Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

By Jim Belcher, InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Reviewed by Dr. Sam Baker, Associate Professor of Student and Family Ministries, Corban University

Concerning recent “tensions” over emerging and traditional views of church, author Jim Belcher states, “The vast majority of people are confused by the debate. Many have read emerging authors, agreeing with their assessment of the problem and aspects of what they are proposing. But they also have read traditional authors and are drawn to parts of their vision of the church as well. The majority wants to learn from both sides … Those in the middle want to find out.” Deep Church is written for those in between.

The book is divided into two main parts. “Part I: Mapping New Territory,” focuses first on the author’s personal journey in assessing and understanding the emerging church movement from theological, epistemological, and ecclesiological perspectives. He then moves into a more formal explanation, complete with helpful definitions of key terms and associated ideas. Here Belcher makes a convincing argument for differentiating between the “emerging church movement” and the “Emergent Village”—the organization most notably connected to author and leader, Brian McLaren. The reader is aided in recognizing three broad categories or groups associated with the movement. The “relevants” are conservative evangelicals who are “not as interested in reshaping theology as they are in updating worship styles, preaching technique and church leadership structures.” The “reconstructionists” are those who “hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture, but are rethinking the current form of the church and its structure.” The “revisionists,” who Belcher says, “get the most attention,” are “open to questioning key evangelical doctrines… [and are]… wondering whether these dogmas are appropriate for the postmodern world.” As one can logically assess, recognized tensions between traditional and emerging church leaders result primarily from ideas expressed by this last group

Part I of the book concludes with a proposed “two-tiered approach” for dialogue between the two camps.  Agreed-upon, universally held orthodox beliefs would reside in the top tier, and diverse, contextually-based characteristics within individual churches would reside in the bottom tier. The author notes, “When we become more humble in our beliefs, we are willing to see that our own denominations or traditions do not have a corner on all truth, and we become more open to dialogue with other traditions. We might find that we are sometimes wrong and the different perspective will correct our error.”

Part II, “Protest, Reaction and the Deep Church,” concentrates on seven major concerns, or “protests,” of the emerging church. Belcher observes, “We will see that in each of these seven protests the authors have a well-thought-out critique and plan for renewal. We will also listen to the traditional church and its pushback, assessing whether the critique is accurate. Then I will demonstrate the strengths and weakness of both groups, and move beyond them to a third way, the deep church.” In broad terms, the protests address:

  • Truth – knowledge and truth cannot be found in reason alone.
  • Evangelism – rejection of the idea that belief must precede belonging.
  • Gospel – the gospel has been reduced to individual salvation.
  • Worship – worship is more than just singing.
  • Preaching – traditional preaching is mostly judgmental and arrogant.
  • Ecclesiology – church is more than attendance and meetings.
  • Culture – the church has separated itself from culture and become insular.

What Belcher states as a goal, by way of introduction to the book, he achieves with great balance and care throughout remainder of the text. Each of the chapters in Part II includes extensive quotation and citation from pertinent literature, along with perspectives from leaders within both the traditional and emerging camps. The book also references insights from scholars beyond the emerging church debate.

Readers will appreciate the author’s great attention to detail—making sure all sides are equally and fairly represented. In addition, each chapter in the second half of the book includes Belcher’s reflections related to how ideas and implications discovered through his research have been integrated within his own ministry context. Redeemer Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California—the church he pastors—seeks to become the kind of “deep church” the book espouses. Belcher does not, however, advocate that every congregation emulate this ministry model. Rather, he challenges churches to truly consider issues relevant to both sides of the conversation. In doing so, he calls upon readers to find a “third way,” the deep church way.

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