‘Bless the Lord’:
The Primacy of Theological Education in Sri Lanka
In September, the first Lutheran pastor was ordained in Sri Lanka in over a decade.
“Father Gnanakumar is God’s gift to us,” said David Nagaraj, a member of the Lutheran congregation in Eila, Sri Lanka, of his pastor, the Rev. P. Gnanakumar. “He guides us and teaches us about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In Sri Lanka, an island country southeast of India, it is common for Lutherans to refer to their pastor as “father.”
“I love these people,” explained Gnanakumar as he reflected on why he visits every family in his church at least once a week. His simple and powerful response echoes the motivation that has driven this mission work for more than 15 years.
Gnanakumar serves in Eila, a rubber-tree plantation community in the center of the island. He previously served as vicar there and was ordained Sept. 2, 2017 — the first pastor ordained in Sri Lanka in over a decade.
“It’s infectious to see how Gnanakumar interacts with his people. You know these people are being loved, and you know it is being done in the right way,” said the Rev. Steven Mahlburg, an LCMS career missionary to the country. “You can see how he is a very important part of their lives, and that’s part of what being a pastor is about.”
Gnanakumar visits church members. He helps persecuted Christians. He reaches out to non-believers. He encounters people who have never heard of Jesus before. And he tells them all the Good News about Jesus Christ.
“The best part of being a pastor is teaching them good theology,” said Gnanakumar. “There are churches around that lead their sheep astray. But we get to tell them the truth of the Gospel.”
Watch the Rev. Dr. Edward Naumann discuss the role of theological education in the Sri Lankan Lutheran church. (Cinematography in Eila by Johanna Heidorn, LCMS communications specialist to Asia, and video interview by Erik M. Lunsford)
Sri Lanka is warm in weather and hospitality. The food is warm — even spicy. And the ubiquitous tea from the colder highlands warms and sweetens everyone, while offering cooling refreshment.
From stacks of teapots in stores to daily breaks, tea is important. Visitors are welcomed with a cup of sweetened hot tea and a savory doughnut called vade. Their homes may consist of only one or two rooms, but those are meticulously tidy. And the tea is served on fine china.
Gnanakumar learned to teach the pure Gospel thanks to theological education he received through the LCMS mission, the Ceylon Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Sri Lanka.
The Rev. Dr. Edward Naumann serves as the primary teacher for theological education. “It’s been a real joy to see Father Gnanakumar develop from a student into a pastor,” said Naumann. “He is seeing the world and everything around him from a theological perspective.”
Naumann teaches Lutheran theology to pre-seminary and seminary students. The small house that hosts Immanuel Lutheran Church, Colombo, also serves as a lecture space for seminary and pre-seminary classes.
This theological perspective is important in Sri Lanka, where people are primarily Buddhist or Hindu. Though there are Roman Catholic and Protestant missions, the culture is overwhelmingly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist worldviews and traditions.
“In the background, they are always doing something Hindu,” observed Gnanakumar. “As a pastor, I’m always fighting that problem.”
The Lutherans in Sri Lanka have worked tirelessly to bring the Gospel to the people there, but not as something that belongs to Americans or any other national group. The Gospel is Good News for them.
“It’s wonderful that you hear them singing God’s Word, praises to God in their own language, in Tamil, in their own music,” said Mahlburg. “To me, this says this is something they have taken to heart. It’s part of their lives, part of their being.”
Yet, the Gospel is not always welcome in a country in which some 93 percent of the people are not Christian. Though the country as a whole does not outwardly persecute Christians, many families will ostracize members who confess Christ.
One family who attends the Lutheran church has suffered persecution for their faith in the last year and a half since becoming Christians.
This faithful family now lives in a one-room house barely larger than a queen-sized mattress. They lean their bed against the wall during the day so that they have floor space. The small living quarters are not due to poverty. This is the only place they are allowed to live after being shunned for their faith.
And yet the Gospel compels them to believe and to rise for worship each week. The Good News of Jesus continues to change lives and to bless. And the name of Jesus continues to bring with it persecution and struggle. So it has always been. So it will be until we are all united in His eternal Kingdom.
Into this house and the houses of all his members, Gnanakumar walks each week to share with them the Gospel and to listen to their needs. Each week, he visits every member.
“Of primary importance to him is visiting people in their homes, teaching them about the Christian faith, helping them understand their problems and God’s presence with them, even despite the difficulties of their daily life,” Naumann said. “[He is] giving them the forgiveness of their sins and guiding them on this journey of faith.”
Gnanakumar’s success, under the tutelage of Naumann and the Rev. Roger James, South Asia area director and missionary to Sri Lanka, provides encouragement as they continue work to build a church body in Sri Lanka centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A robust theological education provides training for men to confront the competing worldviews and philosophies present in the country.
Lutherans here also supported the formation of Ceylon Evangelical Lutheran Publishing House, which will provide ongoing theological education resources to open the door for future Sri Lankan Lutheran pastors.
Yet even in this, it is the Word of God that transforms people’s lives. Commenting on Gnanakumar’s ministry and his growth as a pastor, Naumann said that Gnanakumar’s work consists of “building them up through the Word of God, using Scripture and, also for himself, having God as his own guide and the Word of God as his own light to lighten his path each day.”
God’s Word in Sri Lanka is bearing fruit, and the LCMS is working to continue this through pastoral formation and theological education. The people of Sri Lanka need the Gospel, and Lutherans are there to proclaim it and train future pastors to bring God’s love to them.
- Read about the work in Sri Lanka: lcms.org/srilanka
- Get to know our missionaries in the story, including the Rev. Dr. Edward Naumann: lcms.org/naumann, the Rev. Steven Mahlburg: lcms.org/mahlburg, and the Rev. Roger James: lcms.org/jamesfamily
- Support the Synod’s work in Sri Lanka: lcms.org/givenow/church-building-sri-lanka
Pray with Us
The harvest is plentiful, and so You, O Christ, send Your servants into the field to gather people into Your Holy Church. We thank You for Pastor Gnanakumar, who proclaims Your saving Word and administers Your Sacraments to the people in Eila. Watch over him as he carries Your love to those who don’t know You and ministers to those who confess Your name. Continue to work through the theological education provided by the LCMS missionaries in Sri Lanka, that many more pastors may bear the cross of Christ to the people for whom He died. In Your holy name we pray, O Jesus. Amen.
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