Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World


Written by: on May 7, 2015

This week, Who Needs Theology by Grenz and Olsen came to mind.  I was reminded if their concerns that Christian theology in the West could deteriorate into a “mere ‘folk religion’ (unreflective believing based on blind faith in a tradition of some kind), relegated to the realms of sheer subjectivity and emptied of public credibility.”1  But then the thought came to mind, “what if ‘folk religion’ at the grass-roots is actually where the most accessible, practical and meaningful theology should be undertaken?”  I think Simon Chan would lean in that direction.

Chan notes how “elitist” theologians construct theologies about “the poor and marginalized — the Dalits and Minjung — (yet) seldom do we find views of the grassroots themselves being taken seriously; rather, what we see is how the theologian views the grassroots and how they might fit in to the theologian’s grand scheme of things.”2  I can’t help but connect those dots back to Grenz and Olsen and those that they represent, you know, people like me?  Do they represent “elitist” theologians?  Those that stand outside of another culture and theologize about them?  Is that the best we can offer?

I’m also thinking of another famous Chan, one named Francis.  His story is well-known so I don’t need to rehash it here but what is important is to look at the steps he took to engage in real, public, practical theology…  He moved in.  He moved from the comfort and prestige of white suburbia where social outreach meant giving from his surplus to “those people” and “theology from below” meant watching the movements of the underclass — the American “Dalit” — as they mire through the filth of life…  He became a grass-roots, American theologian.

My understanding (seen through the lenses of my functional hermeneutic) of Matthew chapter 16 demands that I become a practical, public theologian from right where I am positioned in life.  My understanding of God has to be shaped within the context of the people, the communities, where he has placed me.  We, Jesus’ ekklesia are called from the communities man to act on behalf of those communities.  How can I best act on behalf of my community if I don’t first come to understand how the people of this community see God?  I don’t think I am called to leave my land and move into the ghetto, no, I think I’m just supposed to begin to more diligently look to my surroundings and allow my theology to be shaped within that context…  At the grassroots.


1. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God. (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1996). 10, 27.

2. Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: a Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), Kindle Location 265.


About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

12 responses to “Grassroots”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Jon….Way to go back to the Fall and connect Grenz and Olson. My brain gets so muddled I hardly remember we even read that book. Nice work. (-:

    And I love your question, ““what if ‘folk religion’ at the grass-roots is actually where the most accessible, practical and meaningful theology should be undertaken?” You followed that question up with good illustrations and the challenge that all of us can do grassroots theology without the need to physically move but to just start in our communities.

    As I think through a “grassroots theology” in my own backyard this book (any many this year) have helped me see my own biases. I’m really seeing the importance of the need to understand other cultures theologies while uniquely engaging in my community/culture. Thanks for articulating this well.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Nick, it seems that you may have unearthed one possible pitfall of grassroots theology… Biases! Perhaps this is a good reason to have a healthy back and forth between the academy and the field when it comes to theological innovations?

  2. Dave Young says:

    Jon, Loved it. Francis Chan as a grassroots theologian – what a great connection. Also appreciated the comparison with Grenz and Olson – the disparaging light that was cast on folk religion by the G&O vs the esteem given the grassroots by Chan. Excellent catch. I’m also impressed that what we need to see again is another recasting of the church as a grassroots movement in America. Back to Asia for a moment, and at the risk of sounding elitist, SE Asia (parts of Asia) doesn’t have theological resources (books, seminaries, theologians) that is widely available in the West and in certain Asian countries (like Singapore). Therefore while, I’m excited about what God is doing in Asia with grassroots and folk religion – it’s easily twisted. For example the prosperity gospel… We need the passion, and the movement like nature of the grassroots, but we also need the help of theologians like Chan, Grenz and Olson

  3. Mary says:

    Can I stand up in church as you preach it shouting “amen, amen, amen?!!!” Let’s all be the public, practical seeker of God who lives in the midst of it all – the glory and the pain. Then, in humility, we will have the words (or perhaps no words which might be better) to explain the encounter that’s not only based on emotion, but also on the foundation of God’s incarnation message.
    Love the connection to Grenz and Olson. Did I already tell you the story of my encounter with Grenz? From that experience, I can’t say he was an “elitist” since he so desperately wanted people to know God, not just know about God. Curious thought tho’.

  4. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Great connection. I see this at play so often in our own churches. To often, people go to church on Sunday mornings to hear preaching that doesn’t have anything to do with their daily life experience. Sometimes I think that people view preachers as foreign. When we don’t connect, it is often due to lacking authenticity and experience. I think that Chan was trying to say (although much nicer!) that talk is cheap.

  5. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, Great thinking and cross referencing to Grenz and Olsen. I think your line, “But then the thought came to mind, “what if ‘folk religion’ at the grass-roots is actually where the most accessible, practical and meaningful theology should be undertaken?” resonates. I believe that to be the greatest question or point being posed by Chan. The value of experiencing God as he is revealing himself to a person or culture seems like the best basis to for theological reflection and formation. Again to reiterate another theme in several of our posts . . . it seems like keeping theology simple is much more preferable than complex, heavy and burdensome dogma. 🙂

  6. Travis Biglow says:

    Jon, you are correct. I believe God has in places to be a blessing there. Some people what to go to the ghetto to seem like they really care and a lot of time they go for the wrong reason. Even with us getting education on high level is for a purpose of God. Every preached does not get that opportunity. Amen

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