My latest column at Christian Week:
Just when I thought the discussion on the emerging church had ended, Jim Belcher comes out with the best book on the topic so far. It turns out the discussion isn’t over, and there’s still lots that can be salvaged no matter who you are.
The book is Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. It takes me back to the early days of the discussion before things got so polarized. Belcher describes the tensions that many of us felt in the early days. He is theologically conservative, and yet he was part of the early movement. He considers himself an insider and an outsider at the same time.
He’s written Deep Church for those of us caught in between, who “are unhappy with the present state of the evangelical church but are not sure where to turn for an answer.” It’s also useful for those who want to understand what the emerging church is all about, as well as for seminarians and pastors who want to sharpen how ministry is practiced in their context.
Belcher begins by telling his story. In the 1990s, he began to crave the deep fellowship he had experienced as a Ph.D. student at Georgetown, or the kind that Francis Schaeffer had developed at L’Abri in Switzerland. He started by inviting a few friends to his apartment for a weekly discussion. Within a couple of years, the group grew to a couple of hundred young adults. Belcher first thought that this group was unique within the larger church world, but he soon discovered that similar groups were starting all across the country. They weren’t satisfied with how church was presently done. Belcher began to develop friendships with other leaders including Rob Bell, now pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Belcher still appreciates a lot about the emerging church. He likes that people are trying to rediscover what the church should be like and how it should impact culture, and what it means to be a Christian in a changing world. He thinks the emerging church has done a good job of assessing the problems in the traditional church. But he also has qualms about some of the answers the emerging church has offered to the questions they ask.
In the main section of the book, he takes us through seven areas of discussion: truth, evangelism, gospel, worship, preaching, ecclesiology, and culture. Belcher wants both sides to understand each other, finding agreement in areas of classic orthodoxy described in the ancient creeds while allowing second-tier differences. “Learning from traditional and emerging voices,” he writes, “I believe that deep church moves beyond them to a more excellent way – mere Christianity.”
To be honest, I’ve been disenfranchised lately with the direction of the emerging church. Belcher’s book reminded me of what I used to appreciate. I’ve been wrong to be too dismissive. I needed this correction.
But if you’re worried that Belcher will be either too sympathetic or too critical, you can relax. I thought he did a good job of presenting the positions of people in the best possible light, refusing to paint caricatures or to take cheap shots. The endorsements from emerging thinkers indicates that he succeeded. But he isn’t afraid to analyze these arguments and point out where he thinks they are wrong.
It’s not a perfect book. Belcher probably errs on the side of graciousness. He may be too optimistic about the possibility of a genuine third way when things seem so polarized. I sure like that he is trying.
The real strength of the book is that it poses the key issues asked by the emerging church, questions which, after all, still need to be answered. It pushes us to a holy dissatisfaction with the weaknesses of the traditional church and shows us that we can do better. At the same time, it avoids the excesses of some who criticize the traditional church, and emphasizes the need for classic orthodoxy.
“It is my hope that Deep Church will become a platform for working out a third way in the church.” It’s a tall order – but it’s sure worth a try.