Francis Sunderaraj, an Indian evangelical leader who prioritized spiritual education and ministry to lay Christians, died last month at the age of 85.
As head of the Christian education department of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), Sunderaraj developed India’s most popular Sunday school curriculum. It has been translated into 32 languages and dialects.
In his opinion, “training the laity, in general, preparing them to be workers of the Lord in society is a tremendous ministry,” said Saphir Athyal, a longtime friend.
The curriculum is also credited with fostering a sense of a unified Indian evangelical identity. It distinguished evangelicals from liberal Christians and gave them direction and focus.
“Education is absolutely essential to the growth of the Church,” wrote Sunderaraj. “Our focus must always be on building the Kingdom of God.”
Sunderaraj was born on 7 April 1937 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, into a middle-class Anglican family. He sang in the choir and served as an altar boy but struggled to live his faith as seriously as he wanted to.
When Sunderaraj was 17 years old, he attended a meeting of Christ for Youth where a priest from England shared the gospel. Sunderaraj was convicted and gave himself to Christ, believing that Jesus “could make my life meaningful in this world, if only by faith I surrendered to Him”.
Despite his conversion experience, Sunderaraj continued to struggle in his 20s.
“Although outwardly I was participating in the worship service, inwardly I was in a desperate state,” he later wrote. “Despaired at the frustrating inconsistency I was experiencing in my spiritual life and the lack of direction about my future.”
An American-born Methodist tutor pointed out that this too was a problem he had to give up. The pastor stated in 1 Thessalonians 5:24: “He who calls you is faithful, and will do it.” The words stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Sunderaraj became a chemist in 1957. He felt called to the ministry, but he had to support his family. He took a job in a paint manufacturer in Chennai and was later transferred to Kolkotta. After five years on the job, however, he saw that he could no longer ignore the call to the ministry.
“I was restless inside and had a sense of guilt,” she wrote. “I cried out to God saying, ‘God, you know that my intention is not to leave you and my parents. But as you know, I could not resist your call. … I give you only myself.”
Sunderaraj studied at Union Biblical Seminary in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, and then received a scholarship from the World Council of Churches to attend Princeton Theological Seminary.
He said his understanding of ministry was shaped by the challenges of teachers from different perspectives. He was convinced of the “importance and necessity of holistic ministry,” including evangelism and social action.
“That is what we find in the life of Jesus,” he said.
Sunderaraj was also heavily influenced by classic Christian films including Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments and The Robe. He was amazed at the way they nurtured their faith.
“God used these films in part to lead us step by step into this glorious relationship and fellowship with Him,” he said.
After graduating from seminary, Sunderaraj moved to Malaysia and pastored a Methodist church serving the large Indian diaspora, including migrant workers who tapped rubber from the trees. As part of Sunderaraj’s first ministerial assignment, he drove a Volkswagen Beetle from site to site, meeting with community members.
The systemic economic problems faced by migrant workers convinced them more than ever of the importance of holistic ministry. His concern for the people led him to evaluate the conditions in which they were living. And thinking about the history of exploitation reminded him of the importance of evangelism.
“I started to realize that we live in a fallen world and there is a lot of injustice and the reason is something else. So I have to present the gospel to them,” he said.
Sunderaraj later led a Tamil congregation in Kuala Lumpur and returned to India in 1978 to work on EFI’s education program. He made the Sunday school curriculum a top priority.
“Dr. Sunderaraj was a ‘people leader’,” said Leela Manasseh, who worked alongside Sunderaraj for many years. “He loved to relate to and care for children, youth and adults from all walks of life. … He loved his Bible-based, Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered, people-oriented ministry.”
In 1984 he was the head of the EFI and in 1994 he was the general secretary of the Asian Evangelical Fellowship. He worked in that position until 2001.
She promoted women to decision-making positions and strove to strengthen the identity of evangelicals in India and Asia.
“He really brought together and organized evangelical organizations to have a common vision,” said John B. Samuel, an evangelical leader and Sunderaraj’s son-in-law. “Evangelicals really lost their sense of direction.”
The General Secretary of the World Evangelical Association said in a statement that he could always relate to Sunderaraj because of his Methodist approach and his deep commitment to building the kingdom of God.
Thomas Schirrmacher said in a statement: “Many holy men and women of global stature have served on the WEA International Board over the years. Dr. Sunderaraj was one of them… who epitomized the passion for the world mission of Asia and India in the best possible way.”
Sunderaraj is survived by his wife, Sheila Bhanu; daughter, Mallika Ruth; and son, Vinodh Samuel.