My experience has been to listen to people
inside the Churches. Often, when
they first speak of God, it is in words and phrases from the liturgy, or from
sermons. But when these are
explored in more depth, what they seem to mean to the speakers is something very
personal. Rarely is it the
orthodoxy of the Churches’ official statements.
More usually it is an eclectic collection of beliefs and principles
grounded in experience.
Versions of Arianism and Pelagianism are
commonplace. Jesus might be called
divine, but he is often thought of as a super-special creature.
He is not really man, in any recognisable sense, nor is he God (the
Father). Also, it is those who do
good who go to heaven.
These beliefs are held illicitly. Church members recognise that they are theological
contraband, so it takes some time to discover them.
The question for Western missionaries is
whether we correct them or affirm them. My
inclination is to the latter – what authority do we have for the former?
And this, it seems, is the essence of contemporary mission.
For example, a church group wanted to
produce a booklet about baptism for unchurched parents and godparents. They began with the usual stuff, the symbolism of water and
light illustrating new birth in the family of the Church. But further discussion revealed a different agenda: they
wanted to say that their Church was a friendly place, where people could feel
comfortable – this was their theology of baptism. It was not an addition to the notion of new birth and the
symbolism of light and water, but instead of it.
So, affirming the notion of welcome, rather
than new birth, as the appropriate, or even legitimate, theology of baptism
would be an example of contemporary missiology.