Deep Church. A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

  • Jim Belcher
  • Mar 2, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Jim Belcher. Deep Church. A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 233 pp. Paper, $17.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-3716-8.

Employing a very autobiographical and folksy style (I assume the editors insisted on this voice), Jim Belcher recounts his own journey between and among the sometimes-hostile poles of the contemporary church termed “traditional” and “emergent.” I doubt that all the participants in his study would consider themselves “evangelical,” yet that label probably best situates his constituency. As his title suggests, his analysis leads him to pose a middle way, the way of the “deep church”—a term he borrows from C.S. Lewis.

If readers are not “up” on what’s been going on in the contemporary church for the past couple decades, or just want some help in appraising what all the fuss is about, this book will paint the landscape in helpful terms. Belcher, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which he planted, defines and assesses the emerging church phenomenon by highlighting seven objections or points of dissatisfaction that emergents have with how traditional churches were operating. In fact he terms them “major protests” and uses one key spokesperson for each of these points to illustrate and support them. Clearly, not all “emergents” (or “traditionalists” for that matter) would agree with the positions that Belcher’s representatives embrace.

For each protest, he also marshals authors who represent the traditional church to challenge or refute these emergent critiques. In this way Belcher hopes to appraise how valid are the critiques from both directions—where the emergents have valid points to make and where the authors representing traditional viewpoints have valid pushbacks. This leads, finally, to Belcher’s assessment of the current state of affairs, leading him to pose the third way, the deep church. In fact, he sees his own congregation as an attempt to construct a deep church. He uses ample stories from Redeemer to illustrate how he believes this third way can work successfully to chart the way forward.

What are these issues that have come to divide emergents from traditionalists? I will list them as protests from the side of the emergents so readers of this review get a flavor of the critiques. To be fair to Belcher, he explains not only how the emergents protest, but includes the pushback from many traditional church authors. This brief review cannot capture effectively all the nuances of either the protests or the responses. What Belcher then proceeds to do is to adjudicate between the two sides, seeking to affirm where each makes valid points and what reservations Belcher retains after his analyses. Here are the seven issues Belcher evaluates:

(1)   the nature of truth given the postmodern critique of foundationalism—emergents insist that there is no unassailable certainty, and that foundations are based on belief not reason.

(2)   the priority and practice of evangelism—the emergent church takes issue with the traditional church’s insistence that belief must precede belonging.

(3)   the kingdom of God—the emergent movement insists on a kingdom perspective that is more than helping people “get to heaven when they die”; the kingdom entails mission in the world, not merely fire insurance against going to hell.

(4)   the nature of worship—emergents protest against mall-like church environments with their high-energy, entertainment-driven worship as much as dead liturgy that amounts to mere formalism.

(5)   the role and nature of preaching—emergents view traditional preaching as too legalistic, moralistic, and rationalistic. In reaction, Belcher reports, some, not all, emergents adopt a “relational hermeneutic” in their communication in which the community together works together to discover the truth they will live out. The goal is not, “What does the Bible say about truth or how to live?” but “What do we discover together when we engage in a conversation in which the Bible is a participant?”

(6)   the nature of the church—many emergent ways of “doing church” are reactions against the institutionalism and bureaucracy of traditional churches with all their meetings, committees, and policies. Beyond that, emergents aver that most institutionally-driven churches can’t reach out effectively to those outside their walls; postmoderns are not drawn to churches that are traditionally (and typically hierarchically) structured.

(7)   the culture issue: how the church engages or views itself vis-à-vis the larger culture of the world—traditional churches no longer know how to reach out from their very bounded set of values to the non-churched. Emergents seek to engage and transform culture rather than to separate from the prevailing culture as they see that traditional churches do.

These are significant issues that anyone, as I do, who still sees the church as God’s means for extending his message of salvation and restoration to the world. Belcher is mostly fair-minded in his assessment. He is not so enamored of the emergent views that he can’t see where they depart from what he views as orthodoxy or elements of the “grand tradition” that simply can’t be jettisoned in a postmodern or any world. Nor does he buy all the counter-arguments of traditionalists in what he sees, sometimes, as their power plays or protective tactics to preserve their own domains.

Clearly, Belcher has thought through these issues enough to seek to do things a better way (deep church) in his own congregation. His illustrations from Redeemer Church show how he has grown in his own understanding of why some of the emergents’ critiques must be heeded, and why some traditional ways require retention, at least in appropriately nuanced forms. Indeed, he ends this useful book with a list of seven suggestions for becoming a deep church. They are wise and constructive words. If they were heeded in every community that calls itself the church, more unity would prevail among Christians today, more people would be drawn into its doors, and the world would be a better place for everyone.

William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
February 2010