10 years ago, there was a war between churches. Army Emergent took arms against Fortress Traditional, or is it the other way around? Dr. Jim Belcher wrote a book calling for a ceasefire. Did it work? 10 years later, do we still care? Find out in Reading and Readers.
Hi, my name is Terence, and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Every month I review FaithLife’s Free Book of the Month. In 2021, the January’s free ebook was “Deep Church: A Third Way beyond Emerging and Traditional” by Dr Jim Belcher.
When he wrote this book, Belcher was the founding and lead pastor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Redeemer Church, also known as Redeemer Orange County, features so prominently in this book that the church gives out a free copy of this book to first time visitors.
When it comes to the emerging church, Belcher is both an insider and outsider. He asked the same questions the emerging Church asked, and he experimented with different ways of doing church. But he also ended up establishing the traditional church, which is the Presbyterian Church and affirming traditional doctrines.
10 years later in a LA Together podcast, Belcher reflects:
“The big conversation at the time was with the emerging church and there was a lot of conflict between kind of what I call the traditional church and the emerging church. I knew both sides really well. So I wrote a book to explain both sides to each other like a good marriage counselor. And I would present a third way.”
Seven Protests Against Traditional
So what was that conflict? Belcher observes that there were seven protest points against the traditional church.
1. The traditional church was captive to enlightenment rationalism. Truth overly depends on reason
2. The traditional church had a very narrow view of salvation. It focused too much on how people are saved (justification, atonement) and not how a Christian lives.
3. There is too much emphasis on belief before belonging. There are boundaries set up so that we can know who is in and who is out. This does not attract people into the church.
4. The traditional church has uncontextualized worship. Music that is 100 years old does not appeal to the current generation.
5. Ineffective preaching. The traditional church makes speeches rather than attempt to be relational, making it meaningful to the day to day Christians.
6. Weak ecclesiology. The traditional church is more interested in protecting the existing structure than changing to the times.
7. Tribalism The traditional church is against culture, and instead of being salt and light, it is attacking culture.
There are many areas of emerging theology and ministry with which I wholeheartedly agree. They desire many of the things I embrace, and they dislike many of the things I don’t like about evangelicalism. But I also have deep misgivings about areas of their thought and practice. I am caught in between, and am comfortable with this ambiguity. It allows me to learn from both the traditional church and the emerging church as I follow a different route—the deep church.
There are two parts in this book. In the first part, there are three chapters. The first chapter is titled, “There from the start”, where he explains where he’s coming from and how he was part of the emerging movement. Then he defines the emerging church in Chapter two. We see that the emerging movement is a widemovement. The people inside do not necessarily agree with each other. And the third chapter is “The Quest for Mere Christianity”.
Deep Church is a phrase coined by C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. The idea is uniting in the essentials. In deep church. Belcher is proposing we unite in the essentials, which are the Great Traditions: the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. We want to see Christians uniting in these fundamentals, these essentials rather than fight among themselves while the world watches. So that is Part One.
In Part Two, if you remember the seven points made by the emerging church, we have seven chapters to deal with each point, and the chapters are titled thus: Deep Truth, Deep Evangelism, Deep Gospel, Deep Worship, Deep Preaching, Deep Ecclesiology and Deep Culture. Then the book ends with a conclusion, notes and acknowledgements.
In terms of his writing style, Belcher did say that he was attempting to bring two parties to a marriage counseling. In marriage counseling, you have the husband saying this you have the wife saying that and the counselor is saying, “Let us build a bridge.” In order to build a bridge, you need to have trust.
One of the major points about this book is that Belcher visits the people that he is talking to. So he is not talking about them. He talks to the people, and he records what they say and thus, gives them a voice in his book. So he talks to both sides in marriage counseling.
You know how husbands and wives say things like, “He always… She always…”? one of the things we learn is don’t use the word “always”. In this book, you find that the emerging church does not always mean abandoning traditional doctrine. There are some who don’t think that way. And you also see that traditional church does not always mean stuffy hymns and boring sermons.
Personal Memoir of Discovery
Now, in terms of writing style, this book is not just a back and forth conversation. Nor is it a textbook or systematic theology on what is the church. In fact, this book is very interesting because it’s written in a memoir form. So the conversations between the emerging and the traditional church is part of his journey. Let me read the opening chapter of this book:
In the early 1990s I was working on my Ph.D. in political philosophy at Georgetown University. I lived blocks from the university, in the basement apartment of a wealthy woman who was in her late seventies. I walked her dog twice a day for free rent. Not a bad gig for a poor graduate student.
So you see, this is the sort of flavor he brings you throughout the entire book, and you are joining him on in his journey.
Belong or Believe? Answered in a Taxi
Let me give you an example, so you better understand what I mean. There is this chapter titled Deep Evangelism and here he addresses the question: Do you believe first or do you belong first? The emergent church says that we should belong first, and later on people will slowly believe. The traditional responds that that never happens because we’re so busy trying to make them feel belonging, being nice, making them comfortable and attracting them, and so on that we never present the hard truths, things like Jesus says, “Renounce everything, otherwise, you cannot be my disciple”. So we never present that because we are too busy or too focused on making people feel belonging.
On the flip side, the emerging church says that the traditional church has focused so much on believing first such that they put up a barrier of who is in and who is out and unless you believe you are out and this actually puts people off. So that is the tension between the two, and I feel it in my own church and in my own ministry as well.
So how does Belcher in this chapter deal with it? After presenting the point of views from the emergent church and the traditional church, he then tells a story. At this conference, Belcher meets Steven Cooper, who is another pastor, and they share a cab to dinner. Let me quote from the book:
I asked Steven to summarize the third way of evangelism and community from a biblical standpoint. He took the challenge and summarized his views in the course of the fifteen-minute cab ride from downtown Miami to South Beach. It was brilliant. The highlights follow. He made the case that beyond the bounded-set and relational-set views of evangelism, there is a third way.
Bounded set refers to the boundaries of traditional churches. Relational set refers to the emergent church, which is very relational. So there is this conflict between Bounded and Relational. Is there a third way? You have Steven explaining as they are driving towards dinner and as the conversation is held. I quote: “over the sound of Latin music from the Taxes Radio” and later “Stephen points out with increased intensity as they barrel down the freeway toward the beach.”
This conversation invites you in that taxi ride together with them. Amidst Steven’s explaining the biblical support, Belcher asks, “Why is this relevant?”, “So, what is wrong with this?”, and “What does this mean for a third way?”
You have this back and forth in the taxi. As they near the dinner venue, Belcher writes: “I sense this could be a breakthrough in my thinking. My anticipation was growing.”
Reading this my own anticipation was growing! I wanted to know what is the answer. Now I don’t want to tell too much because you deserve to sit in that cab, to listen to that conversation and find out what is the biblical support for this third way that this book talks on deep evangelism. But because I think that it’s also important that I tell you what is the answer just not in detail. The answer is both. You have to belong and you have to believe, and this is actually what the book describes as two circles.
But if you’re interested in this I ask that you read the book. I think it’s really worth reading. So every chapter in this book begins with that back and forth between the bickering husband and wife, sorry, protesting emerging and responding traditional church. Then in a cab ride or in a different story, Belcher describes how the third way looks like. And he always describes it with his church as an example. So you have the theory, the arguments coming in and you have the outworking of that theory, the practical side being described.
Deep Church is the 2010 Christianity Today Book Award winner. Many like it. Many don’t.
I want to take time to share two criticisms made in some reviews. So these are some reviews made in blogs,. Amazon, GoodReads and so on. And yes, in this book review, you are going to hear my review of other people’s book reviews. Now, in hearing this, you will know the feathers that Belcher has ruffled, and you will have to as you listen to what I say, you will have to read for yourself whether the criticisms are valid or not.
One of the major criticisms made against this book is the way it handles the gospel and atonement. Early on in the book, John Piper of the traditional meets with Brian McLaren of the emerging and very obviously, very clearly, there were differences. Piper links the atonement with the gospel and for Piper (and for me), rejecting the atonement means rejecting the Gospel. McLaren disagrees. He says that the gospel can be interpreted in various ways, and there’s no need to include the atonement. McLaren rejects the atonement.
There are irreconcilable differences between these two parties. The criticism against Deep Church is it attempts to reconcile what should be irreconcilable. These two parties cannot come together. Jim Belcher himself has responded to that criticism in two interviews at Gospel Coalition. Now here are my thoughts. There is one key to understand the way Belcher talks about unity and the way he even talks about the Gospel and the atonement and the key to understanding this is: Who does Belgium quote in his book so every so often? Whose church is Redeemer Church modeled after and even named after? Who does he describe in the acknowledgement as a mentor? And who is the big name that endorsed this book? And the answer is Tim Keller.
Tim Keller has influence Jim Belcher in many ways. In this book Belcher doesn’t have the time or the pages to address contextualization or on having the atonement explicitly mentioned in the Gospel statement. To get that description or explanation, we need to read Tim Keller’s Center Church. Let me just read a snippet from that book, Keller writes:
I want to resist the impulse mainly among conservative evangelicals, toward creating a single one size fits or gospel presentation that should be used everywhere that serves as a test of orthodoxy.
Can you understand Keller’s position? Keller has his own critics when it comes to contextualization. Keller has his own critics, and Belcher is in that camp. Also, if you understand Keller, you know he doesn’t dismiss the Atonement. He doesn’t dismiss the Gospel. He is as gospel centered as the Gospel Coalition of which he Vice President and Co-Founder of.
If You Want To Build a Church Brick By Brick
The second criticism is ecclesiology. From the title Deep Church, some have expected this book to be a book on ecclesiology, which is a study on what is the church. And any discussion or explanation on what is the church should bring out Scripture verses like the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Temple of the Lord and we as living stones. We should be able to see the church being built up from the foundation going up, brick by brick. But we do not.
Instead, what we see is a building. is a church that has already been built called Emerging. Opposite it we see another built up church called Traditional. And in between we have this third church called Deep Church. So some were very disappointed in not seeing the construction process where the church is being built from the foundation up, brick by brick. If only the book had somehow signaled this to the potential reader. Oh, wait, it did. The subtitle for Deep Church is a third way beyond emerging and traditional.
If you want to know how the church is built from the ground up, Edmund Clowney’s The Church is a popular recommendation. Personally, I recommend Gregg Alisson’s Sojourners and Strangers: the Doctrine of the Church. And as I hinted earlier, if you want a good book on the church with a strong emphasis on culture, you should read Tim Keller’s Center Church, which is now published as three smaller books.
What Third Way? Traditional Plus
Many love the book Deep Church because of its tone. It’s marriage counseling tone. But some on both sides have pointed out that the way Belcher describes the deep church or traditional church is a bit broad. Do you remember the seven points made against a traditional church? Well, there are some traditional churches who do not have those problems or rather have already addressed them without needing to be emerging. They stayed traditional. They don’t employ a third way. So it is the same building, maybe with different furnishing or paint job or fence. But it is still the traditional church, and Kevin DeYoung in his review writes:
In fact, I don’t think there is a single insight from the emergent church that cannot be gleaned from the best of the evangelical, and specifically the Reformed, tradition. We don’t need a third way between emergent and traditional. We need a revitalized, reformed evangelical church.
That is a point made by the traditional. The emergent have also made this point that the Deep Church sounds suspiciously like Traditional Plus. The foundation is actually on traditional as it attempts to address the emergent questions.
The War That Never Was
What is the state of this war? Did we win? Who’s we? Is there peace? This is how Christianity Today describes the emerging movement. If you go to their website now, I quote:
Though a subject of great discussion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the emergent movement has seemingly dropped off the map as of late.
Did Belcher’s book have a role in that? I guess he and many others did do something about it. By showing the differences between the emerging church and the traditional church, everybody from both sides could see that there were irreconcilable differences. And this is where the marriage counseling metaphor breaks down. The two churches were never together. They were never married, and they never intended to be together. This is more like neighbor counseling, and instead of throwing bricks at each other’s windows, the neighbors just got on with their own lives.
No War Means Irrelevant?
Should we read this book? Now that there is no noise? I mean there is no war. So should we read it as a historical interest just as we read World War One and World War Two. Belcher said that this book was for four groups of people:
1. Those caught in between emerging and traditional. If you’re in the traditional church and you hear the seven protests. You hear that sermons are boring and ineffective, the worship doesn’t match with the modern day times, that traditional churches are more interested in what people believe rather than making people belong. If those sort of comments are still happening where you are, then this book is still relevant to you.
2. Those who want to know what is emerging. I imagine that would be of historical interest. But maybe some people want to know where current ideas come from. Can what the church is grappling with be traced to that emergent movement? Well, this book could help answer that question.
3. For seminarians who want to figure out how to do church. Remember the criticism about building the church from the foundation and laying the brick one at a time? Well, the thing is that the seminarians already have studied that or should have in their theology classes. It’s supposed to be part of their study to read books like Clowney or Allison. Now, the way this Deep Church works is that it takes that theory and presents to you what’s happening in the shouting match of the real world, where you have people who are arguing. You are now in the trenches. So you you have to build something. You have to build a church. And so seminarians may value what Belcher is writing over here as they go into the world to build or establish their ministries.
4. For pastors who are close to burnout as they struggle with the ministry. Belcher cares for the pastors and he wants to give them an encouragement. This book is supposed to tell pastors that there is a third way. There is another way of doing church, and they don’t have to be stuck in a rut, and they can do this without abandoning core doctrines or principles.
Now, to the four groups mentioned earlier, I would add a fifth. This book is also helpful for those who want a model on how to respond to conflicts. Do you face, or do you expect to face future conflicts on how to do church? It may not be emerging. I don’t know whether the emerging will emerge again. It may be another teaching and we have had so many different types of teaching over the years and decades and millennia. It could be another worship war. I don’t know. Now this book may model a response for you. You may find that it is too soft. You may find that it is too hard, but it is one of those rare books that talks to both sides of the of the divide and try to bridge it.
An example of a conflict that is very hot today is politics. Christians in the political spectrum are shouting at each other. Would this book help us in that? Maybe not because politics is not what he is writing about in deep church, but he is writing a book about politics now, and it is coming out soon.
What’s Next in the Deep Universe?
You see, in the past 10 years, Dr Jim Belcher has left Redeemer Church, the church he founded, and along the way he has written a second book titled “In Search of Deep Faith”. He was also a professor at Knoxville Seminary, which he resigned to become the president of Providence Christian College. And last year he resigned as the president of Providence Christian College to establish the Institute of New Vital Center. This new vital center refers to a political center that is meant to bridge the political divide. Do you remember what was his PhD on? His PhD was on political philosophy.
So I expect Belcher to bring his marriage, counseling skills and storytelling skills into the hottest war between Christians in America today. What would be the title of that book?, Deep Politics? Deep Government? Deep State? I don’t know. But if it’s anything like deep church, I plan to read it.
I highly recommend this book to any Christian who thinks about the church or struggles with how to do church or talks to people who say there is only one way to do church because Dr Jim Belcher has shown that there is a third way.
This is a reading and readers review of Deep Church, Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional by Dr Jim Belcher.
Before you go, let us deeply consider how you can support podcasts that you like. You could just take and take and not make any gestures of support. Or you could sell everything you have and give it to the podcast creator. I suggest a third way. What you can do is subscribe. Write a review. And if you want to do more, I’m sure your favorite podcast has a website with more details. For example, something like readingandreaders.com.
If Deep Church was too much deep thinking for you, then you will count it all joy to know that the next book review is on a lighter subject, namely joy. Until next time, thank you for listening.
Sound effects by Zapsplat.com