Review of Jim Belcher’s ‘Deep Church’ – Part 1
Summary of Part 1: ‘Mapping the Territory’
Note: In this three part series I will devote two posts to summarizing Part 1 and Part 2 of Jim Belcher‘s book Deep Church. In post three I will offer some concluding thoughts – highlights and critical reflection.
I was walking through the used book store the other day and found a copy of Deep Church by Jim Belcher. I have noticed the buzz about this book on Twitter and in the ‘blogosphere.’ It’s one of those books I have been meaning to buy, and I am glad I did. (Not to mention it was only $6.00 used.) The purpose of this blog series is to offer pastoral reflection on a book that many people are picking up and reading right now.
‘They’ tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but you can’t help but do just that with Deep Church. The very first thing I noticed was that the endorsements came from a wide array of leaders from very different Christian traditions – Tim Keller, Rob Bell, and Mark Driscoll among others.
But this helps explain Belcher’s goal. He asks, what does a Deep Church look like? “It is a missional church committed to both tradition and culture, valuing innovation in worship, arts and community but also creeds and confession.” Belcher is proposing that beyond the differences between the Emergent Church movement and the Traditional Evangelical Church, there can be a ‘third way.’
Belcher adds a ‘different type’ of voice to the dialog. Jim Belcher writes with a unique perspective. First, Belcher has ‘insider’ ties to the Emergent movement through friendships with those on the front lines, but he is also an ‘outsider’ in the sense that he has serious misgivings with certain aspects of the movement, most notable their “lack of gospel centeredness.” Secondly, I appreciate the style in which Deep Church is written. As you read this book you almost feel as if you are reading Belcher’s personal journal. The reader will get the sense that Belcher has seriously reflected on, and wrestled with the issues dividing the Emergent Movement from the ‘Traditional Church.’ Third, Belcher is no slouch, he is well educated (Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from Georgetown University) he is also well read.
The Two Tiers of a Deep Church
The title for this book was influenced by a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote where he was exploring the commonalities of the often contrasted ‘high church’ and ‘low church.’ So Lewis suggested a third way. He wrote, “may I suggest ‘Deep Church’ or, if that fails in humility, Baxter’s ‘mere Christians’?” During the same year Lewis published Mere Christianity where he further developed this idea with the following analogy;
“I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of existing communions as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone in to that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”
For Lewis the rooms represented separate church traditions. In these rooms the Christians divided over the ‘second tier’ issues, yet in the hallways we can experience deep fellowship on the basis of our commonalities. Lewis is describing what Tom Oden coined as ‘new ecumenism.’ This is what Belcher is exploring in Deep Church. Is there a ‘third way’ other than ‘Emerging’ and ‘Traditional?’ Belcher describes the two tier approach in the following way;
“A two-tiered system has a number of practical benefits. First, it minimizes triumphalism or denominational chauvinism. When the top tier is agreed upon, the various parties mutually trust and respect each other as orthodox. Then the discussions that deal with bottom-tier teachings become opportunities to learn and grow.”
In thinking though this ‘tier’ approach I would also recommend considering Albert Mohlers ‘three tier approach’ when dealing with theological issues.
The Protest of the Emergent Network
Belcher’s description of the “white elephant” in the room of the traditional church is well summarized. He gives seven descriptions of what those in the emergent network are protesting in more traditional churches;
- Captivity to Enlightenment Thinking – The church has been captive to the enlightenment ideals, condoning individualism, rationalism, and pragmatism.
- A Narrow View of Salvation – The church has been focusing too much on how an individual is saved and not enough on how one lives as a Christian.
- Belief before Belonging – People should be able to come and go, ask questions, engage in eternal issues, and get to know God through being part of a community.
- Uncontextualized Worship – The church is not effectively communicating the gospel to the culture around though music worship.
- Ineffective Preaching – The traditional style of ‘speeching’ is not as effective as challenging people through different modes of spiritual formation.
- Weak Ecclesiology – The traditional church is more concerned with from than mission. It cares more about institutional survival than being sent as the people of God.
- Tribalism – The traditional church is unwilling to engage the culture and has become a sectarian subculture know more for ‘what its against.’
I believe that the diagnosis offered by those in the emergent camp is in many ways legitimate and Belcher summarizes them well. I must say though, that the ‘cure’ offered by some of the emergent’s on these charges is often over contextualized. This is where Belcher becomes very helpful in explaining the Emergent movement. Belcher’s purpose in writing is clear – for unity in the essentials;
“I hope that both sides would work hard to understand each other, finding agreement on classic orthodoxy and striving to maintain unity even though there are second tier differences.”
Belcher proposes to offer a good model for the quest of unity. He argues that we should be learning from both emerging and traditional voices so that we can move beyond ‘secondary’ issues to a more excellent way. In part two of this series I will explain what Belcher actually proposes.