Leading My High Horse to Some Living Water

I finished reading Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church two Wednesdays ago after an unexpected geyser of enthusiasm obliterated my initial cynicism. The book proposes, in the words of its subtitle, “a third way beyond emerging and traditional.” A worthy investigation, to be fair. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great track record of fairness. Instead I have a record of routinely recasting would-be dialogue partners as enemies to be resisted to the last breath. Sadly, I could fill entire volumes with the tallies of how often I order in airstrikes on myself on abandoned, backwater heaps of dirt. Immediately relevant case in point: Over the summer Jeremy and Bob had wished for me to read it as part of the weekly reading plan for interns but I turned up my nose so high I couldn’t even see who was borrowing it any given week. I remember the first time I saw the book. I scanned the cover and saw black and white brushstrokes merging together and thought, Oh brother- here we go. Things got worse a picosecond later when I saw the subtitle. “A third way beyond emerging and traditional?” I fumed inwardly, carelessly skimming its pages. “What hath the emerging church to do with Jerusalem?” When I did not sense Death Star-magnitude wrath being targeted at the emerging movement en masse I imperiously slammed its covers shut and wrote it off entirely. Engage with the Emerging church? Are you kidding me?*

I don’t know where the sudden compulsion to read it all of a sudden came from but I finally borrowed Jeremy’s copy three weeks ago and promptly devoured it. It reminds me of the ent-draughts in Lord of the Rings; invigorating in its cool breeze flavor, it adds inches to your stature as you drink it down. (I guess that renders me a theological hobbit, but I’ll take that hit.)

Deep Church is written by a pastor who has years of frontline experience with emerging types and has personally witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly right there in the trenches. He planted a PCA church about ten years ago which you might find oddly dissonant with the last sentence you just read until you consider the impact of Tim Keller’s ministry as a part of that same denomination. His perspective is important therefore because he bridges the gap between my spurious stop-the-clock-at-1649 Reformed tendencies and the emerging sensibilities he sets out to critically examine.

Belcher (truly an unfortunate surname if ever there was one) very early on notes the difficulty in trying to pin down just what exactly “emerging” means. There is such a tangle of differing views underneath the big emerging tent that it’s wrong to say you have the movement pinned down by citing only one voice under that tent. Using Ed Stetzer’s categories of “relevants” (who are conservative theologically but want to contextualize the church’s practices to make more sense to the surrounding culture), “reconstructionists” (who are typically orthodox but think the church and its structure are unbiblical and irrelevant), and “revisionists” (who are open to questioning whether doctrines traditionally held by Christians are appropriate for the postmodern world). Belcher identifies seven protests against the traditional church which more or less unites the emerging church as a single front. These include: 1) captivity to Enlightenment rationalism, 2) a narrow view of salvation, 3) belief before belonging, 4) uncontextualized worship, 5) ineffective preaching, 6) weak ecclesiology, and 7) tribalism. In examining the pluses and minuses of the emerging church we must bear in mind that while they identify these same seven problem areas the various camps within the movement often have radically different answers to them.

Belcher’s frames the majority of Deep Church around these seven protests. He follows the push back from representatives of more traditional churches before offering a dialectical route forward which attempts to synthesize the best elements of traditional and emerging while remaining rooted within the historic, creedal tradition of Christianity. One of the most admirable qualities of the book is Belcher’s fairness in dealing with the ocean of issues raised by the groups he is attempting to dialogue with. One of the first heart piercings the book delivered to me was on page 52 where Belcher bemoans the lack of dialogue between emerging and traditional camps: “What is missing from the dialogue, what would help us move from accusation to mutual learning, from innuendo to trust, is honesty. Trust is confidence that the other person’s intentions are good and that we have no reason to be protective or careful around them.” Belcher thinks the shrillness of the confrontations between these two camps sounds more like the trailer park melees in an episode of Cops than a discussion between brothers. He is fairly ticked off that the Church’s witness is being hindered through the bellicosity of these evangelical factions and so he calls them both to account.

Belcher recognizes that many traditionalists identify the movers and shakers of the emerging church as theological liberals, a charge he takes very seriously. If they reject historic orthodoxy, he says, then unity is not possible or desirable. However, emerging does not necessarily equal liberal, he challenges. This is an unjustifiable conclusion in the face of the relevant data. There are differences, no doubt about that, but too often we erect Ninevah-like walls around the trappings of our particular tradition, typically low church traditions dating back at most about 200 years. Rather than willy-nilly pronouncing anathemas all over the place, we must recommit to the Christian virtue of civility. We must hold fast to that which inexorably brings us together, something greater in age and majesty than Finney- and Moody-era free church traditions.

The book’s title actually stems from his insistence upon the importance of paddling down the same stream of church history that has united the Church (sometimes more and sometimes less) over the past two thousand years: the Great Tradition, the inherited wisdom of the church of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. C.S. Lewis referred to this heritage as mere Christianity or “deep church” in an interview back in the day, no doubt peering down the tunnel of time to secure an eye catcher of a title for Belcher fifty years later.** The unity of believers which Paul begs for in Philippians 1:27 is a brotherhood built around these essential truths of the Christian faith. This unity is not something manufactured by us- it is established by God, which means that our task is to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Belcher’s thesis is that embracing the vision of the deep church will allow evangelicals to vigorously pursue this unity while at the same time not abandoning the traditions they belong to.

In the chapter “Deep Truth” Belcher frustrates simplistic attempts to understand what postmodernism is. Unfortunately, if we aren’t committed to honest, trusting dialogue we will not hear out what others are saying and what they actually mean. The word “postmodern” is bandied about like a rhetorical hand grenade anymore and people (myself included) typically use it to mean something like “relativistic.” Certainly it can mean that, but that is only a species of postmodernism (hard postmodernism, for clarification’s sake). Postmodernism in all of its colors and stripes rejects the rigid constructs of certainty and knowability that the Enlightenment sought to establish by unaided reason alone. Postmodernism is the vehemently critical pushback against the arrogance of the Enlightenment project, which means it’s actually a potent weapon in our potential arsenal. Belcher makes the point that in terms of deconstructing the undesirable baggage of the Enlightenment, postmodernism is an effective tool. Where it’s lacking, unfortunately, is in positive construction of where to go after the demolition. For emerging folks who utilize it in the first sense, jolly good- we should all perhaps hop on board! The problem arises for emerging types who look to postmodernism for the building up phase of 21st Century theology and can easily find themselves sinking in a sea of truthless uncertainty.

Belcher received a wake-up call of his own in this department and chronicles his quest for a greater understanding of what postmodernism actually is and isn’t. As you can probably imagine, if someone thinks that postmodern always and ever means “there is no transcendent truth,” then of course they’re going to condemn a missionally-minded pastor who says he embraces postmodernism in order to confront the secular culture he is a part of. What does he mean when he says that though? That’s a question we should be asking, because the traditionalists in this scenario probably see postmodernism as a continuation of Enlightenment thinking, whereas the missional pastor may be appropriating postmodernism as a clean break from (and antidote to) the Enlightenment!

One of the critiques from the emerging end of the spectrum that I found to be paradigm-shattering is that there is often such a stringent demand for belief within traditional churches that no category exists for the curious seeker to share in a sense of community during their time of coming and seeing (in a John 1 sense). “Shouldn’t belonging actually precede belief?” they ask.

As recently as four months ago I would have dismissed every similarly veined suggestion as fluffy, seeker-sensitive nonsense, unworthy of my (or any other serious-minded person’s) time. Piper’s worship seminar last November helped to etch away at that monolith of seeker disregard which used to dominate my theological landscape. In his discussion of worship in the New Testament he called our attention to how in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul displays a certain sensitivity to unbelievers in the midst of the congregation’s gatherings. He cares about these pagans who want to find out more about this this Jesus figure! Stuff like that has got to make you question the motives behind your indignation at seeker-sensitive anything. Of course it can go horribly awry and result in unjustifiable compromise, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion that that must be so!

What’s also worthy of notice is that most emerging pastors have a serious bone of contention with the megachurch, uber hip, seeker sensitive trend we all have come to loathe- this was in fact the launch point for many would-be emerging reformers! Yes, in a truly unfortunate ironic twist, some emerging churches have become the very thing they hate by capitulating to the consumer culture, but it would be extremely unfair to caricature the entire emerging camp as having done so. Many have in fact embraced admirable liturgical elements from across the centuries so as to lock in to the Great Tradition while navigating the turbulent straits of our culture.

Belcher approves of what one writer has called a centered set. He borrows this term from (you guessed it) Australian ranchers who often own enormous stretches of property which can put Texas to shame (which should happen more often). In these situations where fences are superfluous, the ranchers instead sink wells into the heart of their territories. This has the effect of allowing the livestock to roam freely but keeping them centered on the water supply at the well. The water in the well guarantees that the livestock will remain close by because their very life depends upon their proximity to it.

Belcher has adopted this metaphor for his own church and suggests that this is a legitimate way forward for evangelicals. The centered set approach allows outsiders to share in a sense of community by being invited to drink from the Well, Jesus Christ. “Humbled by our own sin and need for the gospel, we remember what it feels like to not believe. We don’t want to be bombastic or arrogant know-it-alls. We don’t set up unnecessary boundaries for those who are searching for meaning. But this does not mean we are not confident about the Well in our midst. We are not hard postmoderns. Out confidence is in Christ, not ourselves” (pg. 89). This understanding also makes possible the loving push to embrace saving faith and unite individuals to the congregation as a part of the body of Christ after the manner of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus invited people to follow him, forming a sort of wide circle around His person, but He also laid down the gauntlet of belief through questions such as, “But who do you say that I am?” This created a closer circle around His person composed of those who had embraced His identity as Lord. The centered set paradigm allows these concentric circles to exist within our churches as people move from unbelief to belief, death to life, and on to committed membership to the body of Christ.

One principle that unites almost all emerging-oriented leaders is an overall approval of culture. Traditionalists by and large condemn emerging types as worldly and compromised because of their own predilection towards disavowing any ties to the culture they inescapably are a part of. Though there are some emerging churches which do in fact stumble over the stone of syncretism, it is going too far to claim that this is a defining emerging trait. If anything, Belcher argues persuasively, it is actually the traditionalists who err most consistently in cultural matters due to an unbiblical theology of creation which views the world as inherently evil and culture as something to be resisted or ignored whenever possible. One consequence of this faulty theology of culture is an air of superiority the traditional churches adopts over against the world at large, leading to the phenomenon Dan Kimball describes as, “They love Jesus but not the church.” For individuals on the outside, “Christianity is perceived as hypocritical, sheltered, too political and judgmental” (pg. 185).

Belcher agrees with writers who contend that the traditional church has confused the world with worldliness and in so doing they adopt postures of pitiless arrogance. He quotes one such writer who notes the irony that traditionalists “become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands. We are told to be in the world but not of it. People like this are often of the world but not in it” (pg. 185). Ouch.

I’d tell you all the stuff I loved about this book but by the time I finished I might as well have typed out the entire thing. Run, do not walk, to buy this book and digest it promptly. I promise it will raise some questions you probably have answered too hastily in the past and will fan the flame of your love for the church of Jesus Christ. It is a dribble of living water issuing out the from Well in our midst and it will cleanse your taste buds of the dust of lesser delicacies!

*I’m the guy who put down D.A. Carson’s Becoming Conversant With the Emerging Church essentially because he had good things to say about it. Argh!
**Lewis is another person who I denigrated for most of the past year basically because he wasn’t a Calvinist in any immediately recognizable way. That’s a simplification but in its essence entirely accurate. Lewis was once of my heroes (before I was even a Christian, ironically!) but I began stifling my affections for him through a kind of systematic neglect in spite of how profoundly his writings have ministered to my soul.

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