Book Review: Deep Church: A Third Way beyond Emerging and Traditional by Jim Belcher

In full disclosure, this book was authored by a dear friend of mine, and the man who served as my Pastor for nearly seven years, Jim Belcher. I am very glad that Jim wrote this book, because it needed to be written, and there are not a lot of people out there who I believe could do what Jim has done. Let me scratch a bit deeper.

The “emerging” church has created a lot of discussion in recent years, mostly of a controversial nature. Some of the responses have been downright nasty, and others have been cogent, concerned, and appropriate. I would like to be able to provide a sort of “definition” of the movement, but I am unable to do so. Belcher is fair to point out that this is anything but a monolithic movement, and there appears to be a great deal of different shapes and sizes within it. Nonetheless, the approach Belcher takes is this: He commends the emerging church for the problems they identify within the traditional church, he maintains a need for the core orthodoxy of the traditional church in the meantime (relying heavily on the remarkable works of Tom Oden in this regard), and sets out to find a sort of “in between way” that maintains the historic faith in its epistemology, its theology, and its ecclesiology, yet manages to accomplish much of what the traditional church has often failed to accomplish in terms of discipleship, connectivity, and cultural outreach. He believes in gospel shalom, and sets out a vision for church that can pursue and even accomplish all of the above.

I really think this would have been a fine book even if all it was trying to do was lay out a constructive vision for “deep church” (he borrows this term and concept from C.S. Lewis, and later also uses Lewis’s concept of “mere Christianity” in providing the core required tenets of orthodoxy; there are few people more reliable than C.S. Lewis that a believer can default to in defining important concepts – particularly these ones). This book happens to have its genesis in Jim’s own history with the emerging church, and subsequent interaction with their leaders while simultaneously planting his own vision for church within a traditional denomination, but the book is really quite remarkable just as a positive demonstration of this church vision. He articulately shifts between critical analysis, positive theological work, and biographical narrative, using examples of this “deep church” vision from his own Redeemer church plant in Southern California. If pastors read this book just for the apologetic he offers of a liturgical church, a historical church, an orthodox church, and a relevant church, I believe they would benefit immensely.

But beyond that positive vision, Jim does get into the nitty-gritty of the emerging church leadership. And he does so with a remarkable amount of graciousness and humility. I am saying this as a compliment – for I believe Jim’s demeanor makes possible some degree of correction, confrontation, clarification, and conversation with these folks. I confess that in reading Jim’s treatment of much of their work, I found myself admitting that I could never respond with the graciousness that he was extending. Indeed, in several occassions, he actually spoke for these men, clarifying what they probably meant, instead of relying on their own black and white words. Usually, I see critical authors make a “straw man” argument by worsening their opponent’s position – not improving it. Jim is “too kind”. I trust his emerging friends are grateful for this.

Jim does not fail to call them out where they need to be called out. I was disappointed that he left in a footnote (as opposed to the meat of a chapter) a criticism from Scot McKnight of emerging leader, Brian McLaren, wherein he challenges McLaren’s treatment of those who dare to ask tough theological questions. The reality is that McKnight in this footnote better mirrored by own feelings about Brian McLaren than anything I have read. McLaren is far nastier to his “fundamentalist” opponents than any traditional and orthodox Christian I have read have been to him (though some are close), and often the source of this contentiousness is the mere desire for clarity over what McLaren is actually saying. Jim does not say it in his book, and I am glad he didn’t, but so much of the controversy in this dialogue has been caused by the immense confusion the emerging folks have created. They are not precise philosophically or theologically, and are actually rather proud of this when they are pushed on it. I feel more of an understanding of what drives them in terms of epistemology and ecclesiology from reading Jim’s book than I have ever had reading their own books, articles, and blogs. (I also would like to add that Jim was extremely gracious in not taking to task the emerging leaders who have as of late used their pulpit and notoriety to promote a political leftism, far more extreme than any of the right-wing dogmatism they often attack; Jim avoids it altogether, and it helps him to keep the book on point. If I were writing this, I would not have been able to hold back in critiquing their rank hypocrisy on this subject; once again, Jim was the right guy to author this book).

At the end of the day, I am rather resolved (personally) that the emerging church does not have a lot to offer me. I need to see a far more respectful treatment of church history and creedal orthodoxy than I see there. But I do appreciate much of the “soft” emerging folks, and find the concept of “missional Christianity” to be important. Jim’s book helps in so many ways here. I believe that much of the traditional church has been irreparably harmed by their love affair with modernity, and I am not sure that the emerging church’s appropriate rejection of foundationalism (one that I share) can possibly make sense of their friendliness with the more insidious parts of postmodernism. Jim’s evaluation of this is very useful.

It is good for a low-church guy like me to read this book. I live in a consistent cynicism about the usefulness of church within the Kingdom, and believe that the institution of church is more important to God than it is to me. Some day, more “traditional” churches might share a vision for cultural relevance, for relational discipleship, and for heartfelt worship. The various wars I have seen inside some traditional churches are more despicable and disconcerting than any of the intellectually questionable teachings I have seen from the emerging church (yes, I would rather go to one of those emerging churches where they are sitting on a couch and doing “group preaching” than ever have to observe the things I have observed very up close and personal in my life again). But of course, I should not have to choose between those two things. There needs to be a generation of church leaders produced who value “deep church”. This generation is not one of those. Celebrity pastors, entrepreneurial pastors, statist pastors, market-driven pastors, lazy pastors, insensitive pastors, out-of-touch pastors, and just plain bad pastors abound. Jim’s book is a needed wake-up call that a third way exists. If the next generation is to value church more than this one does, I pray they will find it.