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Recovering the 19th Century Approach to Disciple-Making in Sri Lanka

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20th century crisis in disciple-making

by Charles Hoole, Baldaeus Theological Seminary, March 1999


There are lessons to be learned from Rwanda because of the similarities between that country and Sri Lanka. In April 1994 there was large scale killing (genocidal) of the Tutsi minority (14%) by the Hutu majority (85%). [Pygmies 1%] The (ethnic) catastrophe left half a million to a million dead, two million fled as refugees to other countries, and one million were displaced within the country.

What is really remarkable about Rwanda is that it was also one of the two centres of that famous East African Revival which began in the 1930's, and has since been sweeping throughout East Africa. The revival had made Rwanda a predominantly Christianised country and yet Christians were directly implicated in the killings. When the killings started the people, including Christians, tended to fall back on their ethnic rather than Christian identity. As one Rwandan bishop observed, "After a century of evangelisation we have to begin again because the best catechists (lay teachers), those who filled our churches on Sundays, were the first to go out with machets in their hands."

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka too we see many features of East African revivalist spirituality within the church; and a spirituality that has proved inadequate to deal with the crucial issues troubling the society, particularly those related to power and ethnicity, poverty and deprivation. Revivalist spirituality lays great stress on emotion and devotion, in otherwords, on bhakti, but fails to provoke reflection and questioning. By becoming preoccupied with the inward or ‘higher' life, this kind of bhakti spirituality tends to leave the real, everyday life outside the rule of Christ. The result is ethical dualism, one set of behaviour codes for Sunday and another for the rest of the week. The Bible and the machet therefore, powerfully illustrate the nature of the spiritual crisis stemming from the revivalist spirituality of the 20th century.

Let me briefly point to the theological inadequacies of this revivalist spirituality.

(i) Converts, not disciples: Revivalist Christianity is strong on the evangelistic task but often weak on the Christian training and discipleship. Eg. Because ministry is narrowly defined as evangelism and church-planting, church authorities generally discourage their workers from spending a Sunday afternoon with their families, instead, they are instructed to go out on "ministry".

(ii) Use of Scripture: Focuses on favourite books or passages in the Bible, rather than allowing the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) from Genesis to Revelation to inform our spirituality; so that we have the tools to engage our neighbours, enemies, and mudalalis, to relate to issues of economic development, justice, peace and ethnicity.

(iii) Substitution of testimonies for Biblical exposition/teaching: Fellowship meetings put great emphasis on the sharing of testimonies, to the extent that personal experience has become more important than the Word of God.

(iv) Limited view of sin: challenge of repentance focuses on a fairly limited range of personal sins - lying, stealing, adultery, drunkenness, even wearing of pottu, thali and theatre-going.

In Sri Lanka, this kind of spirituality has encouraged withdrawal from public life into a spiritual ghetto. This is reflected in the following pastoral advise: "If you have spiritual problems you come to me, other kinds of problems are of no concern to me" (Pas. Clarenden). It is this separation of the spiritual from the secular that has produced a distorted form of spirituality. God is unconsciously relegated to salvation and Sunday, while we are allowed to serve the golden calves and Baals of materialistic, secular culture in our real, everyday life. This sort of spirituality is therefore powerless to transform our culture and society. But we need to ask ourselves, "What it means to be a disciple of Christ?" In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it emphatically clear that our calling is to exert a Christian influence, to be salt and light in the world. The present failure of Christianity to exert a positive influence in the world is due to a crisis in disciple making.

19th Century Missionary Approach

By contrast, the 19th century was an era of unprecedented social and cultural transformations, where missionary Christianity was the primary agent of change. In the area of culture, if Hinduism was responsible for Sanskritising the classical Tamil tradition, then missionary Christianity was instrumental in its recovery. Innovations in the language were introduced, by first compiling Tamil word-books, dictionaries and lexicons and then with their aid, teaching Tamils how to make rational and critical studies of their language, literature and grammar. From these studies undertaken in the mission schools, the tradition of writing modern prose emerged. Batticotta Seminary - which produced more than a few outstanding scholars like C. W. Thanotharampillai, J. R. Arnold, A. Sathasivampillai, Kathiravelpillai and Evarts Kanagasabaipillai - would play a pivotal role in the recovery of the Cankam Tamil tradition. Socially, missionary Christianity promoted a vision of society which was less oppressive and firmly based on the idea of social equality. Being committed to this vision Christians became outspoken in attacking the social evils of that day and age. They became involved in public controversies over the status of Hindu women and campaigned against the caste system, European abuse of plantation labour, Early marriage, the use and sale of opium. They also waged a temperance crusade.

But we need to appreciate that introducing social and cultural reforms was not in the original agenda of missionary Christianity whose primary commitment was to something more profound and lasting, which would no doubt have social and cultural consequences in the larger society. The missionary goal was to make-disciples, and to this end the three fold pattern of ministry - preaching, teaching and healing (Matt. 4:23) - was introduced. In short, the primary commitment was to preach the whole gospel for the whole person.

Biblical Mandate

In the Bible the people of God have been called out of the world to ‘walk in all his ways' (Deut. 10:12), and in doing so they would also fulfill their missionary calling to be ‘the light to the nations' (Is. 49:6). Walking in the way of God or in the way of Jesus is truly a life transforming act. Indeed, it is the only revolution that history has witnessed: first in the Roman Empire (Christians were called the 3rd race), then in Europe in the Reformation and Revival, and in the rest of the world in the spread of gospel Christianity.

At the heart of this revolution is the making of disciples, envisaged by Jesus himself:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28: 18-20)

The biblical mandate to ‘make-disciples' which is accomplished by ‘baptism' and ‘obedience'. Baptism implies coming out of the world to Christ, coming to the foot of the cross, incorporation into Christ and his family. Obedience implies going out into the world in the name of Christ, doing the will of God. The disciple is therefore a follower of Christ, who lives out his life in obedience to his will. The Matthean view is radically different from the prevailing view: anyone who fills in a decision card or is able to parrot a formula is a disciple, and the aim of becoming a disciple according to this view, is to secure a seat on the train to heaven. Eg. After Reinhard Bonnke's Crusade (18-23 Feb., 1997), the organisers claimed that the number of true believers/disciples in the island grew by 25%, based on the fact that 20,000 decision cards were collected, (although Bonnke's team members claim that 60,000 is closer to the mark). But Matthew is not impressed: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

Authentic discipleship involves:

  • living out the teaching (the Sermon) of Jesus (ch. 5-7)
  • bearing fruit (7:16-20)
  • doing the will of God (7:21; 6:10)
  • costly commitment to follow Jesus (8: 18-22)
  • walking in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross (16:23)

Missionary Practice

I will show that missionary Christianity of the 19th century closely followed the Matthean definition of disciple making process.


The first part of disciple making is to proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ, so that people may come to know him and follow him. In Tamil Sri Lanka, missionary preachers and their assistants travelled over a wide area, covering the major population centres such as Jaffna, Trincomalee and Baticaloa. They preached in Tamil at market places, street corners, work places and at any location "favourable for collecting persons passing by to hear the Word of God. (Daniel Poor preached in Tamil just a year from the day he arrived at Tellippalai; and two years after his arrival Peter Percival was able to write "I feel little difficulty in preaching in Tamil. I feel equal liberty as well in my colloquial intercourse with the people")

In their evangelistic efforts, the missionaries and the native preachers alike looked for conversion, that is, "a complete renunciation of the past life of the convert and a turning in faith to Christ and the Christian Church". They were unwilling to baptize candidates prior to changes in their behaviour. It is noteworthy that they were scornful of the ease with which conversions occurred under the Dutch. The following example will show that their primary interest was not numerical growth but producing spiritual fruit. In a letter of 25th July 1820, American missionary, Miron Winslow (author of the Comprehensive Tamil and English Dictionary) relates this experience:

You ask them, will you come and hear me preach - the answer is yes, if you give me rice. The head man of a large and populous village of 16,000 people told me one day, if you will give me and the people plenty of rice and curry, we will all become Christians. It seems as though they could not conceive of a greater degree of happiness than is found in gratifying the appetite for food and drink. They, therefore, pay little attention to what is told them about Christ, for they do not care whether it is true or not.

Winslow of course rejected this option, but the church growth experts of today tell us that the most effective way to make the church grow, that is, to make disciples, is by responding positively to the felt-needs. (ie the craving for food, miracles, wealth, medicine.)

Character-building/New Obedience

The second part of disciple making is growth in Christlikeness through new obedience. This requires the adoption of a new lifestyle, that would differ from the prevailing lifestyles and would have a leavening effect on the contemporary society. In Sri Lanka missionary Christianity invested heavily in disciple making, and the quality of life it produced powerfully impacted the Buddhist and Hindu communities.

Here, I shall highlight some of the methods used by the early missionaries in disciple making.

A comprehensive code of conduct

In order to live as the people of God in a fallen world, the converts need to know the way of God as opposed to the ways of the idols, sinners or the self. To meet this need, the American Ceylon Mission introduced a common disciplinary code of conduct for all her churches and related institutions. It was called the "Rules of Life", which was an exposition of the ten commandments in the Tamil context. Rule number two, for example states, "You should not observe any distinctions of caste among yourselves, but live as members of one family ……. each walking humbly, and esteeming others better than himself". Like the ten commandments the Rules of Life embodies a model of a society, one based on brotherhood. When converts adopt these codes in relation to one's spouse, child, friend, enemy, to things and the powers that be, there would be growth in Christlike relationships resulting in the visible expression of Christian brotherhood.

Modelling: Patrons and Liberators of the poor

There is a great deal of modeling in disciple making. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus not only defined a lifestyle for his disciples, but he also personally showed how that sermon is to be lived out with others in loving relationships. Paul adopts the same strategy, sharing not only the gospel but his very life, the result is, the people of God become ‘imitators of us and of the Lord, in spite of severe suffering' (1 Thess. 1:6; 2:8). In Sri Lanka too, the missionaries and their local assistants (pastors, evangelists, headmasters, teachers, Bible women) powerfully embodied the written codes in their own lives.

When the Christian message is incarnated in the messengers, the message becomes compelling and attractive, breaking through the many social and religious barriers erected by human beings. This is how my own grandfather, a staunch Hindu was converted under the influenced of American missionaries. Take the example of Dr. Daniel Poor. He is known to us as great educationalist, becoming the first principal of Batticotta Seminary, a university college established in 1823. But his personal life may be more remarkable, and is a wonderful example in disciple making. In the early 19th century, Tamil women were considered far inferior to the men, and Tamil girls were in addition, a financial liability. It is in this context that Daniel Poor and his wife would adopt 3 Tamil girls and raise them as their own children. This action couldn't have been motivated by a personal need for children since the couple already had 6 daughters by birth! Rather couple instead was responding to a need to alleviate the suffering and rejection of girls in the community, by bringing the adopted girls into a Christian household. Under the love and care of their new parents the girls would be trained in the way they should go, (train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it, Pr. 22:6), and as the girls learn to walk in the way of Christ, they would exhibit a new dignity and Christlike character.


Disciple making takes place within the framework of a community. The disciple belongs to a family, albeit, the household of God; where he or she grows spiritually by growing in one's relationship to Christ and to others. The idea is already to be found in the example of Dr. Poor. Its larger version is the male and female boarding schools. The symbolic link between the two can be seen in the opening day of the Female Boarding School in Uduvil (1824), when one of the first to arrive was Dr. Daniel Poor, who handed over his 9 girls to the care of their new amma, Mrs Harriet Winslow. The first to be enrolled was the youngest, Anne Bates, in the lowest class, along with 28 others.

The boarding schools were transformed into households of faith (brotherhood and sisterhood) by:

  • making God's word the rule of faith and practice
  • adopting a common Christian code of conduct for all - one dharma for all,
  • dealing with impediments to right relationships such ascaste, by sharing the same food, drinking water from the same well, sleeping under the same roof, using the same cup in the celebration of the Lord's Supper
  • ending superstition, by filling the mind with the Word of God through studying and memorising Scripture
  • forming new habits and behaviour patterns by vigorous application of the time-table discipline (note: Missionaries were the first to introduce time-table discipline, but it was solely for the purpose of moral training)
  • practicing koinonia-fellowship, through spiritual, social and economic sharing.

In character, behaviour patterns and habits, the men and women who came out of these institutions were very different from their Hindu or Buddhist neighbours. They were adequately equipped to take on a variety of roles, in which their Christian character would be displayed. Vairavi Theivanai (Marcia Hutchinson, 1818-1836), a student at Uduvil for 14 years from 1822, would be sent as a Bible woman to the lawless Ramanad District, where she shared the gospel with a large number of Indian women. It is noteworthy that after an average of ten years training, the missionaries assumed responsibility for arranging - with a small dowry - the marriages of their ‘children', such marriages based on shared values ensured that discipling and character formation would become a lifelong process. Also they saw this as the most effective way to pass on the same discipline and instruction to the next generation.

Protestant Christianity in the 19th century owing to its commitment to disciple making emerged as a counter-society with its own distinct values, ethical codes and even customs (sitting around a table for meals). It also became a cultural pace-setter, producing many reform movements outside. The mass conversion of low caste Hindus in the second half of the 19th century (like the Tamil Nadars) cannot be understood without reference to this life transforming process that made the redemptive character of Protestant life attractive to oppressed communities.

Theological College in Trincomalee

At the end of this year a group of us would be moving to Trincomalee to establish a new theological college that would start functioning in Jan. 2000. It is our hope that this college would meet two basic needs.

First is an immediate need in the northeast for a biblically based theological training centre for pastors, teachers, evangelists and other Christian workers. The security situation and the rigorous pass system imposed by the government makes it impossible for most Tamils from the war ravaged northeast to come to the south in order to take advantage of the opportunities available in Colombo and Kandy. Examples, Sivakumar from N'Eliya, and Loganathan from Kokkadicholai.

Secondly, there is a long term national need to provide theological education and training within the framework of disciple making. In other words theological education must not be separated from real life in Sri Lanka, it must instead be allowed to address our life in the family, society, and state, in rural and urban situations. It must then be imparted in the context of community, where teaching, modelling and living are integrated. In taking this integrated approach to training, our aim is to disciple the students for a life long trust in, and obedience to God.

In Jan. 2000 the college will begin on a small scale in temporary accommodation at Dockyard Road, Trincomalee and will move onto its own land and premises, as resources become available. We do need financial assistance to fulfil this goal (student scholarships, library, land, equipment, building, faculty and staff salaries) and we are in the process of setting up a support base in the West.

Finally, we have been greatly encouraged recently by the following:

(i) Men and woman of great character and ability have committed themselves to full time service. (Priya & Nimalka, Prathapan & Jeyamary, some others are considering joining us)

(ii) Potential students waiting to join the first batch

(iii) Those who have committed themselves to teach on a part- time basis

(iv) The prayer and practical support being given by others, including those abroad (support given by our friends has made it possible for Priya Handy and Nepoleon Pathmanathan to enroll in an MTh. programme at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales)

Charles Hoole, 20th March, 1999

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