ajith Fernando’s Talk at the Sponsors’ Reception on 14th July 2001
at the Kollupitiya Methodist Church
AFTER TWENTY FIVE YEARS
I am so happy to celebrate my 25 years in YFC at the church where I grew up and where exactly 25 years ago I was inducted to my job.
It is a surprising thing that one with so many weaknesses could have survived for 25 years at this job.
- I am an indecisive leader who finds it very hard to make decisions
- I am a terrible supervisor of details.
- I find it very difficult to scold people.
- I am a bad organiser of programmes.
- It takes me a long time to accept that someone is deceiving me.
And that is a serious thing because I operate on trust in my relationships with staff.
And how many, many mistakes I have made over the years! How could I have survived for so long? I think there are two chief reasons:
Firstly, All CHRISTIAN ministry is only because of God’s mercy.
Paul often says that his ministry is because of the mercy of God (2 Cor. 4:1; 1 Tim. 1:12-16).
We are not qualified to serve God. But he uses us, despite our weaknesses, so that all the glory goes to him (2 Cor. 4:7). This is why we will not have appreciations at this programme. My surviving so long is an act of sheer mercy, and all the glory must go to God.
But let me say that it has not been easy. There have been few days in the past 25 years that I have gone to bed at total ease about our ministry. It seems that we always have a fairly serious crisis to face. At least once a month we have something very serious that we encounter. Like Paul I can say: “I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 10:28-29).
Also I am constantly aware of the fact that we could have done so much more for the kingdom. God has been so gracious to us. We should have led to Christ many more people in many more places.
But despite our problems and failures we have survived, and that is because of God’s mercy.
SECONDLY, THE LORD GAVE ME SUCH A WONDERFUL TEAM TO WORK WITH
This was my first real job! In USA I had worked for four months as a youth worker in a church, and done part-time music ministry in two churches. But this was my first full-time job. And I came back to lead a capable team of veteran staff.
But the team made up for my weaknesses. Actually they propped me up and compensated for my weaknesses. Of course, Sam Sherrard had laid a solid foundation with important biblical principles, which we have I hope never left. With that foundation I had something solid to work with.
Brian Blacker had acted as National Director for two years, and there were some volunteers who felt that he and not me should have been the leader. But he prepared for my arrival in such an affirming way. He kept telling the volunteers about me and when I came he just propped me up with his love, support and godly wisdom. Recently when I was teaching our staff I said that in a real fellowship there must be fights. Otherwise people don’t bring up their problems, and they end up angry with the others. In that same talk I said that all these years I never had a fight with Brian. So the staff said that I must be very angry with Brian! I had to modify my teaching to say that there are some people you can’t fight with even if you try!
Suri Williams and Richard Brohier brought a godly wisdom and stability in their own special ways. This really helped overcome some of my folly. I thank God that I still have Suri to give of his wisdom to me, though he is not on staff. And Richard continues to be one of my closest friends. Tony Senewiratne, I believe, is the most brilliant intellect we have had on staff while I have been director. His way out ideas helped keep YFC on the cutting edge.
Then there were those wonderful younger staff workers: Kumar Abraham, Noel Berman, Faith Berman and Adrian de Visser. Now most of these people don’t work with us—and that is something to expect in a youth ministry. But they remain our close friends and support our work in any way they can. Some of them are Board members of YFC.
But God has raised up a new generation of leaders who are distinguishing themselves in this ministry. They have more than compensated for those who have left, as our work is so much larger now than then. You have seen some of them today. Mayukha Perera heads our English work and has a huge load on the Administrative side. Robert Silva leads our Sinhala work and has the same visionary ambition that Adrian de Visser has. Ravnel Chandrasekera is our office manager and is the practical one in our team. Satchithanandakumar has lead the Tamil work and experienced an amazing growth over the past few years. He has a wonderful group of leaders who work under his supervision: Jeyaraj in Avissawela, Jegaraj Fernando in the schools, Ithayan Allagekoon in Jaffna and Leonard Fernando in Vavuniya. Satchi also acts as national director when I am away.
Our regular Jaffna leader Hariharan is studying in Singapore. The work in Mannar is lead by Subendran. Both these ministries have seen remarkable growth in the past few years. Rajeevan has just completed his MA in youth ministry in Canada and will come next month to lead our work in Batticaloa.
We are really proud of the team of staff that Chandran Williams has developed for the Y-gro work. I am sorry that Chandran cannot give so much time to YFC. It was he who developed the administrative structure we have in YFC today. But he is doing great work through YFC, so we praise God.
There is one thing that has not changed all these years. That is our Board Chairman Bala. How he has stood with me in my tough times and my times of joy. He has been my encourager and advisor, and above all my friend. The Board of YFC consists of people who were YFC clubbers in their youth. And I cannot adequately tell you how much I owe them. They have helped me avoid so many foolish mistakes. Sometimes I get mad at them, especially when they don’t allow me to use the money I have earned for YFC through my books and lectures in ways that I want to. But that way I have been rescued from many foolish decisions. But how grateful I am to have this group that monitors our spending!
YFC has also given me some wonderful staff to work with me. I have been blessed by a great group of secretaries over the years. In the 25 years I have had five secretaries and all of them have been very special to me, and I have great joy and thanks to God when I remember them. And in the past 10 years or so, I have had an assistant to help me with personal things. First I had Pandian and then Timothy. They have virtually become members of my family.
I think the happiest thing for me over the years has been the privilege of discipling a few young staff. I think that is one of the things that has kept me fresh in ministry.
But the most important team member I have had is my wife Nelun. I married her five months after taking on this job. She has been my best friend and my closest advisor. I like to think of her as my “shock absorber.” When I face a crisis, the first thing I want to do, after praying about it, is to tell Nelun! Sometimes that means taking a phone call from another country. My burdens would have been so much heavier if she was not there to bear them with me. I think when we go to heaven we will find that there is a greater place for our wives that for us because of the great work that they have done. And having children who are committed to YFC and to evangelism has also been a real boost to me.
Nelun’s primary ministry has been at our church, not in YFC. For me that has worked well.
Sometimes when there is a crisis and the leader is under fire. At such times the body needs to be free to express their disappointment in the leader. But if the leader’s spouse is around they don’t feel free to do this. This could result in people keeping anger and resentment within. And that can destroy community life.
My parents also fully supported my decision to join YFC. My lecturers in Seminary thought I was making a mistake. Most parents are not happy when a child wants to join YFC. But not my parents.
Now let me say some things about some of the convictions that we hold strongly to as a ministry.
It would be clear from what I have said about team ministry that fellowship is very important to us. Yet this is something that we can never take for granted. Paul said, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The verb there suggests that this is hard work and also urgent work. I can testify to this. I think that the most absorbing challenge I have had these 25 years has been to keep our team united. Unity problems have to be faced squarely. There will be debates and battles. Those are painful to go through. But without these, people will keep their anger inside and there will not be real unity. In fact the anger will explode someday, and then the results will be quite drastic. I think this is why there are so many splits in churches today. We have to learn to urgently deal with unity problems the moment they arise.
The levels of fellowship have had to change as the ministry gets bigger. We’ve had to make all sorts of changes to accommodate this growth. While we have tried to maintain some unity within the whole movement. What we have tried to do is to ensure that there is unity and accountability within the different divisions of YFC. And we have also tried to ensure that the leaders live in fellowship with each other. Ensuring this is one of the leaders primary tasks.
WALKING IN THE LIGHT
A key to fellowship is walking in the light. We have worked hard to have “walking in the light” as the key to our community life. 1 John 1:7 says that when we walk in the light we have fellowship with one another. Whenever I go to a YFC centre I usually remind the staff and volunteers that there is one type of person we cannot have in YFC. That is the person who is not truthful, who tells lies.
We can have people who make mistakes. Actually a lot of our folks make big mistakes, especially when they go to churches. And usually YFC gets a good scolding because of that.
But that is inevitable in youth ministry. We can handle that. But we cannot have people who lie. This is not easy in a country where lying seems to be a national feature. But we have found that when there is close fellowship, liars either change or they leave after some time!
Another aspect of fellowship is accountability, when we are open to a few people who can check on us. Today a lot of the accountability that leaders have is with people with whom they do not work closely. This may be helpful. But I am convinced that those we work closely with in church or at work are the best people to be accountable to. They see us at work, so they see our weaknesses and that enables us to be truly frank with each other. Our responsibilities are there. That’s an important aspect of accountability—the responsibilities we have.
Personally I can say that this is a great source of security to me. I am sometimes scared wondering whether I will make it to the end as God would have me to. And I comfort myself with the fact that these friends of mine will help keep me on the right track. They will stop me if they find me going in a wrong direction. I am accountable to two groups.
My small group consists of 5 YFC veterans who have been friends for about 35 years.
I am also accountable to the younger leaders who are now on YFC staff. These people know my weaknesses, they know the temptations I struggle with. We have a set of questions, which we ask each other when we meet, and that has been very helpful.
When I come back from a trip abroad, I give both these groups a report of how I fared, especially in my weak areas, like indiscriminate television viewing. I remember once, when I went to office after a trip, the first thing that Richard Brohier said when he met me was, “OK boss, any confessions?” It is a great source of security to me to have people like this to help me in my walk with the Lord.
Hebrews 10:24-25 says: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another….” That word translated spur is a strong word it has the idea of provoke.
A key aspect of fellowship in YFC is discipling. Perhaps this is Sam Sherrard’s most important legacy to our work. I see discipling as the major leadership style in YFC. I have come to describe discipling as “looking after another” (balaa gannawaa in Sinhala). That is our job as leaders: to look after those whom God has given us to lead and to help them achieve all the wonderful things God wants to achieve through them.
I believe that if we make the welfare of our staff and volunteers our first concern, it will not hurt YFC. These are the greatest treasure we have. God brought them into YFC. So when they do well, YFC is doing well.
I believe that a key aspect of discipling is for the leader to die for the people he or she disciples. Jesus gave us the example of this as the Good Shepherd who died for the sheep (John 10). This is what servant leadership is all about: Dying for our people; making their welfare our ambition in life. Servants do not rule their schedules. We had to adjust our schedules according to the needs of those we disciple. Often their needs and emergencies come at very inconvenient times. We may refuse a lot of requests and invitations. But if someone we disciple have a need, we drop everything to meet that need.
The staff and volunteers could exploit such concern in a bad way. And perhaps some have exploited it. But I think that usually it has produced people who are very committed to YFC and are willing to work hard and pay the price to see our programme moving forward. In fact one of the jobs I have to do is to act as a monitor to stop some of our senior people from working too hard. I have to force them to take an off day and a vacation and rebuke them when they don’t do that!
Usually we have found that when the leader works hard and pays the price of ministry the volunteers also work hard and pay the price.
THE BIBLE AND VISION
Another important thing to us is the fact that we are a people under the Word of God. We are people who have found the truth, which has been revealed to us in the Bible. People involved in a movement like YFC need a passionate vision if we are to survive. Our volunteers and staff pay a huge price to see our work go forward. Most of them don’t get much encouragement from their homes. Their family members would like them to be involved in activities that have more restige in society. Evangelism is rarely prestigious in society. And youth work has almost never had much prestige.
Yet we have volunteers and staff who daily go to bed exhausted because they have given time to YFC. What keeps them going? I believe it is a passionate commitment to a vision. God has put us here to do a job. The job is of eternal consequence. It is something worth dying for.
I am firmly convinced that it is the Word of God that keeps Christian vision going. We can keep people motivated by presenting wonderful plans to them. But when the going gets tough, that will not sustain them for too long. But if our people believe what the Bible says about what we are doing, then they will have a firm foundation to persevere amidst great hardship.
The Bible says that youth are eternally lost and headed for hell without Christ. If that is so, it is worth dying to giving them this message! What a glorious message we have. We have found the answer to the greatest problems of humans. Jesus and Peter tell us that prophets, angels and people of old longed to see and hear what we know (Luke 10:23; 1 Pet. 1:10-12). This is the greatest thing about our work. We have a gospel to proclaim, and it is the only hope for the salvation of people. It is a cause worth dying for. I am reminded of a statement of John Wesley. When he was an old man he said, “I am weary in the work but not weary of it.”
THE BIBLE AND DISCIPLING
In discipling also teaching youth the Word is extremely important. It is common in a youth work for the impressionable youth to depend a lot on their leader and on the YFC programme for advise and nurture. But this can be very dangerous. Soon they will get tired of the programme and they would want to graduate from depending on the leader for nurture. So we must get them into the Word. That is something you never graduate from.
Actually I think one of the most important things we can do as youth workers is to get young people to learn how to handle the Word. Paul describes a workman who does not need to be ashamed as one who can handle the word of truth correctly (2 Tim. 2:15).
Over the years I have tried to do courses on how to study the Bible with successive generations of YFC staff and volunteers. I think this is the most important teaching I do in YFC. There is the saying that if we give a person a fish we feed him for a day. But if we teach him how to fish, we feed him for a lifetime. It is a great joy for me when I hear past and present YFC people teaching and preaching from the Word. I had that privilege last Sunday at our church!
What a need there is for biblical preaching today. Most preachers are simply too lazy to study the Word. So most of the time they preach on things that they are interested in with a few scriptures thrown in here and there.
I hope that Bible teaching will always be extremely important in our ministry. In Paul’s list of qualifications for leaders in 1Timothy 3, he mentions only one qualification that relates to ability. All the other qualifications have to do with either character or reputation or family life.
The qualification related to ability is that he must be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2).
It is not easy to keep this emphasis in a youth movement. Youth workers usually find exhortation easier than exposition. Besides there are so many urgent things to talk about that Bible teaching can get neglected. Therefore we leaders have to demonstrate the importance of this through our schedules.
These days I travel to our Y-Gro farm once a month to teach the three staff (and two spouses) there. The whole process, including travel, takes me about a day. Some people might think that this is not an efficient use of my time, especially because I do not supervise this work. But there are no short cuts to building community. Community is built through hours of sharing and fellowship, Bible study and prayer.
It is not easy to give time to Bible teaching amidst all the other challenges of ministry. I think life would be much less complex for us if we did not have to spend so many hours studying the Word and preparing to teach it and preach it. For me this has been an extremely tiring thing.
But I can testify to the great refreshment that comes from time spent in the Word. Much of my preparation is done in short spurts of 15 minutes to an hour. Sometimes it is done in a warm van parked on the side of a road between appointments. Sometimes I have to be up all night getting ready for a meeting the next day.
Often I sit down to study feeling really exhausted. And then the Word begins to minister to me.
Soon I am so thrilled that it is difficult to leave the study. This has often resulted in my being late for appointments!
Gypsy Smith was an uneducated Methodist Evangelist who was born in a gypsy tent. He started preaching at the age of 17 and preached the gospel with great fervour for 70 years till he was 87.
Somebody asked him the secret for his freshness and vigour. He said, “I never lost the wonder.”
I also started preaching at 17. But I have done this for exactly half the time as Gypsy Smith: 35 years. I too can testify that the gospel and the Word of God continue to be wonderful. Often I am physically sick, or emotionally discouraged over the some problem in the ministry. But when I have to preach I have to preach whether I feel like it or not! I cannot say, “I don’t feel well enough.” I get on to the pulpit, and the sickness and discouragement are forgotten. Those are temporary! The Word of the Lord abides forever (1 Pet. 1:25).
I often feel like Jeremiah felt at a time when he felt like giving up his ministry. He said in Jer. 20:9: “…his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” He got weary holding the word in his heart. He got tired by not preaching!
STRATEGY FOR GROWTH
Our strategy for growth is also closely related to our understanding of community life. Here I think we are moving in a direction opposite to the direction that corporate entities are going.
Corporations are moving in the direction of centralisation when they strategize for growth. But we have a decentralised strategy. We have let the individual ministries dream up what the Lord wants them to do and then we have tried to incorporate that into the national strategy. Once the Lord gives us a goal to achieve, we have tried to faithfully pray about it and let the Lord provide the people to fulfil it.
Around the end of 1994 our leaders from each of our division met for a few days to pray and discuss and ask what the Lord wants us to be doing for the next few years. Out of that came what we called our long-term prayer projects. The two main goals were to start work with troubled youth and to start ministries in several new areas.
- Now seven years later we see so much of those goals fulfilled. We have started a work with drug addicts. There are a few street children on our Y-Gro farm in Madampe. And the Y-Gro work in the north has so many projects with troubled youth.
And what about new centres?
- The Mannar work has started a ministry in Murungan and in recently cleared areas.
- We have club ministries in about 6 different areas in the Jaffna Peninsula.
- The Colombo Tamil work started YFC centres now in Negombo, Avissawela, Vavuniya and Batticaloa
- The English work started a new ministries in Kandy, and the Sinhala work has started work in Badulla and Madampe
- During this time the ministry in the Colombo region has grown rapidly with several new ventures.
- We also have a ministry in two prisons as a result of a staff worker being arrested as a terrorist suspect and starting a ministry while in prison.
- We are helping a ministry among Tamils in Europe by sending staff on short-term projects and also helping with the production of radio programmes to be aired in Europe.
- The English work is hoping to get involved in helping develop Pakistan YFC.
Our Avissawela work is very special to me. There is a staff worker from Colombo who travels weekly to lead the work. But a volunteer from Colombo has moved to Avissawela and lives in our centre with his wife. He travels to Colombo daily for work, and ministers in Avissawela. The leader in Vavuniya is is Colombo for this programme. And while he is here, two volunteers from Mannar have gone to Vavuniya to conduct the club programme this week.
The national office did not initiate these ministries. Individual ministries who caught the vision and decided to release some of their leaders for the new work initiated them. The full-time workers who have joined were volunteers who felt the call to meet the staffing needs that these new ventures required.
Sometimes we have tried to take short cuts and grow in other ways. God has usually helped us out by forcing us to take corrective measures. We recently started a work taking a few short cuts.
And the Lord intervened to cause us to slow down this work immensely. The result was that over that past two years I was able to spend literally hundreds of hours with the young staff in this ministry. I have taught them the word. I have taken them with me on my travels and spent hours and hours chatting with them. I believe that they now have fully understood the ethos of YFC. A side affect of this is that I have had the thrill of helping to nurture these young staff workers.
OUR PRIMARY CALL
REACHING UNREACHED YOUTH
I need to say something of our primary call. When we started our work we worked primarily with youth from Christian backgrounds. There wasn’t much youth work in the churches, and we met an important need. But as the youth work in the churches grew we realised that our call was to go to those outside the church. This is what we have been doing in the past twenty years.
Only a very small percentage of the youth we work with come from Protestant backgrounds. We have a larger percentage of youth from Catholic backgrounds. But the vast majority are from Buddhist and Hindu backgrounds with a very small amount from Muslim backgrounds. The three staff workers who shared their testimonies today represent this emphasis well.
To reach such youth we have to go where they are. This means that our Christian friends are not going to see us at work. For this reason there are many people who think that YFC is no longer in existence! This is why we are so grateful to our sponsors who have stood with us despite our lack of visibility.
With the hostility to evangelism in our nation today we are particularly vulnerable, especially because we are evangelising youth. This means that we are going to be doing even less publicity of our work in the future.
Whereas we would have 500 Christian youth at a rally 25 years ago, now we may have 500 mainly non-Christian youth at a cricket tournament. The Christians do the organising.
The others play cricket. They come in touch with our programmes and a few of them come to club and then to camp and finally meet the Lord.
25 years ago we would take about 300 mainly Christian youth on our evangelistic camps. Now we take about 1200 mainly non-Christian youth. They are contacted through the different types of programmes that we have.
Now to make contact with these non-Christian youth we will use any means that we possibly could. Recently we have developed a sort of motto that is taken from the example of the four friends who brought the paralysed man to Jesus: “If can’t get in through the door we will try the roof”
DISCIPLING THEM INTO THE CHURCH
One of the hardest challenges that I had 25 years ago, was to convince our leaders that the final home of YFC youth was the local church and not YFC. I can praise God that this has changed now. Hundreds of youth have been sent to churches during the past few years. It is such a joy for me as I travel to different churches to meet so many former YFC youth who are lay leaders, pastors, and Christian workers and also spouses of pastors and Christian workers.
Some of the youth reached in YFC stay on as our volunteers. We insist that all our volunteers are members of a local church. Those who commit their lives to Christ in our ministry are first channelled to a small group. We have over 150 small groups in YFC. On Sunday the leaders of the group usually take those who do not have a church with them to their churches. Gradually they settle in those churches. So the bulk of the youth in YFC have found their permanent home
not in YFC but in local churches.
I want to pay a tribute to our volunteers today. Several of them conduct Bible studies. They give several days a month to visit the youth we have contacted. “Visiting” is an important word in YFC, but it is hard work. Then when they want to have a special programme or take youth on camp who cannot afford to pay the fees, they raise the funds for this. We have volunteers who paint houses, clean gardens, wash cars, bake cakes, cook at functions all so that they can raise funds for their programmes.
We are grateful that, unlike 25 years ago, there are many churches now where our youth feel welcome and at home even though they are not from a Christian culture.
TRAINING CHURCH YOUTH LEADERS
This does not mean that we are not committed to youth work in the church. Several of our leaders are helping to establish youth fellowships in churches. We have had 6 youth leadership training seminars in the past three years. All of them have been outside Colombo where the needs are greatest. About 500-600 potential leaders have been trained at these seminars. We are hoping to conduct a larger national seminar in February 2002.
When we began to work with poorer youth we encountered so many needs that we could not ignore. We knew we had to do something. That is a part of being a servant of the youth of Sri Lanka. This has opened up a lot of ministries for us. Our social action arm Y-Gro is active in meeting these needs, especially in the North.
Some of the biggest needs of poor youth are in the area of education. Almost every YFC centre in Sri Lanka is also a study hall, where poor youth who do not have the facilities at home could study. I think we have seven or eight such halls. Often they stay the night in the centre and become part of a discipleship programme. Many who have gone through this programme are doing well. We are very proud that one of these students from Mannar will enter the university to study dentistry or veterinary science.
We also have a lot of tuition programmes where different subjects are taught. In Jaffna they are even teaching Sinhala! About 25% of the leaders in our Sinhala work were originally reached through our tuition programmes. Our Colombo Tamil work has a schools ministry where YFC provides Christianity teachers to schools that are unable to find such. They have ended up teaching other subjects too because of the great needs in these schools. Of course this gives a wonderful opportunity for other evangelistic and discipleship ministries in these schools.
One of the shocking things we found as we began to work with the poor was that the parents of some of the youth want them to leave school as early as possible and start earning some money. This caused us to start several scholarship programmes aimed at keeping these children in school.
In the North, where the needs are greatest, the Y-Gro ministry has numerous educational and vocational training ministries. Included here are English classes, sewing classes training in diesel pump maintenance and electrical repair skills and agricultural projects. We also have given loans to young war widows to help them start self-employment projects.
My dream for Y-Gro is that not only will it meet the needs of youth in the North but that it will also be a point of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. More on this later.
AGENTS OF HEALING
In a small way we want to be agents of healing in our racially torn nation. This is why staff from the South travel regularly to the North and East. But one of the most exciting programmes we’ve had was when 15 youth from our Sinhala work in the south visited Mannar. What joy there was as the Tamil Christian youth there met Sinhala youth who were not people they needed to be afraid of. They visited the Churches in Mannar and all of them testified to the immense joy that both groups experienced because of the oneness in Christ.
I am convinced that the Lord wants us Christians to show our nation that Sinhala and Tamil people can live together in peace and harmony. And we want to do what we can to make this possible.
AGENTS OF HOPE
Let me close by urging you to be an agent of hope in Sri Lanka. Everything around us may look utterly gloomy. But god has not given up on Sri Lanka. And he is the God of history who will one day bring history to a glorious climax. And we are his children and his servants on earth. When we act in obedience to Christ, our actions are building blocks used to construct that glorious kingdom that will go on for ever and ever. We have a job to do in this gloomy situation because we believe in another history—the history of the kingdom of God which will climax with the kingdom of this world becoming the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. “And he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11.15). Don’t give up on Sri Lanka.