Faith matters: a chat with Kirby De Lanerolle
By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Rev. Dr. Kirby de Lanerolle, best known for being the head of the now-famous WOW Life Church, recently came under fire with a number of accusations aimed at him and his doctrine, all sparked by a certain online publication’s posts. Rev. de Lanerolle is no stranger to such claims and has been the subject of media and public scrutiny on a number of occasions in the past.
Chief Overseer of the Apostolic Diocese of Ceylon (ADC) and current Coordinator for Free and Independent Churches in Sri Lanka to the Ministry of Christian Religious Affairs, Rev. de Lanerolle shared that he was ordained as Chief Overseer by Bishop Paul T. Maran, the Head of Indian National Apostolic Diocese (INAD), the largest government-sanctioned diocese for free churches in India with close to 20,000 churches. Rev. de Lanerolle and the ADC currently episcopate over 600 churches.
We spoke to Rev. de Lanerolle on the recent news and also tried to get into the crux of his widely discussed miracles, prophesies, and breatharianism.
The online publication’s article containing U.S. minister and author J. Lee Grady’s statements warning against “Un-Biblical, New-Age Doctrine” – all of which was primarily targeting Rev. Kirby and his teachings, is what seems to have started the social media frenzy. The article referred to a certain Sri Lankan Methodist minister who had preached an expository sermon on the book of Jude, where he exhorted his congregation to be aware and resist misleading doctrines being taught. He allegedly further went on to warn the congregation about Rev Kirby, his wife and their church teachings.
Q: Why would you say these statements are being made against you and what is your response to all these claims against you and your doctrine?
I was part of the Methodist Church, my parents were Methodist and my grandfather was a very renowned Methodist priest.
We’ve been having religious debates for nearly 500 years in our family, the old guard has always challenged something new, the way we are interpreting the Bible and those of the reformed religion when the reformation happened with the Catholic church in the 1500’s and then the people protested, so much so that there are 41 thousand denominations in the world today.
Reformation was not one incident, it’s happened over time and the reason why there are 41 thousand denominations is because everyone’s interpretation is different.
I am absolutely open to sit with the theologians. I am qualified myself, I have a degree in Theology and I have two honorary doctorates.
I am a protestant, much like the Methodist Church and I come from the Methodist Church and it’s normal in Christianity that we progress to try our best to look more like Jesus, although my personal take is that the church is not looking anything like him at the moment.
This conflict is not so much to do with theology as it is to do with church politics.
What most are unaware of is that I met with the party in question together with the ADC Leadership Board amongst others just two weeks before the sermon was given. The meeting was in the spirit of trying to build relationship and to avoid duplication of roles on the field.
I thought the meeting went well and a good start to reconciliation between the ADC and parties present. We came to an agreement that the ADC would reconcile back to them any churches that have come under the ADC governance that were originally theirs.
Furthermore it was also decided and agreed to set a date to discuss theology and any questions and concerns .
Hence, needless to say, I was disappointed when I first heard the sermon in question given subsequently to this meeting.
Q: Your past has been a point of contention. Could you share with us what your childhood was like and what led you to this calling?
I attended S. Thomas’ Prep, didn’t get to college, left school, and did everything. Ten years of partying with my wife. I really was not Christian per se, but then I had an experience with Jesus.
I was in the UK around the time Princess Diana passed away; I had a very powerful encounter with Jesus which caused me to repent and change my ways. When I first decided I was going to give my life over to the Lord, it most naturally occurred to me that in order to lead that life, I should be a priest.
I partied quite a bit, but I managed to get clean. Then, I joined a number of Charismatic denominations looking to serve – this was around the time my parents left the Methodist Church.
In a good way, Charismatic churches are trending more because people believe in gifts, miracles, and healing, which is why they are called Charismatic churches, and us being Methodist, it was somewhat of the old guard we joined to serve.
Q: Surely one does not wake up one day and become a priest, what went into establishing WOW life as a religious body in the island?
Bishop Rev. Dr. Neil Obeyesekere ordained me as a Pastor to serve, Neil is from Dubai and that is also a problem to the local churches.
In the beginning, we didn’t go to the local churches, maybe that was an offence, maybe if I had more of a relationship with local churches, things would’ve been better; anyway we started WOW.
We’re not very Evangelical, and when we started WOW initially we kept it within our friends. I was a young pastor and I didn’t want to go public and open the door to everyone else. I knew in my heart what it did for me and I wanted to share it with my friends and family.
And at the time, there was talk of why WOW was so secretive and it was because we simply couldn’t open our doors without going through the proper avenues.
When it comes to establishing a religious body in Sri Lanka, despite calling ourselves a democracy, we cannot go to an authority, maybe a ministry and say I’ve got my qualifications as a pastor – which is what Neil said to me, to get qualified first before you open your doors, however it is not that accessible.
We understood that we needed the right licensing to do this right; so how does a free church start up in this country? They all have the same problem that I had – I worked for the government for a while so I understood how governmental bodies work and so, I worked out how to get myself licensed – the license afforded me the right to ordain, this was when we finally opened our doors.
Q: You started with WOW Life Church, which is one of the free churches. You are also the Chief Overseer of the ADC. How did the ADC come about?
Despite having the license with the right to ordain, it is not considered a religion on a local government level. Only the main lines are considered as religions – Catholic, Anglicans, Methodists, and Baptists.
There are thousands of free churches in Sri Lanka whose fundamental rights are severely challenged. For instance, one basic thing is that in the North and East, they cannot bury their dead in a public cemetery. What happens when a free church tries to bury their dead in a public cemetery is that the people in the area will take the body and desecrate it or forcefully bury the dead in their religion.
The second is that we can’t get our Charismatic children from a free church into public schools because they ask for a mainline letter and because we aren’t allowed the necessary licenses; even if I want to rent someplace as an independent free church, it’s difficult. Evidently, we’re tremendously challenged.
And so, this is where Bishop (Retd.) Rev. Dr. Paul. T. Maran comes in; his idea was to bring all these free independent churches under the same umbrella, under the same governing structure in Sri Lanka, which is now the ADC.
Out of the thousands of free churches, about 600 come under the ADC, currently representing about 150,000 people, making us one of the largest Christian denominations in the island.
Q: Overseeing such a large body, how do you operate in terms of problem solving?
To be sensitive, I must say start with saying we do not get any foreign funding; up until this point how things have worked is that when both aligned and free churches get persecuted they would run to a foreign agency who then applies pressure on the government – that affects our credit points when Sri Lanka gets loans as a country.
For me, Christianity has been in this country for two thousand years, we are stakeholders, we are sons of the soil as much as the Buddhists and I don’t think we should resort to external forces, we should try to sort these things out internally.
How I deal with issues internally is on a grassroots level. I will go to the police, the pradeshiya sabha, sit in on council meetings or with the priests in the temple and so I have avoided, wherever possible, registering issues with the police as church attacks.
The problem comes because a lot of people do not like that I’m doing this, I’m not conversion based, Jesus is not contending with your religion; he’s contending with your heart, he wants to be your heart god. I only want to illuminate one’s love for Jesus in their hearts.
Q: The Easter Sunday attacks, while shaking the foundation of our nation, was particularly difficult on the country’s Christian community, what does it look like for the free churches post attack, how have things changed?
After the 21st Easter attacks, the government put out a circular saying that all religious places need to be registered.
Initially, my personal take was that in a democratic country, churches should not have to register with the government, cos it is separate church and state; why does the government need to be involved? But after the attacks, I have changed my stance on this, I think it is a good thing that churches get registered with the government, however a lot of the free churches don’t take up this view.
I’ve been made the coordinator for Ministry of Christian Affairs not because I have any kind of government affiliations; it is simply because we are the largest Christian group and it’s normal to appoint me as I oversee a lot of their issues.
My model with my free churches is to train them how to live in a multi-ethnic multi religious community and how to be a servant and my take is that if you serve people they will love you and will not want you to leave.
So, I am doing this training but it takes a long time for the pastors to really understand because they come from a different mindset; now these are things that people call cultish, because it doesn’t fall into their way of Christianity.
Q: In the online publication as well as even before that, there were constant discussions about the miracles you performed; there are clips of instant weight loss, gold dust, diamonds, and even phones charging supernaturally – by way of ‘miracles’. What are these miracles and why are they necessary?
I’d like to bring in a little bit of science when I explain this because that is how best people can understand. It might seem like pseudoscience to some.
A big problem in itself has been when I said: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” And how I explain this is that every word carries vibrations and the frequencies of the love of God, because for me, God is the word as mentioned in the Bible, but he’s not a vibration or frequency – he is greater than that. But there is a wave – the frequency of love. Love feels like something and it affects us, and I believe that healings and miracles are all part of God’s love for us. He loves us so much that he doesn’t want us to get sick or be deceased.
Miracles happen because I believe where there is great love, there are great miracles which show God’s love, and if I can build faith, it is to believe in the fact that God loves me.
There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus has to pay taxes and he sends someone out and gets the coin from the fish’s mouth, from that understanding of it, I believe that God can supernaturally give us money. He can make us resourceful.
Those days he used to supply fish, and bread but from today’s point of view, there’s no point in a whole lot of fish in today’s times.
Personally, miracles are supposed to be there to build faith, you are not supposed to live off miracles.
When people are broken and they come to WOW — I do not like the word sinners but basically people who are believed to be bad like I used to be myself — when such persons see gold dust in their hands and they ask ‘how is that happening?’ and I can say you know what maybe God loves you that much and you are worthy, it builds their faith.
Especially if you talk about healing, that is ‘signs and wonders’ you see that someone was healed of a terminal illness you build faith, so it’s just a stepping stone. Jesus Christ is about miracles, and for me if you don’t have miracles, it’s not Jesus.
Q: Are they on command?
No, I don’t believe God will give anyone that power, but it is on request. A heartfelt prayer to God can cause something. People ask me ‘why not me?’ and I say, it’s because you don’t ask. These signs and wonders give faith.
For example, the phone battery charging, it is reflective of my relationship with God because I spend time being childlike with God, I’ll be playing around on my phone and ask God, it would be really great if this could just be charged, and it has happened.
Our imagination is how God talks to us, I’m creative but I’m not very ambitious with such a big imagination and I like to have fun, and the Bible talks of how you cannot enter the kingdom of God without being like a child and so my childlikeness is what causes these specific miracles.
I have done a tremendous amount of healing, but I have also asked for fun things. If you look at Jesus’s first miracle, he turned water into wine, surely in a wedding there were people who needed healing but what he did was a fun thing and it shows the nature of our God. He’s a loving father who wants to enjoy things with his children.
Q: What about the prophecies? There are instances where you claim to have predicted certain events, especially with regard to the political changes in the country, and yet your messages are spoken in riddles. Why is that?
I hear it like that. The funny thing about God is that the way he speaks to me is like he asks questions from me. It’s always the way he speaks to us – he asks questions and when we answer, there’s a revelation.
“If there’s a prophet among you, I’ll speak to you in dreams and visions. But to Moses, I speak face to face and not in riddles and visions.” And most of the time, I see things and I have to interpret it.
When I am prophesying, I have to get it right; I have to build their faith because if you get it wrong, they call you a false prophet. We’ve helped locate lost children, but the Bible says: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” So, God reveals a bit and you prophesise, and I believe I’ve grown in accuracy over time.
You look at the Book of Revelation in the Bible and you wonder what this man is talking about, but what you need to do is intepret it.
Q: Can you explain to us the practice of breatharianism and fasting?
I ran half a marathon after three months of fasting – I was on a juice fast for two months and thought of pushing it a little bit more in the last month – and that’s when I started believing in autophagy, the mechanism of cannibalisation of cells that won the Nobel Prize a couple of years ago. It states that we have enough fat in our body to last us months, even if you are slim and your fat percentage is around 11-15%. So, when I started fasting, I also started to understand the different kinds of energy the body has.
We shared our genuine story with NatGeo and when the final edit came, which was out of our hands to make any changes, it was sensationalised.
I did make a correction – what I do is I engage in juice fasting for long periods of time, which I’ve been doing for eight years – this is now a normal practice. But those days, it was called “breatharian” and was unheard of. Now, of course, we’ve progressed and it is normal. There’s intermittent fasting too, but when we were doing it then, we were being tormented.
I am the “happy breatharian”, but that is like a fun brand name because breatharians are sad. But I say I am redefining “breatharianism” on my Facebook page too.
I like to eat light. Even on my page, I share things like how I take just about 600 calories a day, how I go to my favourite places to eat when I get hungry, and how I eat after a certain number of days. The fact of the matter is that I prefer to restrict my calorie intake; 2,500 calories a day? Who told you that? We sit at a computer all day and we don’t use that much of energy.
Q: Why do you do it?
Calorie restriction helps you with long life, which is available science; that is that it reduces body temperature which is a main thing in increased longevity. It is a very insignificant amount when you look at the measurement but it compounds when it is done for years and the other one, it reduces your metabolism which is also anti-aging and helps in longevity.
Some parts of Christianity think that it is vanity but to me I do not think that it is vanity, it is a very healthy thing to do and I think everyone needs to find out exactly how many calories they need to eat.
I don’t put it on anyone else, of course I take the church through fasts at different times but not everyone is supposed to do it like I do, in fact I tell them you decide what your fast is, because some are fasting chocolate, soups or cigarettes.
Patience is such a godly attribute, self-control is a fruit of the spirit and I think it’s absolutely important to help us spiritually and help us focus.
Q: WOW Life Church is somewhat known for its more affluent followers. There is an accusation that you are lining your pockets with the wealth of your followers. What are your thoughts?
This fact that my churches have wealthy followers is not wholly true. The ADC has some of the poorest marginalised persons. We have a widows’ fund. We conduct programmes with Ven. Narada where we feed over a hundred children a day. There’s another project named “The Nelli Tree” that provided for children whose parents are addicts and prostitutes, and we make sure those children are educated and taken good care of.
These 600 churches under the ADC have needs and they need to be looked after. So, I think it’s accurate to say that a larger part of our churches are those who require aid and WOW Life Church helps those people; millions go to the people, not just the churches, it goes to support those in need.
So yes, we have wealthy people and what we have is going towards the wellbeing of these churches and not to me. I have my own companies because I was a businessman before I got here.
It’s plain to see where the money goes and I don’t think intelligent people will donate to a place where there’s no accountability. I have a board in ADC consisting of much-known figures. There’s also a leadership team for WOW and they are the ones who know and assign where the funds need to be allocated.
Q: If we briefly focus on your lifestyle, for a man living the life of faith, some say that you live one that is lavish and comfortable. What are your thoughts?
According to the eastern religious understandings, you separate and remove yourself from the luxuries of the world, which is actually beautiful, and there are seasons in my life where I do that too. However, the Christian concept is that you stay in the world, untouched or fazed by it.
Q: Finally, let’s discuss the topic of theology. You have been accused of being unbiblical. What is your response to this?
People are looking for something more progressive, even in the music. I love hymns in the Methodist revival – John Wesley, Charles Wesley – but people of this era like to have a little bit of beat. I even have a beat boxer in my church and they rap, you know. The music is different; it connects with younger generations.
I just want to be relevant. I don’t have to submit my doctrine to other denominations; there are 41,000 of them, but my denomination has to approve it and I have done that. Also, Bishop Rev. Dr. Paul T. Maran has gone through it and signed off on it along with Dr. Rev. Neil Obeyesekere.
Photo: Saman Abesiriwardana