Book Review: Deep Church

“Deep Church, a Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional” by Jim Belcher provides an insightful analysis of the ongoing and often contentious confrontation between these two poles of evangelical Christianity.  With a great deal of sympathy and sensitivity he explores major areas of conflict, and describes a third approach called the “Deep Church”, which he feels maximizes the best of each pole, while eliminating that from each camp that is undesirable.   Additionally his postulation attempts to glean some important aspects of the ancient church which he feels are fundamental components of the deep church.  A prime example of this “third way” is the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, which he has pioneered, and up until recently has been the senior pastor.

The first portion of the book begins with autobiographical anecdotes of his spiritual pilgrimage, especially related to his time in seminary (Fuller) and graduate school (Georgetown), during which he had contact with some who have become major players in the Emerging Church (EC) landscape, including Rob Bell.  He describes new approaches he encountered to Christian community, some of which met needs that had not been dealt with in his earlier life with Christians: there was something “out there” that he had not found in his traditional roots.

He goes on to describe the Emerging Church, and does so in part by outlining seven areas of protest against the traditional church.  Later, in the second portion of the book, he will describe the “Deep Church” response to each of these critiques:

  EC Protest Deep Church Response
1 Captivity to Enlightenment rationalism Deep Truth
2 A narrow view of salvation Deep Evangelism
3 Belief before belonging Deep Gospel
4 Uncontexualized worship Deep Worship
5 Ineffective preaching Deep Preaching
6 Weak ecclesiology Deep Ecclesiology
7 Tribalism Deep Culture

 

In the final chapter of the first portion of the book, Dr. Belcher explores the quest for a deep Christianity.  He clearly places himself in the “doctrine-friendly” arena, and proposes some ancient creeds that all Christians should agree upon as being what Stott calls the “unity of the gospel”; these include the Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.  He further proposes a second tier of doctrine in which differences can occur, albeit in humility and with grace towards all.  He then goes on to discuss how this deeper understanding of what C.S. Lewis described as “Mere Christianity” is being worked out at his Redeemer Presbyterian church.

In the second portion of the book, he explores in-depth the above-mentioned seven areas of protest.  In each of seven chapters he attempts to understand and illuminate the EC point of view.  In some cases, he gains understanding through books and other written documentation; in other cases he visits churches to see in-person what is taking place, and how that impacts him.  He has opportunity on occasion to talk in depth with some key individuals in the EC movement, and attempts as much as possible to present their views clearly and accurately.   For example, he gives an account of a breakfast meeting he had in 2007 with Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones, which is quite illuminating.

Then in nearly all of these chapters, he includes a section entitled, “The Traditional Church Pushes Back”.  Just has he attempted to outline the EC’s position with sensitivity, respect and accuracy, he does the same with the traditionalist viewpoints.  His ability to discuss these matters with grace and without judgmentalism is in significant contrast to much that is found elsewhere when dealing with these issues.

He then will conclude the chapter with his conclusions concerning the contrasting perspectives of the EC and traditionalists, and explains how the “deep church” finds middle ground.  In some cases, that middle ground is further described in moving anecdotes from his experiences at Redeemer Presbyterian.

After exploration of the “Deep Church” response to these seven EC protest areas, he provides a concluding chapter as to how one can participate in the “deep church”, with suggestions for those who wish to participate in this third alternative:

1.  Band together with other Christians who wish to experience profound community.

2.  Keep the gospel of forgiveness and the kingdom at the center of your group.

3.  Begin reaching outside the group in mercy.

4.  Become a shalom maker — someone who seeks the peace of the city through their vocation.

5.  Become a deep worshipper — study the origin of hymns, the ancient church fathers, your understanding of the Lord’s Supper, etc.

6.  Model centered-set thinking — Christ at the center, believers in the inner core, guests in the outer core, nevertheless also a part of the community.

7.  Be the deep church first before requesting it of your leaders.

Some conclusions from reading this book:

1.  The cry of Dr. Belcher’s heart in this book seems to be “unity”, without sacrificing the core doctrines of Christianity.  Even where he needs to draw the line with some of the EC people or with traditionalists, he does so objectively and clearly without demonizing those whose beliefs/practices he cannot agree with.  As stated above, I find this graceful approach to be in significant contrast to what one finds in much of the literature on the EC/traditionalist controversy.  Thus it serves as a model of the preferred attitude with which one deals with such controversies should adopt.  In addition, to the extent that one wishes to understand the vital issues with an objective portrayal of the viewpoints, this is a very helpful book.

2. I have to admit that the seven protests of the EC movement that Dr. Belcher deals with – while being on-target relative to what the EC movement has said – are nearly unknown in my experience within the evangelical church.  They really seem to be caricatures.  I know these kinds of things happen, but I personally have not experienced them to any great extent.  Again, I think it is important that this book deal with these issues; maybe my own pilgrimage has avoided them: first half of my life in the Church of the Nazarene, and the next twenty-five years at Park Street Church in Boston, and in the past twenty years significant involvement in a diverse urban environment.

3.  Like many important books and other documentation dealing with the EC, as a lay person I find the use — unavoidable, I think — of the academic/seminary glossary to be a bit difficult to assimilate.  For example, Dr. Belcher states that he is postfoundational but not anti-realistic in his epistemology.  From the context, I can understand to some degree the nuances in these viewpoints, but nothing like someone who has dealt in such areas of thought for many years.  So to some extent, a non-seminarian reading such books feels somewhat like an outsider listening in on important conversations, but not feeling equipped to participate, even when these conversations deal with issues that are extremely important to one’s own life.

4. Expanding on the previous point, an issue not covered in the book (and one can’t cover everything!) is the spiritual devastation that the deconstructive aspects of the EC movement have had on some.  I have found essentially no expressed pastoral concerns of the human misery that has taken place, especially among the lay people caught in the middle.  Here is an example:

A few months ago I almost literally bumped into a friend from the past on the T in Boston — ten seconds either way, and there’d have been no contact; in my mind a God appointment.   After some pleasant small talk, I asked him if he had any contact with the emerging church.  His normal upbeat demeanor changed dramatically: the pain and passion in him was deep, and to me he was saying among other things that a lot of what he had believed his whole life had been swept away by EC thinking.   His father was a pastor, and he’s been a leader himself, although not clergy.  He said he’d dropped out of “almost everything” in the church.

I’m not faulting Dr. Belcher for not covering this phenomena in this book, but even in his discussion of Foundational vs. post-Foundational, I begin asking myself questions such as what does a post-Foundationalist do with Paul’s assertion in 2 Tim 1:12, “…for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.”   Was Paul being foundational?  Should he more honestly have stated it, “…for I could be wrong about this and I certainly don’t want to seem arrogant so please forgive me if I come off that way, but sometimes it almost seems as if – I’m really nervous about saying this – I know Whom I have believed…”  Or since that’s in the Bible we can leave that where it is, but really maybe I shouldn’t sing, “And I know, yes I know, Jesus’ blood can make the vilest sinner clean”, if I want to be one of the good guys and be post-Foundational?   Or consider the old hymn,  “There is a fountain filled with blood.”  Is the “is” in that title a little bit too strong, too foundational?

Ok, in reality I believe my irony in the above is due to my lack of in-depth understanding of the distinction between foundational (bad) and post-foundational (good).   But these are the kind of issues that lay people caught in the middle struggle with, and do so with no apparent pastoral support.

5.   Also not covered in this book – again, you can’t cover everything – is contemplative centering prayer, prayer labyrinths, and similar.  An important issue which seems to be an important factor in the EC movement, but also very controversial.

6. This is totally not in the scope of this book, but in the reading I have done concerning the Emerging Church, I sense a significant absence of involvement with issues that one encounters in the urban church in North America, where the majority of parishioners might be non-Caucasian.  For example, I attend a downtown church with a decidedly diverse demographic.  The EC controversy is unknown in this environment.  Last Sunday, I caught up with the pastor of a Hispanic Church that also meets in our building.  I asked him about the EC, and he had never heard of it.  I told him in 1.5 sentences that it was the marriage of Christianity and postmodernism.  He pointed one finger to his ear in a rotary motion: “tickling the ears”, “end-times”, was his response.  , I also think the same is largely true of the more charismatic forms of Christianity as well – namely less impacted by EC than the non-charismatic evangelical church.  I just returned from a conference that was strongly charismatic, with several internationally-known speakers.  When I asked people there about the emergent church or whether or not they had heard of Brian McLaren, there was a complete lack of recognition of either.

* * * * * * *

In summary, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to seek a middle ground in today’s EC/traditionalist controversy.  Both the tone and the substance are very helpful,  a great contrast to much of the literature dealing with these issues.

Richard Mann

Quincy, MA

November 30, 2009

Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

Jim Belcher

Forward by Richard J. Mouw

Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL

Copyright © 2009 Jim Belcher

ISBN: 978-0-8308-3716-8

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