Just before Easter I spent ten days in Sri Lanka as the guest of the Colombo Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution which attracts students from both the mainline Protestant denominations as also from the fast-growing new Pentecostal churches.
The roots of Christianity go way back to the first century. The Buddhists like to say that the Christian faith is Western in origin, but it is said that after preaching the Gospel in Kerala in South India in AD 52, the Apostle Thomas visited Sri Lanka in AD 72. Even if that is a myth, Christian artefacts from that period have been found. Several centuries later Persian Christians established some churches. The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism to the island in 1505, and in the 17th century the Dutch Burghers brought with them their own brand of Protestantism.
Christians in Sri Lanka are very much in the minority. According to the 2012 census 6.1% of the population (1,237,038 persons) are Roman Catholics, while 1.3% (272,568) are Protestants.
Prior to the 1970s the Protestant churches were in critical decline, and many so-called Christians were Christians just in name. In 1980, the Protestant community had dropped to 0.8% of the population. Although the 2012 census estimates that the Protestant community is now 1.3% of the population, the real numbers are higher because new converts from Buddhist families and villages are not counted individually, as the statistic is given by the chief householder. The growth is particularly outside Colombo where many small Tamil- and Sinhala-speaking churches have been planted. My understanding is that the trauma resulting from the civil war has created a new openness to the Gospel amongst some. In Colombo itself there are some big Pentecostal churches – I visited the People’s Church which every Sunday sees some 4000 people in attendance. I was impressed with their creative holistic approach to mission. However, it would appear that a good deal of their growth is transfer growth – with young people in particular wanting a more exciting form of worship.
Sadly, some of the mainline churches in Sri Lanka remain stuck in the past. A Methodist church I preached at sang hymns which I had not sung for 40 years or more. Some church notice-boards seem to belong to the days of the ark. Alas, I was told that many pastors are obsessed with issues such as power and status, with some clinging to their posts even when they are guilty of sins relating to money and sex. There is a good deal of church-splitting, with the result that Sri Lanka seems to have many different church groupings, which in effect are separate denominations.
However, I was greatly encouraged by what I saw of the Sri Lankan church. I particularly enjoyed preaching at Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church in central Colombo, a multicultural and international church which last year celebrated its bi-centenary. When I arrived there were people of all ages meeting in groups for Bible study. Even though it was a city centre church there were plenty of children and young people. I was impressed at how a historic church is seeking to blend the old with the new.
The Sri Lankan churches face a great challenge, which involves not only winning people to Christ in a country where Buddhists are dominant, and where there are also strong Hindu and Muslim communities; but also engaging in such issues as reconciliation after the horrors of civil war and the massive divide between the rich and the poor.
This then is the context in which the Colombo Theological Seminary has over 1000 students in classes island-wide, all of whom are engaged in part-time (often ‘church-based’) studies. Bearing in mind that it is not the only theological college serving the Protestant community, this is a remarkable statistic. Probably some 0.5% of evangelical Christians are engaged in some form of theological training! Many of the courses offered by this seminary are fairly basic, but for ten days I was teaching an intensive MA module in ministry. This MA course is relatively new: the first MA student only graduated last year, but a further five are expected to graduate this year, with perhaps another five in the pipeline. I had only nine students – three were Methodists, one was an independent ‘Wesleyan’, one was Baptist, and the rest were Pentecostals. Without exception, all of my students were bright, lively, thoughtful and engaging – and I felt it a real privilege to be engaged in the formation of this new generation of church leaders in Sri Lanka.