Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading Jim Belcher’s Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009). I just learned about it a few weeks ago and after checking it out on Amazon, I thought I should get it since I enjoy reading 21st century books about “church.” I’ve read quite a bit of Emergent stuff so I figured this would be right up my alley (though Belcher isn’t “Emergent” technically speaking he knows “Emergents” well). I wasn’t disappointed – I’m glad I read it.
Of course, there are some things about the book I’m not in line with. I’m not too excited about “transforming culture;” I would rather talk about vocations than “kingdom agents.” I would balance the emphasis on community with a discussion of the covenant of grace. I’d like to see some discussion of how “authentic church” is highly subjective. I’d also like to see an interaction with the Regulative Principle of Worship. At the same time, I don’t want to overlook the helpful parts of this book.
First, I’m with Belcher: we can learn from the critiques the Emerging crowd levels at the “traditional” church. I’m completely of the mindset that “postmodernity” or “post-postmodernity” can teach us some things and we should be open to learn from critique. Also, to be sure, Belcher is right in saying that the Emerging church is broad/vast – some guys are halfway decent while others do indeed mess up the gospel. I appreciated the “gentle” tone of this book; it wasn’t an angry fundamentalist (over)reaction to postmodernity.
Second, Belcher makes a few good points about some of the weaknesses of “Gen X” type churches (including Emergents). He says they are quite segregated. Many of them have “a music style targeted to a particular age group and the church is no longer what it is supposed to be – a family with all ages worshiping together” (p. 28). Also, he notes how many Gen X type churches are almost rootless, “cut off from much of the [historical] church” (p. 29). Finally, he found the Gen X movement to have “little discussion on the centrality of the cross for forgiveness and the enabling power of grace to live for Jesus” (p. 30). In other words, he finds the Gen X emphases on mission, obedience, and reaching the culture to be a form of moralism.
Third, Belcher summarizes the Emergent critique of the traditional churches in seven clear points. Emergents say traditional churches 1) Are captive to Enlightenment rationalism (individualistic/rationalistic – a.k.a. fundamentalistic), 2) Have a narrow view of salvation (individualistic rather than cosmic), 3) Put belief (correct theology) before belonging (membership), 4) Their worship is uncontextualized (i.e. it ignores culture around it), 5) Have ineffective preaching (it is simply a talking head conveying information in a rationalistic way), 6) The traditional church has weak ecclesiology (i.e. is concerned about programs, societies, and form instead of personal discipleship), and 7) Reeks of tribalism (is sectarian, inward focused, and isn’t welcoming of “other” kinds of people) (pp 40-43). Belcher devotes seven chapters to tackling these seven areas, showing how traditional churches are sometimes guilty of these things. At the same time he shows how the Emergent alternative often leaves much to be desired. He posits a “third way” in the bulk of the book. The reader will have to get the book to see his “third way,” though I may blog on this again later.
This is a great 7 point critique; it really reflects some of my own struggles about “church.” In fact, as I read Deep Church I wrote many more critiques of both the traditional church and the Emergent church in the margins. Probably my critiques of the traditional church would outnumber some Emergent lists! At the same time, I think many of those above objections could be answered by stripping the church of “traditionalism” and going back to the good old confessions (even if we have to translate them into modern language). In other words, though I think those 7 critiques above are valid when it comes to the traditionalism of the church, I don’t think they can be leveled nearly as well at the confessions of the church (whether it be Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Calvinist Baptist, etc.). Our practice quite often deviates from our confessions, and we need to be called out for it.
This book is a good one for serious “churchly” Christians to read and discuss. I’d love to be part of a discussion group going through this book! I’m grateful Belcher took the years to study and write this book.