Evangelical Christianity in Sri Lanka


A review of Evangelical Christianity in Sri Lanka: The Politics of Growth, by Orlando Woods

Orlando Woods’s dissertation interprets the politics of evangelical Christian growth in Sri Lanka by framing proselytization via a religious economy. Situating his study with the rise of a Buddhist political elite after the 1980s, Woods states that the “moral impetus” for the dissertation is his “belief in the freedom of religious choice” over and against the Sri Lankan state’s attempts to restrict evangelical conversions, even while problematizing some of the coercive proselytization tactics used by evangelicals under the state’s radar (p. 3). Accordingly, Woods is impelled to better understand the ethics of proselytization and the rise of anti-Christian politics in a “geo-religious” zone marked by two centuries of colonial Christian missionary activity. In so doing, he combines two theoretical constructs. First, he borrows from sociologist Fenggang Yang’s argument that there are differentiated religious markets, some of which are regulated by the state and some of which are more privatized and informal. Second, he modifies Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory to demonstrate that evangelical Christian growth can happen in Sri Lanka despite a hostile regulatory environment because evangelicals take advantage of multiple arenas to advance their conversionary agenda.

Woods’s central argument is that evangelical activity in Sri Lanka is best understood as agency within a structural mosaic.  Moving between different niche markets to increase their religious presence, evangelicals have grown in competition to other religious groups, provoking the rise of a Buddhist right that construes this growth as a threat. Woods develops the theoretical underpinnings of this economic structure in Chapter 2. Drawing from Anthony Giddens and Nigel Thrift, he emphasizes the “heterogeneity of ‘structure’” that allows for evangelicals in Sri Lanka to cross structural categories of religion, sociality, culture, and the economy in order to evangelize in multiple geographical spheres (p. 39).

Woods positions his structural mosaic approach as a reply to other approaches to evangelical Christian growth. He critiques the residual influence of Durkheim on studies within this field, especially since most scholars still subscribe to a separation of macro-scale structural examinations from micro-scale geographies that focus on agency. On the one hand, proponents of the religious economy such as Roger Finke, Rodney Stark, and R. Stephen Warner assume that the state’s regulation of religion will shrink growth whereas deregulation will cause growth. On the other hand, social network theorists only look at micro-level religious geographies while neglecting the role of structure. The “structural mosaic” is thus a geographical metaphor, allowing religious actors to move between different structures in a way that affirms human agency while paying attention to structuring dynamics.

Chapter 3 hones in on this structural mosaic paradigm in Sri Lanka, a contested religious marketplace where the 1978 Constitution has conferred on Buddhism “the foremost place” even while evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly since the 1980s (p. 53). The central problematic in Woods’s study is the contest in the 2000s around the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion Bill, an attempt by Buddhist right forces in Sri Lanka to criminalize conversion from Buddhism to Christianity. Outlining a critical ethnographic scholarship, Woods describes his journey with his 106 interview subjects in their journey to religious freedom and then outlines Sri Lanka’s regional geographies to show how evangelicals have managed to maintain high conversion rates despite state hostility.

In Chapter 4, Woods puts the structural mosaic to work. Arguing that most religious economy theorists have failed to account for “pervasive forms of competitiveness,” Woods contends that Sri Lanka has an informal religious economy in which evangelicals employ “patterns of secrecy and subterfuge” to co-opt markets that are not associated with religion for Christian growth. Sri Lankan evangelicals thus practice a “dissident geopolitics,” undermining state regulation at the micro-scale to establish their everyday influence precisely because increasing state regulation leads to covert and informal tactics of resistance (p. 111). Through ethnographic interviews, Woods demonstrates that these informal religious economies are accomplished by stripping Christian symbology from house churches; the secular employment of church leaders; the mobilization of the laity for evangelism; the spatial diffusion of church activities through prayer walks, telephone and CD ministry; and the soliciting of overseas donors by creating “spaces of parallel entitlement” (the projection of Euro-American norms of comfort onto non-American Christian spaces) (p. 137). Woods thus suggests that participation in the structural mosaic as an evangelism strategy leads pastors and laity to merge the “sacred” and the “secular.”

In Chapter 5, Woods explores the scales at which evangelical strategies are practiced. Appropriating Mircea Eliade’s theory of the hierophany, Woods suggests that evangelicals in Sri Lanka make secular spaces sacred. In this way, homes become “sacred,” though Sri Lankan evangelicals prefer a purely spiritual approach that is bereft of sacred symbology. Public sites are also sacralized, especially sites of deprivation (e.g. refugee camps from the 2004 Asian tsunami) and urban sites (e.g. through mass “crusade rallies”). So too, efforts at youth evangelism also deploy the structural mosaic, creating everyday spaces at youth camps, youth clubs, and university campus ministries to proselytize. Positioning these usages of the structural mosaic over against Buddhist symbolic spaces, Woods demonstrates that the growth of evangelical house churches depends on the usage of the structural mosaic to subvert public norms for evangelistic purposes, making evangelicals active rivals to Buddhism.

Woods expands on this Buddhist-evangelical contrast when he explores the politics of evangelical growth in Chapter 6. Exploring the difficulties that house churches experience when they attempt to register as religious institutions, Woods demonstrates that a politics of placelessness has emerged that has resulted in church splits. While Buddhists practice “spatial buffering” to assert symbolic dominance over Sri Lanka’s landscapes (e.g. by planting Bodhi trees and Buddhist statues), house churches are subjected to a “politics of permission” where they are required to zone their churches differently (p. 233). Going under the radar is combined with a businesslike mentality for conversions. This in turn leads to what Woods calls “unethical” conversion practices using the structural mosaic, that is, practices that fall under the three vertices of “fraud, allurement, and force” (p. 261). Ethics, however, is a loaded term, so Woods then problematizes the moniker “unethical” by showing how this discourse feeds into anti-Christian sentiments from the Buddhist right that discount usage of the structural mosaic.

This argument culminates in Chapter 7 where Woods situates the politics of evangelical growth in Sri Lankan Buddhist hegemony at various scales. At the village scale, Woods shows how evangelical growth displaces Buddhist hegemony, especially as held by monks as authority figures, who in turn mobilize villagers against a constructed Christian threat. Moving to the national level, Woods then demonstrates that postcolonial discourse often plays into the hands of the Buddhist right by casting Christian non-governmental organizations as part of the neo-colonizing West. Developing a “Buddhist protectionism” (p. 306), Woods argues that these discourses use self-orientalization to cast the Buddhist masses as victims while reinforcing the hegemony of elites, sometimes breaking into physical violence against Christian groups.

Woods’s major contribution is a Giddensian “structural mosaic” to studies of religious proselytization. As he concludes in chapter 8, the theorization of evangelical growth as a multi-layered spatial phenomenon helps to tap into why evangelicals have been so successful in getting under the state’s radar and how such efforts may in turn be problematized as “unethical” (p. 314). This geographical approach in turn revises religious economy theories by bridging structure-based and agency-based arguments. In so doing, Woods has rebooted the conversation about the religious economy, showing that this paradigm is at heart not only a sociological theory, but a geographical approach to religion. The competition in these religious markets is deeply political, compelling scholars of proselytization to look deeper not only at the ethics of conversion, but at the structures that attempt to define what religion is altogether.

Justin K.H. Tse
Comparative Religion Unit, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork in Sri Lanka
Policy documents
Newspapers and periodicals

Dissertation Information

National University of Singapore. 2012. 359pp. Primary Advisor: Lily Kong.

Image: Photograph by Orlando Woods, church in Colombo.

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