Thoughts on Jim Belcher’s “Deep Church”

Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional left me deeply grateful.  I’m thankful for such an apt and (I feel) accurate summary of what the “emerging church” is and is not.  But Deep Church also left me with a longing to go deeper

An Accurate Assessment: Belcher’s right that at the heart of the emerging church is protest. Early on he writes that the “view that something is wrong with the evangelical church’ (p. 10) unifies those of us who’ve taken on the label emerging or emergent.  For the sake of clarity, he identifies seven aspects of evangelicalism which the emerging church is protesting: captivity to enlightenment rationalism, a narrow view of salvation, prioritizing belief over belonging, uncontextualized worship, ineffective preaching, weak ecclesiology, and tribalism.  These seven aspects then shape the rest of the book as Belcher identifies weaknesses both the traditional and emerging perspectives on each issue.

For the most part, I think his assessment is right.   There are a lot of things wrong with evangelicalism today which the emerging church has rightly protested.  But there is also danger in the rootlessness of some of those protests.  Like some of our Protestant ancestors, we in the emerging church have defined ourselves more by what we’re against than what we’re for, and in the process have become overly-reactionary, divisive and bitter.

Longing to go deeper: Belcher’s antidote for this rootless protest is a call for the emerging and traditional camps of evangelicalism to seek deeper grounding in the Great Tradition of the Church. This is the book’s greatest strength.  And it’s exactly where the book stirs up an appetite that has to be satisfied elsewhere.  In medical terms, if the diagnosis and prescription found in Deep Church is correct, we have to look a lot deeper to find the medicine we need.  Earlier in the book, Belcher draws on Thomas Oden’s call for a “new ecumenism,” one that is “above all committed unapologetically to ancient ecumenical teaching” (p. 54).  But the conclusions Belcher comes to in the book don’t yet reflect the depth of what could be learned from ancient and ecumenical sources. His use of Great Tradition in the book is distilled through the lens of the Reformation and then again through contemporary heroes like C.S. Lewis (from whom Belcher gets the term “deep church”).  Of course, it’s not fair to ask him to be an expert on Patristics; his story reflects his story and reveals the laudable ways he’s applied these principles in his own ministry.  But genuine engagement with the Great Tradition of the Church means more than reading the Church Fathers who were favorites of the Reformers.  There’s much to be learned from the Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal wings of the Church which can contribute to a new ecumenism.  After reading Deep Church we should start out on an unending journey through the riches of the ancient and global Church, exploring the ways the lessons of the ancients are manifest in other traditions today.

Personal Thoughts: Jim weaves his own story throughout the whole book, describing the tension that he’s experienced doing ministry in both traditional evangelical and emerging settings.  Personally, I resonated with many of Jim’s attractions to and hesitations about some of what’s going on under the broad label “emerging.”  Brian McLaren’s books were a Godsend for me at a time when I was disenchanted with the church I saw.  Throughout seminary I read emergent books and worked them into my seminary papers.  I’ve written for and nominally served on the coordinating-group for Presbymergent.  And as good as those things have been, they’ve been unsatisfying because of both their lack of roots and reactionary spirit.  I walked away from 2009 Emergent Theological Conversation grateful for having heard Jürgen Moltmann, but disappointed by the way he was co-opted and exploited to defend against criticisms of Emergent. 

This is why I’ve been so enthusiastic about what’s been happening locally in Pittsburgh with a renewal in studying the Church Fathers.  Studying the Philokalia with my friends Tim and Matt (of ACFI and now House of St. Michael) has been a way for us to connect deeply and meaningfully with the Great Tradition.  And it’s had a direct impact upon my ministry at Upper Room as we’ve learned more about what it means to be both a sacramental and missional community.   That’s where I’m encountering the deep church, and where I hope to keep going deeper.

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