grown to about 35 converts, he began to get threats that if he didn't stop preaching he would be killed. His brutal murder was witnessed by his wife, sister-in-law, and one-year-old son. Lionel's wife, Lalani, did not leave the area. She stayed on and continued the work even though she has also received death threats. Ten years after Lionel's death, his church has given birth to four other churches with about 1,000 believers in the five churches. The sister-in-law who witnessed the death, with her husband, leads one of these daughter churches in one of the most difficult places in Sri Lanka for doing evangelism.
When the war was raging in the North we asked the Youth for Christ leader there, Suri Williams, to return to the South, where he was originally from, since it was not safe for him and his young family. He replied that he could not leave his people at that time, and he added that, besides, the safest place to be was in the center of God's will.
Arul Anketell was a brilliant young pediatrician who gave up bright prospects for a career in medicine to minister full- time with people in the health-care field. Five years later he lost everything when his house was burned down in a riot. The first time I met him after this incident, I was hoping that I could be a source of comfort and encouragement to him. I left that meeting with a distinct sense that the reverse had happened, and that I had been deeply ministered to!
So amidst the gloom that engulfs our land, with no end in sight to the war and the suffering of the people, we persevere in seeking to be faithful to God. We know that through the frustration and pain God is working out his purposes and answering the prayers that have gone up through several centuries that this beautiful island will indeed be filled with the glory of God.
Ajith Fernando, 49, is national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, and the author of the NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Zondervan). A graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, he was born and raised in Sri Lanka and is an active lay preacher in the Methodist church of Sri Lanka.
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