Sri Lanka is shaped like a tear drop off the south of India. It is just a little smaller than the Republic of Ireland (a quarter the size of NZ). It has a population of around 20 million (Ireland is 3.5 million, and NZ about 4). This relatively high population is significantly centred in several large cities, and threads of urban development along the main roads.The coast is fringed by attractive beaches, and delicious fish curries are a highlight of the delicately spicy cuisine – every dish we ate was pleasant, and several were superb. The highlands in the centre of the island rise to over 2000m (6,560 feet). Here some of the best tea in the world is grown.
The main exports are agricultural, supplemented by gemstones and garments. The main religious groups are Buddhist 70%; Hindu 15%; Christian 8%; Muslim 7%. The Christian community has a long history, back to early missions like that which founded the Thomist churches in India. There are especially large enough numbers among the educated elite, so despite being a minority they practically ruled the country in the first years following independence.
This combination makes evangelistic or missional activities somewhat problematic among today’s Christian minority. Churches are often more inclined to undertake social support roles, which are valued by government agencies and the local majority communities, rather than risk causing dissention with their neighbours by active evangelism.
It is sad that such a beautiful and plentiful island suffers from tension between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. The long-running civil war has been relieved only by a couple of lengthy ceasefires in the 90s and again earlier this decade. The most recent ended at the start of this year, and Independence Day was marred by a bomb blast which killed a number of school children. This caused appreciable anxiety among the population of Colombo at the start of our visit, though by the end since no more tragedies had followed things were less tense.
The civil war has meant that considerable resources are used for the military and police, and development has been slower than in other Asian countries. There is a huge gap between the sophisticated elite and those who lack such “internationally” marketable skills. Mobile phones are widespread, and fairly affordable. Broadband Internet is available and 3.5G phones with broadband access are widely advertised on hoardings in the city.
Perhaps because they are not “traditional” churches in Sri Lanka, and therefore less worried by losing acceptance in the eyes of the non-Christian community, the Assemblies of God are active in evangelism and church planting. We saw small, and occasionally very large, AoG buildings almost wherever we went. This is also reflected in the composition of CTS, which a good number of AoG staff and students as well as members of “traditional” churches.
CTS with its mix of Sinhala and Tamil, traditional and new churches, pastors and lay people in influential professions is already playing a significant role church life in Sri Lanka. The class I taught represents this strategic importance, Yohan works in University ministry, Suhasha and Cheryne are teachers and Savitri a mother, Sriskandarajah pastors in a new(ish) congregation while Sarath has resigned as a Salvation Army officer as he wants to plant new churches, Prashan and Nina work for development agencies, Noeleen is an engineer while Naresh and Perez are in marketing and advertising.
Thus CTS has a key role to play in the future of Christianity in Sri Lanka. Bringing together key leaders (lay and pastoral) from the traditional churches with some from the newer Christian communities should help the traditional churches as they struggle with their identity as both minority citizens of Sri Lanka and citizens of heaven. It is also well-placed to offer a stiffening of good relevant theological thinking grounded in the historic Christian tradition for the more “enthusiastic” newer communities, who can risk getting “carried away” from normative Christianity by their very enthusiasm.
If you watch this short touristy video, or enjoy photos of beaches and hills, please pray for the country and its people.