Obviously here at American Jesus we seek to entertain those of you whose sense of humor is similar to our own, but more than that we hope that at some point some sort of reflection will happen so that you find yourself asking some serious questions about the American church. We tease, because we truly do love the church, both in America and elsewhere. For those of you like us who either have a passion for seeing the church be who she was called to be, or are simply interested in what is going on in the church beyond the four walls we each sit in on Sunday morning, then this book is a must buy. I picked it up at a conference shortly before Thanksgiving and couldn’t put it down.
Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional is written by Jim Belcher, founding church planter and lead pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. Although he doesn’t consider himself “emergent,” he came of age in ministry alongside Rob Bell and others who, whether they care for the labels or not, have become closely associated with the so-called “emergent church.” As contentious as the “battle” between the emerging church and the traditional church often is, many people on both sides really aren’t clear as to what the other is proposing. They simply assume what the other believes and attacks that assumed belief. The reasons for this are many, not least of all because there is no clear and definable organization called the “emergent church.” In Deep Church, Belcher does an outstanding job of clarifying both the “protests” of the emergent church as well as the counter-arguments of the traditional church. For someone like myself, who in all honestly only held assumptions about each “side”, I found this clarification enlightening and Belcher’s even-handed approach refreshing. Missing is the vitriol that so often spews from both sides when they try to engage the other.
Clarifying both arguments, however, is not the ultimate point of Deep Church. Belcher takes his title from a line in C.S. Lewis’ 1952 letter to the Church Times in which he wrote “Perhaps the trouble is that as supernaturalists, whether ‘Low’ or ‘High’ Church, thus taken together, they lack a name. May I suggest ‘Deep Church’; or, if that fails in humility, Baxter’s ‘mere Christians’?” In other words, if Lewis was seeking “mere Christianity”, then Belcher seeks “mere church.” As the subtitle suggests, what Belcher is attempting to do is offer a “third way” beyond the current bifurcation of emergent and traditional. In this I think he succeeds, at least in offering an avenue for others to follow. Belcher grounds this “third way” in what he calls the “Great Tradition”, by which he means the universally agreed upon creeds and statements of faith from the early church, i.e. the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Personally, I think Belcher is right on with this approach. Only in finding common ground can we hope to reconcile the divisions in the church, and what better place to lay a foundation than in the words we all hold as truth.
If you find yourself bound by the propositional truths of modernity, or if you are in love with the Enlightenment project, then you probably won’t care for this book, and you will undoubtedly find Belcher’s attempt at a third way to be a failure. Belcher’s third way operates from what many would label a postmodern position. At the core of the debate for Belcher is an argument over truth and belonging. The fundamental problem in the debate, as Belcher rightly points out, is that both sides approach this issues in radically different ways. For the emergent church truth is contextual and experiential, while the traditional church continues to fight for propositional truth. For the emerging church a person belongs to the community before they necessarily believe everything they profess, while the traditional church requires belief before a person can belong. Belcher does his best to have a foot in both camps as he proposes another option, and for the most part he succedes. Ultimately, however, I do not think he will be able to escape the emergent label in the eyes of many. His argument for truth being like a well from which we can all drink and from which we can stray from, but not too far from, will be for many simply a re-narrated postmodernism. Likewise, Belcher both preaches and practices belonging before believing, something which is intolerable for many in the traditional camp. Personally, I like both his well paradigm as well as the idea of belonging before we belief. Both seem to have their foundation not only in the Great Tradition, but the gospels themselves.
Regardless of what camp you find yourself in, or if you don’t find yourself in any camp, if you care about the state of the American church, and particularly if you are in any form of ministry, then you must find the time to pick this book up and read it.