Simon Chan, a theologian living in Singapore, is convinced that most theologians these days are out of touch with the spiritual needs of grassroots Christian communities. In Grassroots Asian Theology, his focus is on Asian Christianity, but he is also concerned with larger questions about the way we do theology. Several times, he cites an unnamed Catholic theologian who observed that, in Latin America, “Liberation theology opted for the poor, and the poor has opted for Pentecostalism.” That comment, Chan argues, also nicely captures the state of theology in Asia. Evangelical theologians, both Western and Asian, have failed to equip local believers with the kind of robust theology that resonates strongly within their own communities.
The disconnect is largely due, in Chan’s account, to ingrained theological habits among “elite” theologians. When thinking about Asia, they typically focus on a particular cultural factor, stressing the necessity of working for political and economic justice, or for addressing the oppressiveness of patriarchy, or for engaging other religions in dialogue. If local Christian communities do not see those approaches as meeting their needs, these theologians assume, it is because they are victimized by “bad faith.” Grassroots believers, then, need to be brought to an awareness of the realities that actually plague their lives.
The reality is, however, that grassroots Christians in Asia have a profound grasp of their own situation, though their impressions differ sharply from those of “elite” theologies. These believers seek out church communities in which these cultural realities are taken seriously in the light of the gospel. And the most common expression of these communities is charismatic and Pentecostal in nature.
Asia’s “Middle Zone”
How, then, can evangelical theologians can best serve these communities? Chan’s solution calls to mind the wonderful phrase made popular in the 19th century by Cardinal John Henry Newman: the sensus fidelium, or “the sense of the faithful.” To discern the core concerns of grassroots Christian communities in Asia, we must engage (as Chan’s subtitle puts it) in “thinking the faith from the ground up.”This means getting inside the perspective of Asia’s local church communities, rather than imposing an outside perspective.
Following the lead of evangelical missiologists Paul Hiebert, Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou, Chan observes that Asian believers live spiritually in the “middle zone”—a region of engagement falling between topics of “high theology” (the Trinity, Christ’s atonement, the end times) and questions of modern science. Local communities live within “the realm of spirits, demons, and witch doctors,” struggling daily with issues of fertility, economic well-being, familial relations, health, and relations with “the living dead.”