Reaching the Nations International Church Growth Almanac

Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.

Sri Lanka

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

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Sri LankaGeography

Area:  65,610 square km.  Sri Lanka is an island southeast of the tip of southern India in the Indian Ocean.  Plains cover most of the island, with few mountains in the southern interior.  Monsoons occur from December to March and June to October.  Forest occupies most of the terrain.  Deforestation and urbanization present the biggest environmental problems.  Sri Lanka is divided into eight administrative provinces. 

Population: 21,324,791 (July 2009)

Annual Growth Rate: 0.904% (2009)

Fertility Rate: 1.99 children born per woman (2009)

Life Expectancy: male 73.08, female 77.28 (2009)



Sinhalese: 73.8%

Sri Lankan Moors: 7.2%

Indian Tamil: 4.6%

Sri Lankan Tamil: 3.9%

Other: 0.5%

Unspecified: 10%


Ethnic groups claim ancestry from Sinhalese, who arrived from northwest India in the sixth century BC, Tamils from Southern India, or Arab traders.  Sinhalese occupy the entire interior and southern and western coastal areas.  Sri Lankan Tamils dominate northern and eastern shorelines and arrived several centuries after the Sinhalese, whereas Indian Tamils were brought to work on plantations by the British and populate interior northern Sri Lanka and in several scattered communities in southern areas.   Sri Lankan Moors descended from Arab traders and live in scattered enclaves. 


Languages: Sinhala (74%, 15.5 million), Tamil (18%, 3.77 million), other (8%).  The official language is Sinhala and national languages include Sinhala and Tamil. English is spoken by 10% of the population and regularly used in government. 

Literacy: 90.7% (2001)



The first inhabitants arrived from northern India in the 6th century B.C.  Tamil settlers arrived 2,000 years ago and began inhabiting the northern areas of the island.  Arab and Malay traders arrived around 1000 AD and some settled on the island.  Civilizations in southern India began exerting greater influence by establishing a Tamil kingdom in the north in the 14th century.  Portuguese and later the Dutch explored and traded in the region.  The British East India Company took control in 1796 and in 1802 a crown colony was established.  The entire island came under total British control shortly thereafter and adopted the name Ceylon.  Plantations were established and workers were brought from India.  Independence from the United Kingdom occurred in 1948 and the name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.  Friction between the majority Sinhalese and the northern minority Tamils erupted into civil war by 1983 and continued until rebel forces were ultimately defeated in 2009.  Tens of thousands died from the fighting and almost half a million were displaced.  



Sri Lanka’s two main cultural forces are the Sinhalese and the Tamils.  British cultural traditions influenced native traditions during colonial rule especially in urban centers.  Sri Lankans drink tea regularly.  Festivals celebrating religious holidays are observed from Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.  Cricket is the most popular sport.  Few drink alcohol or smoke tobacco.



GDP per capita: $4,400 (2008) [9.38% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.759

Corruption Index: 3.2

A civil war lasting more than two decades, policies with socialist aspects, and the 2004 tsunami have limited economic growth.  Despite these challenges, the GDP per capita increased $500 between 2006 and 2008.  More than half of the GDP originates in the services sector, whereas industry and agriculture account for 29% and 13% respectively.  Each of these sectors employ about a third of the workforce.  22% of the population lives below the poverty line.  Primary agricultural products include rice, sugarcane and grains.  The largest industries are rubber processing, food processing, telecommunications, banking, and textiles.  The United States, United Kingdom, and India are primary export partners.  Most imports arrive from India, China, Iran, and Singapore.  Sri Lanka’s location just south of India provides accessible trade access between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. 


Although corruption levels are lower than many other South Asian countries, significant corruption problems persist and government transparency is limited. 



Buddhist: 69.1%

Muslim: 7.6%

Hindu: 7.1%

Christian: 6.2%

Unspecified: 10%



Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic  1,400,000

Jehovah’s Witnesses  4,463  80

Seventh-Day Adventists  3,702  36 

Latter-Day Saints  1,277  3


Buddhism arrived in the 3rd century B.C.  Buddhists live throughout the country, especially in central and southern areas, and influence government.  Islam arrived with Malay and Arab traders a thousand years ago.  Eastern areas are mostly Muslim and northern areas are predominantly Hindu.  Most Hindus are Tamil.  Christians typically live in the west.  Around 80% of Christians are Catholic.[1] 


Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution allows for religious freedom, but religious freedom of minorities experiences little protection.  Persecution from Buddhists toward minority groups has been severe.  Buddhists feel threatened by the conversion of many Buddhists to Christianity and harass most Christian churches.  False reports circulate that Christians force or coerce Buddhists with other means to convert.  Many Christian missionaries and pastors were murdered or reported missing due to violence from Buddhist extremists in the late 2000s.  Most of these cases were never pursued by police and government and those committing these crimes have gone unpunished.  The predominately Hindu Tamils persecute Muslims and expelled all Muslims in areas of their control in 1990.  Religious education is required in schools in which students can study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity.[2] 


Largest Cities

Urban: 15%

Colombo, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Negombo, Trincomalee, Kotte, Kandy, Kalmunai, Vavuniya, Jaffna.


Three of the 10 largest cities have a Church congregation.  9% of the national population lives in the 10 largest cities.


LDS History

The first missionaries arrived in 1853.  Due to opposition to the Church from locals, the missionaries stayed only for a short time and returned to India.  Two missionaries stopped in Sri Lanka in 1975 to evaluate whether the country was ready for missionary work.  The first members to live in Sri Lanka were from the United States.  A Texas businessman who was a member of the Church shared the Gospel with a family he had met in Sri Lanka in 1976.  In the following year several members of the family were baptized.  The father of the family served as the first branch president in 1978.  Several senior missionary couples began serving in the late 1970s working with humanitarian efforts and teaching those who wanted to learn more about the Church, but active proselytism did not take place.[3]  The Church became officially registered in 1979.  The first native missionaries began serving in the 1980s.  Missionaries from the Singapore Mission began serving in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s.   In November 2007, Sri came under the jurisdiction of the India Bangalore Mission.  In late 2007, eight young American missionaries served in the country on tourist visas.  Foreign missionaries were withdrawn in late 2008 due to increasing violence directed towards Christian missionaries and visas problems.  Only three native missionaries remained on the island.  At least one senior missionary couple continues to serve in the country. A senior missionary couples conferences for the 13 couples in the India Bangalore Mission was held in Sri Lanka in early 2009.  Missionaries were optimistic that the visa issue would be resolved.


Membership Growth

LDS Membership: 1,277 (2008)

Membership grew to 135 in 1990.  By the end of 2000 there were 313 members.


Due to increases in the number of young, foreign missionaries, accelerated membership growth began in the early 2000s.  Membership increased to 663 in 2002, and 851 in 2004, and 1,108 in 2006. 


Most years between 2001 and 2007 saw membership growth rates over 10%.  Membership growth rates declined in the late 2000s due to the withdrawal of most full-time missionaries. 


Congregational Growth

Branches: 3 Groups: 2

The Sri Lanka Branch was created in Colombo in March 1978.  A second branch was created in Colombo in 1998 for Sinhala speaking members.  The first branch created outside Colombo was the Negombo Branch in 2000.[4]  A district was created in Colombo in October 2000.  By the end of 2000, there were three branches in the Colombo Sri Lanka District.  A fourth branch was created in Kandy in 2002.  A group for members in Chilaw began meeting in the 2000s. 


The Sinhala speaking branch in Colombo was discontinued in 2008. The Chilaw Group likely continues to meet. 


Activity and Retention

Retention has suffered during the past decade.  This has likely been partially due to Sri Lanka’s remote location in the Singapore Mission before the mission realignment in late 2007.  Additional congregations have likely not been organized due to poor member activity.  Each of the three branches appear to have over 100 active members, with some branches with as many as 200.  Active members likely number around four hundred, or 30% of total membership.


Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: English, Sinhalese, Tamil

The Book of Mormon is translated into Sinhalese and Tamil.  Limited Church material translations for priesthood, relief society, Sunday School, young women, and primary are available in Sinhala and few leadership, priesthood, Sunday School, and primary materials are available in Tamil.  Both languages have several audiovisual materials translated such as Joy to the World and The Restoration.  No translations of the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price are in Sinhalese or Tamil.  The Liahona has two issues a year for Sinhala and four issues a year for Tamil.



The first Church built meetinghouse was dedicated in December 2001 in Colombo.[5]  An additional meetinghouse was approved by the Asia Area Presidency in the fall of 2009.  Branches in Negombo and Kandy likely meet in rented spaces or renovated buildings.


Health and Safety

Health issues do not pose serious threats to missionaries and are typical for tropical Asian nations with developing economies.  Safety is a concern due to threats and acts of violence against Christian missionaries.  Violence between ethnic groups poses some danger to native and foreign missionaries. 


Humanitarian and Development Work

Humanitarian missionaries began teaching English as a second language in 1982.[6]  A large increase in aid and development projects began following the 2004 tsunami.  Immediately following the tsunami the Church sent first aid, Atmit nutritional suppliments, and clothing.[7]  650 Fishing boats were built with assistance of the Church.  Micro-credit loans were issued to hundreds of women.[8]


Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects


Religious Freedom

The Church enjoys greater religious freedom than many other Asian nations.  Pressures from Buddhists limit religious freedom and may have influenced government to not issue visas to foreign missionaries. There is little government initiative to protect the rights of Christians and prosecute radicals who commit violent acts against religious minorities


Cultural Issues

Those desiring to join the Church give up customs of tea consumptions.  However, rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption are low.  Coverts potentially come from Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or Muslim backgrounds, which challenge the ability of missionaries and local leaders to meet individual needs and teach the gospel to their understanding.  British colonialism has assisted in the Westernization of many which may cause friction between the more educated and less educated Sri Lankans.  Some Christian groups view the Church unfavorably and persuade others to avoid missionaries and members.[9]


National Outreach

The withdrawal of foreign missionaries has reduced much of the Church’s previous outreach.  4% of the national population lives where a congregation is organized.  Only two of the eight provinces have a branch: Western and Central.  With young, foreign missionaries serving for less than a decade, most inhabitants in Colombo, Negombo and Kandy are unaware of the Church’s presence. 


National outreach faces many challenges.  Infrequent visits and few mission resources were allocated when assigned to the Singapore Mission.  Following visas issues and civil war, national outreach has been reduced.  Members have been less successful at producing a local missionary force than many other South Asia nations.  Persecution of Christians and Hindus from Buddhist militants has contributed to the Church’s caution in Sri Lanka in extending outreach into additional areas.  Predominantly Muslim and Hindu areas will be difficult to reach due to hardships experienced during the civil war.  The greatest opportunities for outreach are in the Western Province around Colombo where over five million people live.  Nearby communities have the largest Christian populations in the country.  These areas may be receptive to future outreach. 


High literacy rates can benefit Church outreach through greater printing and distribution of proselytizing materials than currently.  With vision and planning, church literature could be distributed in unreached areas. 


Member Activity and Convert Retention

Before the mid-2000s, member activity was high and convert retention strong.  Rapid membership increase, quick-baptize tactics of foreign missionaries with limited preparation of converts from diverse backgrounds, and distance from mission headquarters in Singapore resulted in worsening activity and convert retention.  The little progress that has been achieved in increasing active membership is evidenced by the dissolution of the Sinhala-speaking branch in 2008 and the lack of any new congregations being organized since 2002 despite the doubling of nominal membership. 


Ethnic Issues and Integration

The most severe persecution and violence has been based on racial differences and not religious differences.  Violence and friction between the Sinhalese and Tamils in the north impede prospects for establishing the Church there.


Language Issues

Both Sinhala and Tamil have a large amount of materials available despite the small size of current Church membership speakers.  Speakers of languages with Church material translations account for over 90% of the population.  Difficulties for foreign missionaries learning both these languages present the greatest linguistic challenges for the Church since missionaries are not guaranteed to stay their entire missions on Sri Lanka.  The Church may experience some difficulty with speakers of both languages meeting in the same congregation when active membership is not large enough to justify the creation of separate congregations for each language.  High literacy benefits the development leadership and activity.  The 46,000 speakers of Sri Lankan Creole Malay are difficult to reach due to the small number of speakers and the adherence of many to Islam. 



Leadership developed early in the Church’s history with a Sri Lankan instated as a first branch president in 1978 and the creation of the first district when only 300 members lived in the country.  As membership growth increased rapidly, leadership growth has not increased commensurately as no congregations have been created.  Sri Lanka’s missionary force is not self-sustaining as evidenced by the rapid decline in growth after foreign missionaries were withdrawn in 2008.



Sri Lanka belongs to the Hong Kong China Temple District.  Temple trips infrequently occur due to distance and financial constraints.  A future temple in India would reduce many of the demands on time, money and distance for Sri Lankan members but would still require considerable sacrifice.


Comparative Growth

Membership growth in Sri Lanka has been slower than average for nations in Asia due to slow growth rates between 1980 and 2000.  Cambodia and Mongolia both experienced more sustained, rapid growth, yet congregations were first established 15 years later than in Sri Lanka.  Pakistan grew from the same number of members in the early 1990s to over 2,500 members in 10 branches and two districts.  Other nations have had very limited growth despite a Church presence for several decades.  Sri Lanka’s membership growth between 2000 and 2008 has been among the most rapid for countries with fewer than 2,000 members, yet there has been little increase in actually church attendance over this period.


Only a few Christian groups experienced sustained, rapid growth, which has slowed recently.  Seventh-Day Adventist growth has been low since 2000 with membership increasing by a couple hundred, although five new congregations have been organized.  The greatest growth has been with Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.  These groups utilize member missionary work and plant churches in new areas. 


Future Prospects

Greater membership and congregational growth will likely not occur until the return of foreign missionaries.  Local leadership and member missionary efforts have not been able to maintain membership growth attained by fulltime missionaries.  Senior missionary couples focus on local leadership development and reactivation efforts.


Branches in Colombo, Negombo and Kandy may divide when growth and member active warrant.  Once there are at least five branches, over 120 active Melchizedek priesthood holders, and 1,800 members a stake may be established, although current trends suggest that this goal is far distant.  Improving convert retention through approaches tailored to the needs of individuals of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and careful preparation of prospective converts to ensure that gospel habits are in place will be crucial to achieving real long-term growth.


[1]  “Sri Lanka,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[2]  “Sri Lanka,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[3]  “Sri Lanka,” LDS Newsroom, retrieved 5 March 2010.

[4] Deseret News 2010 Almanac p.579-80 “Sri Lanka”