A BREIF HISTORY OF THE SINHALA CONGREGATION OF
THE NUGEGODA METHODIST CHURCH
The Sinhala congregation at Nugegoda started in the mid 1970s when the Rev Duleep Fernando was minister at Nugegoda-Maharagama. Most of the members were from Buddhist backgrounds. After he left, the congregation gradually died down with the members either dropping out of church or going to other churches. I went to preach there one Sunday in 1979 taking along with me John and Dalreen Wijebahu, who had recently come to Christ. No one had come for the service. The church custodian told us that no one had come for that service for a few months. We knelt and prayed for this congregation before we left there asking God to bring revival there.
That sparked a burden in John Wijebahu to see this congregation revived. He contacted Rev. Duleep about this and soon the two of them visited the homes of some of the members. This enabled us to restart services. John and Dalreen needed to find a home church and they settled at Nugegoda and also persuaded Nelun and me to transfer our membership to Nugegoda. During the first few months we had about five or six people attending the Sunday services. Though paralysed from his waist down, John visited people relentlessly (riding his modified motorcycle) during the early years to invite them to come to church. If one human could be given the credit of being God’s agent for restarting this congregation it would be John.
The minister at that time was British missionary, the Rev Richard Tanner, and he gave us all the encouragement possible. In addition to John’s visitation, those who came invited others, and this is how the church grew. People brought their friends to church when they had needs to have them prayed over. Some stayed on, especially attracted by the friendship they experienced here. The friendship particularly attracted people who were in Colombo from the outstations. Many such people came to Nugegoda, met Christ there and went back to their villages or to other towns as Christians.
The conversion of the church custodian Herath gives a good example of how the church grew. After some months at his job, he became a Christian and was baptised. Shortly after that he got sick and the church faithfully cared for him. His wife who saw this was so impressed that she started coming to church after Herath died. She, in turn, brought many people to church some of whom have been baptised and have, in turn, brought others.
Most of those coming were from Buddhist backgrounds. We realised that, if they are to stay on, our services will need to move away from some traditional methods adopted in the Sinhala Methodist congregations in Colombo. We began to look for methods more suitable for seekers from Buddhist backgrounds. They found the common translated hymns very difficult to sing unless they could be sung to a drum beat. So translations which could be sung with the drum became popular, as did songs composed in India and Sri Lanka. Services were usually about 90 minutes long as time was given to pray for needs and longer times were devoted to praise and testimony. Recently the testimony time has been held only occasionally with some monitoring as it began to get out of hand and therefore somewhat boring.
Rev Tanner gave the fullest possible encouragement for the leaders to think of indigenous and appropriate forms of worship. After he left there were serious questions about the appropriateness of these innovations, resulting in some uncertainty among the leadership as to whether this would be allowed to go on. However, resolution was reached resulting in the continuance of the forms that had been developed.
The Superintendent Minister of the Colombo South Circuit, the Rev. Shelton de Silva, felt that because many adults were being converted to Christ in the Circuit from other faiths, it would be good to have a baptismal tank in one of the churches in the circuit for water baptism. Nugegoda was chosen because many of the people there were from Buddhist backgrounds.
Right from the start small nurture groups formed a major part of the life of this congregation. Rohan and Sharmini Wickremaratne, who joined the church after Rohan spoke at a church family camp, helped much in the growth of the Bible study groups. Usually a person would be in a group for about six months to a year before being baptised. A monthly all-night prayer vigil was also introduced which proved to be a major source of strength and refreshment. Though the exact format is now not followed, prayer still forms a vital part of the life of the congregation, with a weekly prayer group and monthly prayer vigil still held (though not in the nights).
In keeping with the practice of the early Methodists, the leaders of the congregation used to meet for several hours once a month to discuss the needs of the congregation, to pray for the needs, to discuss new ventures and to ensure that they were walking in harmony with each other. This was not the official society Leaders Meeting. Rather it was a meeting primarily for strategising, fellowship and prayer. Over the years this meeting of the leaders has experienced numerous strains as not all the ministers accepted its value and appropriateness. It has however survived and remains healthy to this day.
The Old-time Methodist emphasis on spiritual fellowship and accountability has also faced numerous challenges over the years. There were times when disunity threatened to break up the church. But this emphasis seems to have survived, and spiritual accountability is still being practiced in certain pockets of the church.
Because many of those coming were from poorer backgrounds, the more affluent members began to help the less affluent ones. Soon the English congregation came in to help with substantial assistance, especially for the education of the children. Presently the assistance given is channelled through the Board of Social Responsibility. Numerous aid programmes still go on with many helped by them and also with some probably not helped because of problematic attitudes on their part. Learning how to use aid to help develop people rather than foster dependency remains a crucial challenge. There is also the fear that some come to church primarily in order to receive aid, which, of course, could seriously jeopardise the health of the church.
While numerical growth through baptism of people from other faiths has reduced in recent years, it still takes place with new people coming to church on a majority of the Sundays. There is now a need to re-ignite evangelistic fervour within the congregation.
Within a few years of the re-starting of the services a Sunday school was started under the leadership of Nelun Fernando. This continues to be a vital part of the church with the children joining for the first half hour of the service and then going to their classes for the next hour.
A youth fellowship was commenced some years ago and this remains very active and is helping nurture a new generation of first generation Christians who have been comprehensively taught Christian values through formal Bible studies and through personal discipling (or mentoring). More recently a Women’s Fellowship has begun and is now a vital aspect of the life of the church.
After some years when there was considerable tension within the congregation, God seems to have brought in a fresh unity under our present minister, the Rev. Leslie Dareeju. I feel we are ready for a new phase of growth. If we miss this opportunity we may get into a stagnating mode which would be difficult to overcome. May we be faithful to our task!