Simon Chan’s insightful book Grassroots Asian Theology upends Western theological presuppositions and invites one to consider the gift of indigenous theologies birthed and nurtured at the margins. While his observations are frequently surprising for the Western reader, in no way is Chan attempting to be heretical. Indeed, because he speaks from the fringes, his voice is a prophetic call to consider legitimate ways of relating to God. Because his theologies are informed from non-Western contexts, it may take the Western reader a leap of faith to engage significantly with his work. Doing so is worth her while.
In many ways as I read this book, I found resonance with how Asian theological development at the grassroots can help to preserve and advance orthodoxy in our global Church. In fact, as postmodernism continues to corrode the foundations of Western thought, we may indeed find relief in the orthodox expressions of faith being nurtured on the margins in places like Mumbai, Sapporo, and Shanghai. These places where Christianity lies at the margins of social acceptability allows fruitfulness to emerge over time without the pressures of conforming to the cultural status quo which often is infected with assumptions that are more cultural than rooted in the original gospel narrative.
Asian theologies chafe against the starting points of Western modes of understanding the gospel. Western theologies are rooted in the value of the individual as made in the image of God. Western egalitarianism pushes against hierarchy and the unique role of priestly presence. With our Enlightenment-fuelled orientation, we also appeal to reason. Law, guilt, and punishment are key themes in soteriology. Many of the key themes of the gospel are found to be tainted with Western cultural assumptions.
In many ways Chan’s thesis counters James Davison Hunter’s belief that the elites are the generators and upholders of culture. While Hunter would claim that culture is changed through influencing Western centres of power, Chan introduces a more robust viewpoint that roots itself at the margins rather than at the centre. While we listen to the voices of secularity to inform the relevance of our outreach, Chan would encourage us to spend time with grassroots women and men of faith who struggle to love Jesus and live out His love from places far removed from the centres.
We often begin our theologizing with the current, contextual problem at hand: poverty, or inequality, or powerlessness, for example. Each of these frequently begins with one’s personal and individual poverty, inequality, and powerlessness. This is an attitude based upon one’s rights, which is a Western construct foreign to Asia. In the West, I alone am at the centre. In Asia, with the understanding of the value of extended family and kinship structures, one already has available a sense of living for the broader good.
Chan states: “Much of the theologies undertaken by contextual theologians have generally failed to take ecclesial experience into serious consideration.” What Chan encourages, however, is alignment toward a theology that begins with the church. We are the Body of Christ, and consideration of our purpose and identity as being bigger than oneself becomes self-evident.
Chan quotes an unnamed Latin American theologian who states that “[A] theology that ignores the grassroots is not likely to go very far.” Throughout the book he highlights the frequent ways we pay attention to the elites rather than listen to the underdogs of society. One’s theology should also listen before speaking. Consider Arvind P. Nirmal, an Indian theologian who specialized in Dalit theology, a theology of the lowest castes of the sub-continent. He “regards Jesus as a Dalit, whose dalitness was seen in his identification with the poor and outcast and in his suffering in the hands of the religious elite, including Christian elite! This is why Nirmal and other Dalit theologians are highly critical of liberation theologies expounded by the elite who are not often victims of oppression.” Though liberation theology frequently presupposes it speaks for the oppressed, it is doing so from a theoretical, elite space rather than the brutal lived reality of the grassroots.
Theologian Anh Tran critiques Chan for not defining the difference between elite and grassroots, stating: A major criticism of the book is that the line dividing “elitist” and “grassroots” theologies is not as clearly demarcated as [Chan] supposes; each side has made important contributions to theological discourses. [Chan’s] preference for Karl Barth over Paul Tillich, or Watchman Nee over C. S. Song, reflects his theological orientation rather than giving a fair assessment of these “elitist” theologians, furthermore, [Chan’s] claim that the “hierarchy” of church and family found in Asian cultures is more nearly biblical may pose a problem for those who support a “Western” egalitarianism of discipleship.
Chris Flanders likewise states in Missiology that: “[I]t is not at all clear what makes Wan Ming Dao, Paul Yonggi Cho, or Watchman Nee “non-elite.” The distinction Chan uses to ground this provocative work seems more about theological position (evangelical/Pentecostal versus liberal/mainline) than elite–non-elite.” Conflating evangelical/Pentecostal with non-elite and liberal/mainline with elite broadly stereotypes both groups.
Despite these legitimate critiques, this book is a call for Westerners to humbly listen to other voices, outside the mainstream, and to pay attention to how theologies from the margins can enhance, shape and restructure our own ideas of God and the church in our world. For Christian philanthropists, who come from a place of power and who are learning to surrender, these are important lessons. As I read, there emerged contributions which Asian theologies make to the global church, that would inform and empower all of us as we live out faithful presence. Adapting these into our understanding of Gospel will be enriching to all.
 Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 18.
 Chan, 72.
 Chan, 101.
 Anh Q. Tran, “Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up.” Theological Studies 76, no. 2 (2015): 394+. Academic OneFile (accessed May 31, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A415323327/AONE?u=newb64238&sid=AONE&xid=509c2245.
 Chris Flanders, “Book Review: Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up.” Missiology 43, no. 3 (July 1, 2015): 347–48. Accessed May 31, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091829615578796g.