Lal Senanayake, president of Lanka Bible College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, grew up in a small Sri Lankan Buddhist village with 11 brothers and sisters.
He laughs when he thinks back to his childhood impressions of Jesus. “The only thing I knew about Christianity was that Jesus died because he was stealing sheep. My friends and I had seen pictures of the crucifixion of Christ, and we also saw pictures of him with a lamb in his hand. So we connected the two.”
Senanayake’s early years were marked by loneliness and resentment. As a left-hander in a culture that reviles the trait, Senanayake was bullied by his teachers and his parents when he began attending school. “I grew up very antisocial—I became a very resentful person. Whenever I was spoken to, I couldn’t meet the person’s eyes. I harassed all the teachers’ children since I could not stand up against my teachers.”
When he was 18, a Christian church worker visited his village and shared the gospel with his family. Senanayake and his family ridiculed the woman after she left, but the next evening, instead of roaming around with his friends, he felt compelled to seek her out. He continued visiting the missionary, and his life changed dramatically when he eventually converted. “I was so different. I became obedient. I laughed, smiled, and sang. And I shared with my family about Christ, but they did not take my conversion seriously.”
Senanayake was the first in his village to convert, and his decision had serious ramifications. When his younger siblings began to face discrimination in school, his parents confronted him. “They told me to either give up Christianity or get out. They didn’t let me take any of my other clothes or things—they were trying to prevent me from leaving—so I left home with nothing but the clothes I was wearing. I stayed with the missionary lady who had first shared the gospel. One night a mob came to the house. They threatened my life, humiliated us, and threw human waste at us. So I had to leave that city. I didn’t go home for many years.”
Necessity of Ministry
With no one to turn to, Senanayake’s call to ministry was, at first, a matter of necessity rather than choice. “Becoming a Christian meant I had no other place to go. I did odd jobs like cleaning the church, and I attended Bible studies and prayer meetings.”
While serving as an associate pastor in a fast-growing church, Senanayake realized he wanted more Bible training and asked for it, but no one in leadership thought it necessary. So Senanayake sought further education without support from the church; he says, “For 10 years, I worked to go to Bible school on my own. I was earning less than $10 a month working for my church. I traveled 100 miles round trip every week to attend classes. Fortunately, my wife was a teacher, and we had food on the table because of her.” When he finished his bachelor of theology degree, he stayed on at Lanka Bible College as a staff member. During this time, he completed his masters at the University of Nottingham. Thereafter, in 2009—with the assistance of ScholarLeaders International, a ministry that supports theological leaders in the majority world—he completed his Ph.D. at Trinity International University in the United States. He then returned to teach at Lanka Bible College and serve as the school’s president.
The Educational Divide
Senanayake believes the lack of theological education in Sri Lanka has “hindered the church’s ability to reach out for many years. The general assumption in the church community today is that the Bible is God’s Word to us—written to people living in the 21st century. They believe that it directly addresses our needs. For the most part, there is no connection or attempt to understand the Bible in its original context. Because of the church’s indifference to education, other groups often accuse it of being involved in unethical conversion—where people are converted making use of their poverty, ignorance, and needs by providing for people’s needs. They argue that conversion should take place by intellectual thinking—people must understand something and then change.”
The Sri Lankan population in general is educated, with a literacy rate above 98 percent for both men and women. Since the government pays for school through the university level, even many poor people have an education. Senanayake believes that, because of this, a lack of education for pastors hurts the cause of Christianity in his country. “Even poorer people are educated. The future of evangelism should be in helping people to think. We ought to teach people to ask questions: ‘Why do I believe what I believe? Why does the faith make sense to me? How does the faith make sense? Why should I believe in God? Why is God needed? Why is Christ needed?’ The lack of sound biblical teaching has left the Sri Lankan church in a state of malnutrition.”
The 21 million people inhabiting Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island just off the coast of southern India, represent all four major world religions. The Sinhalese most often practice Buddhism and make up about 70 percent of the population. Sri Lankan Moors are primarily Muslim and account for about 9 percent of the population. The Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil groups, who are largely Hindu, account for 15 percent of the population. And Protestant Christians represent only about 1 percent of the total Sri Lankan population—a ratio much like Senanayake experienced in his village.
“The rural Christian community faces marginalization and strong opposition. In most cases, Christian gatherings were prohibited—pastors were assaulted and their churches damaged. Persecution is very rare in urban settings, but generally speaking, Christians are considered second-class citizens. My four children studied in Buddhist schools and all faced open criticism. In every province and city, pastors get together for prayer and fasting, and now in almost every city there is an official pastors’ fellowship.”
The friction between Buddhists and Christians dates back to the late 19th century. Before that, “many Buddhists welcomed missionaries. They helped them learn the language and were involved in Bible translation work.” But a nationalist Buddhist backlash erupted when the Christian movement began to grow. Christians, in turn, “began to criticize Buddhism severely. In the 1870s, the two groups held a series of debates that were won by the highly educated Buddhist monks.” In more recent history, Buddhist nationalist groups have sprung up, including Bodu Bala Sena and Rawana Force, which have carried out attacks on Christian and Muslim minority groups.
From the 1980s through the 2000s, brutal civil war raged between the Sinhalese government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebel group. Although the majority of Tamils are Hindu, most Christians in Sri Lanka are of Tamil ethnicity, which, according to Senanayake, prompted “the government to look with suspicion on the church until recently.” In 2009 the LTTE was completely defeated, and both government and rebels were accused of human rights violations during the long conflict.
Senanayake believes approaches to evangelism must address culture-sensitive issues—from thoughtful dialogue to worship practices—if the gospel message is to reach Sri Lanka’s Buddhist population. And that’s where the country’s rich ethnic diversity poses the greatest challenges.
Because most believers have Tamil origins, and the Tamil population has historical ties to Hinduism, Hinduism has influenced the culture of Christianity in Sri Lanka. “Hindu worship is charismatic with loud drum beating and a lot of noise—but that is not appealing to the Buddhist mind. When Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhalese come together in one church, one group dominates.”
But the church is making progress: “In certain churches there has been a moderate balance. Some continue in their own understanding of worship, and some will not change. Theological education and proper understanding of the Bible are the answer to the problem.”
Yet, Senanayake sees great potential for the church in Sri Lanka. While the more marked ethnic differences are driven home in every other aspect of life, the Christian church offers unity. “The Sinhalese meet in the Buddhist temple, the Tamils meet in the Hindu temple, and the Muslims meet in their mosque. Only in the Christian church do you find multiple ethnic groups coming together. The reality is that the gospel has broken down the barriers of ethnic and racial differences.”
“In my church, we have Tamil, Sinhalese, and other nationalities coming together under one roof, living out a reflection of the kingdom of God. There is no other religion that talks about the ministry of reconciliation. The gospel is key!”