Deep Church: A Third Way beyond Emerging and Traditional

Jim Belcher IVP Books, Downers Grove, IL August 18, 2009
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Belcher is lead pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Newport Beach, California. In this book he defends a mediating position between the emerging (or emergent) and traditional views of the church. He uses his own experiences at Redeemer to illustrate this third way. The designation “deep church” is taken from C. S. Lewis; it was his way of describing those who held to the tenets of mere Christianity (pp. 13-14). The “deep church” is committed to orthodox Christianity and occupies a centrist position that avoids the divisive issues on the margins. He explains, “My dream is that this kind of unity would take place between traditional and emerging churches. I hope that both sides would work hard to understand each other, finding agreement in classic orthodoxy and striving to maintain unity even though there are second-tier differences” (p. 67).

An obvious problem with such an approach is the danger of over-generalization. Neither the emerging church nor the traditional church is monolithic. Belcher handles this well by choosing representative voices of the emerging church. He explains that his method was “to focus on one author whose work has generated the most pushback or has best articulated an emerging viewpoint being addressed. Though this limits me from capturing the breadth and diversity of the emerging voices, it allows me to dig deeper, listen well and respond in a way that is more helpful to the conversation. It is much harder to set up a straw man when dealing with one author’s views” (p. 15). His selections seem appropriate and representative. He interacts with the published works of these church leaders. And he also took road trips to visit the churches and meet with their leaders. This contributes to a healthy tone throughout the book. On the other hand his representative voices of the traditional church are often anonymous.

After an introductory chapter Belcher tells the story of the founding of the church he pastors. Then he devotes a chapter to defining the emerging church, which he sees primarily as a protest movement against traditional churches. He identifies “seven main categories of protest” which “are helpful in summarizing emerging beliefs” (p. 39). These seven categories include captivity to Enlightenment rationalism, a narrow view of salvation, belief before belonging, uncontextualized worship, ineffective preaching, weak ecclesiology, and tribalism. This chapter is then followed by a discussion of how the quest for mere Christianity has produced deep unity at Redeemer.

The remaining seven chapters are devoted to the seven major issues that characterize the emerging church protest: truth, evangelism, gospel, worship, preaching, ecclesiology, and culture. In each of these Belcher argues that the emerging-church representatives have identified an important issue that needs correction but that they have gone too far and the “deep church” provides a better way. Each of these chapters includes illustrations of how Belcher and Redeemer have taken a “deep-church” approach to these issues.

This is an excellent evaluation of the emerging church. Belcher understands not only what the authors and practitioners believe but what drives them to these convictions. He represents their views fairly, avoiding the danger of overgeneralization or caricature. He presents their protests sympathetically and grants them the courtesy of reading them charitably. Yet he does not hesitate to identify problems with the authors’ positions or when he thinks they have gone too far. He is kind, compassionate, charitable, and clear in his evaluation and critique. At times the book appears to be a marketing tool for Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Yet the stories and specific examples from Belcher’s ministry provide the context for and concrete illustrations of the model he is proposing.

Defenders of the emerging church will find this book an evenhanded evaluation of the movement. Strong critics of the emerging church should also read this book in order to understand more clearly what these authors believe and why. Christian leaders committed to missional perspective within Christian orthodoxy will enjoy this book’s practical and pragmatic emphasis on the unity of the body of Christ and the gospel mission. Belcher has done the evangelical church a great service in this work, calling her back to the traditional view of the church while engaging the culture, calling her to an emphasis on truth and love, and calling her to the mission of making faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

—Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2012 vol. 169 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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