Working together, missionaries and national churches have established the indigenous church principle as the basic philosophy of the Assemblies of God in Latin America. This practice has served the church well and has produced new national churches, which, since their inception, have developed with the goal of becoming independent, in other words self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-propagating. The church owes much to the founders that began with a concept that rejected the permanent dependence and childhood of other missionary models. Nevertheless, the model has at least one defect. It does not include the goal of producing a self-theologizing church.
The Apostle Paul was the first theologian precisely because he was the first missionary. Although we can notice the theological development of his message, the gospel which Paul proclaimed did not change, but in each situation Paul applied the kernel of the message to a new context. His theology was always the biblical response to local situations. In other words, all theology should be a local product.
The development of a local theology happens in at least three distinct stages. During the first stage, the missionary translates materials that he or she has brought from his or her own country. As a first step, there is no other option. While the new culture continues to be unknown, the translation of materials, which have produced good results in his or her passport culture, is the best that anyone can expect from the missionary. The missionary starts with the kernel of the gospel, which he or she supposes to be super-cultural, with the goal to peel back the outer layer of culture and find a situation pertinent in the culture to receive the message.
Nevertheless, the foreigner makes various false suppositions. The first assumption is that the missionary can separate the kernel from the husk, liberating the message of the culture without harm to either. Second, the missionary assumes that cultures are structurally and even essentially the same. This leads to the idea that translation is an adequate method of communicating. The final assumption is that it is easy to understand the other culture. As a result, the effort to understand the new culture ends when the missionary thinks that he or she has come to understand it. Often, many years can pass before the culture that receives the missionary arrives at the same conclusion.
The second stage begins as translation ends, and adaptation begins. Now the new church learns the methods of the missionary church and national leaders appear. All affirm the goal to disciple a national church that functions independently from missionary activity, but the church considers the student prepared when he or she has learned the theology translated in the first stage. Few mention the need to produce a local and indigenous theology. Frequently, the national leaders themselves are those that criticize any attempt to produce a contextualization of the theology. The theology that arises from this model mentions the categories, names, and concerns of the local culture but looks like the western church that sent the missionaries. What results is a theology that is easy to understand for the missionary but that does not always touch the pertinent themes of the local culture. The best of this stage is the indigenous church. The worst of this stage is the production of a church under the authority of national leaders with a doctrine, adequate for the missionary, but that does not direct itself at the fundamental questions of the local culture.
Instead of the development of an indigenous theology, the new church looks for the way to make itself competent in the academic context of the church of the missionary. Figuratively, they desire a chair at the academic table of the church that sent them missionaries, but even though they are given a seat, the table remains the property of the missionary culture. It is now common to meet Developing World theologians. However, they are obliged to participate in a theological conversation of a foreign origin, and a foreign methodology. They now have a seat at the table, but often their only participation is as the expert theologian of Latin, African, or Asian subjects. What is convenient about this is that now, all of the theologians speak the same language and for the missionary it is easier to understand, but, although there is an attempt to produce a local theology, it is expressed in terms imposed from outside.
In Latin America, missionaries have handed over the keys of the institutions and the forms of ministry to the national leadership. In this sense, they have fulfilled the goal of the indigenous church. Nevertheless, in many national movements tradition is very important. To change something that the founders of the church taught or established is almost heresy. We might add something to the current models, but taking away something is generally negative. I am concerned that we have only handed over the keys. The forms are still foreign. The theology is not indigenous; it is foreign and from another century. We have not yet reached the third stage.
I wonder, is now the time for us to allow the church to read the Scriptures for themselves? Is it possible for us to change our theology from that of a closed system to be memorized to that of a dynamic one that maintains the integrity of its message but touches the pertinent themes of the culture to which it speaks?