We had a lovely evening last Friday with the principal and his wife. It was interesting and inspiring to hear his testimony and his take on the college and the state of theological education here. He's keen to improve what the college is doing for its students which he believes this in turn will strengthen the Sri Lankan church at a time when it really needs strengthening.
He was sharing that having come to faith in the assemblies of God, a church that he still serves, he has found the spirituality of the churches here generally here to be thin. This particularly came home to him when he spent a year at St John’s College, Nottingham and was introduced to other forms of spirituality and liturgical traditions.
It reminded me of a conversation that I had had with a Swiss guy who studied with me both weeks – a glutton for punishment! He’d been asking me whether I thought it appropriate to introduce western theological ideas that could undermine or unsettle people’s faith in the simple scriptures. I can see his point – up to a point.
But Sri Lanka (like most developing nations) is actually awash with ideas and ‘theologies’ from the western church that are no more appropriate here than they are anywhere. So Hillsongs is where it’s at in terms of worship, theological and spiritual support for the state of Israel is a given (odd in a country that is politically seeking alliances with the gulf states and Iran!), and charismatic ministry and prayer styles derived from South Korea are de rigueur.
So the question is not shall we bring ‘western’ ideas – they are here whether we want them or not. And every month one international ministry or another pitches its tent announcing that it is introducing the next wave we've all got to ride. The question is what kind of thinking will strengthen and build the Sri Lankan church? Answering that is a much more subtle affair.
One of the answers I gave my Swiss friend was that I see a huge need for a church leadership that is able to think, to discern what is right and what is wrong, what will help their church and what won’t. My hope is that in a tiny way what I was teaching about the New Testament might help students to see that there are other biblical ways of approaching these issues that might just help them to reflect on their situations and what the scripture is saying about them.
Just like the UK church, the church here is prone to leap on whatever bandwagon is passing. Undoubtedly some churches are growing. But it's worth asking whether current approaches to worship and mission will make significant inroads into the Buddhist community - the evidence seems to suggest not yet.
Unlike the UK church there seems to be a correlation between theology and the funding of work over here. Support for Israel could be a product of the fact that American fundamentalists spend a lot of dollars keeping things going here. And he who pays the piper picks the tune.
Independence of thought and genuinely contextualised theology and church structures are vital for the Christian community if it's going to make Jesus known in ways that appeal to all sections of Sri Lankan society.
And a really cool thing to finish with: One of my students last week is the coach of the Sri Lankan rugby union team. No, I didn’t know they had one either. Apparently, they play in the Asian Five Nations and everything. He's a South African who played his club rugby at Richmond and in the Irish republic. He’s a really nice guy, taking the course to improve his knowledge. Let’s hope it works - though I'm not sure it'll improve his team's performance on the field!