In today’s climate when a book is endorsed by both Keller and Kimball, Driscoll and Bell you do tend to take a second look. In my case I decided to read it. Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (IVP, 2009).
As always seems to be the case nowadays, the subtitle says it all. Writing as both an insider and an outsider to the emerging movement, Belcher is looking for a “third way”.
There is a lot to like about the book. It is readable. The author is open and transparent. It generates more light than heat (which is a change for this topic). He adds a little storytelling as he goes along. And he has an irenic impulse: “we must define our conversation partners in a way that they would recognise”(49).
But most of all I enjoyed the way he structures the book. Belcher wades into "seven protests” made by the emerging church. With each he articulates the protesting view of one ‘emerging’ author before considering the ‘push back’ reaction of one ‘traditional’ author – before going on to describe a third way which attracts the adjective “deep”. He seems pretty fair with people as he makes his way around Truth, Evangelism, Gospel, Worship, Preaching, Ecclesiology, and Culture. [I kinda missed my favourite one - Mission, as in Deep Mission – so wonderfully described by Kiwi Harold Turner through the 1990s and which I have posted about here.)
Particularly in each chapter's "third way" section Belcher makes some apt comments. He confronts the muddied thinking about which comes first - believing or belonging (94-104). He tries to get beyond a reductionist understanding of the gospel (112-122). He allows a critique of Brian McLaren (118) and Doug Pagitt (145f) to remain on the page - justifiably in my opinion. He advocates for old hymns as part of the Great Tradition which we need to ensure depth. Amen! The eclipse of hymnology remains an unwise and mindless arrogance in the contemporary Kiwi church which I hope will soon pass. There are some superb pages on what "deep worship" (137-140) and “deep ecclesiology” (174-178) look like, with the latter discussion concluding with “tradition is profoundly relevant” (178). The highlight of the book for me was his seven suggestions for becoming a deep church (204-206) - careful, thoughtful, accessible ... and just waiting to be put on the agenda of a few church leadership meetings!
Not everything was rosy in the garden for me, however. I did tire of the personal narrative as it kept drawing attention to himself which doesn't play well down here in New Zealand. The chapter on Preaching stands apart from the others as being so disappointing – and not just because it is an area of interest of mine. His creative energy seems so taken up with getting his critique of Doug Pagitt just right that he overlooks offering a clear and compelling 'third way'.
But my primary reaction to the book comes in what I will call a heavy bemusement and a light cynicism.
a heavy bemusement
If what he advocates as the “third way” comes to readers as fresh and energising (194-197) then we have been in a lot of trouble. I don’t mean that unkindly. It is just that his description for “deep church” is nothing other than a return to the first way proposed by Jesus in the call to be salt and light - to be in the world, but not of it - and to be "distinct from and engaged with the wider society"(195). It is not Duckworth-Lewis. I cannot begin to express the bemusement I felt when I got to this point in the book. "What - is that it? Has this not always been "it"? Why do we need a third way - the first way will do me fine thank-you very much?" Light and salt. The emerging church does tend to "over-contextualise" (30) - just like the mega-church, I might add. Too much salt. Not enough light. It has been the essential missional problem in the church in NZ for a generation.
a light cynicism
I am writing this in who-opened-the-oven-door-heat in Chiangmai, getting ready to return home to New Zealand after another tour of service in Asia. In terms of what God is doing in the world this debate about emerging vs traditional is a little eddy off to the side – far, far from the mainstream. It is a complete irrelevance for most of the global church and as we are part of this church, it needs to be more of an irrelevance for us too. I read a book like this and I ask myself, WWAS - what would Ajith (Fernando) say? ... or some other majority world thinker of the same ilk. I bet it is searingly simple and prophetic - and needs to be heard by us all!
In the book a journalist from Slovakia wryly comments that “on the front lines, all Christians are our brothers and sisters” (64). Now we are on to it! If we tried to be deeply counter-cultural and lived distinctively on the front-lines a bit more we’d find enormous unity in our endurance together – and many of these sorts of debates would evaporate.