Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

FEATURED: DEEP CHURCH by Jim Belcher. [Vol. 2, #38]

“The Deeper Church:
Freeing Our Ecclesial Imaginations”

A Review of
Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.

by Jim Belcher.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Deep Church: A Third Way
Beyond Emerging and Traditional
Jim Belcher.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

“Jesus did not envision the people of God which he sought to gather as a purely spiritual, purely religious community”
— Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community.

Jim Belcher - Deep ChurchI found Jim Belcher’s Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional to be one of the most challenging books that I have read in a long time – challenging not in the sense of being difficult to read, but challenging in the sense of spurring critical engagement.  Belcher offers here a carefully argued case for a way of being church that is neither emerging nor traditional.  As a part of a church community that would seem to fall into Belcher’s targeted third way – being a 114 year-old congregation, which in the last fifteen years has been increasingly guided by the sort of missiology and ecclesiology that Belcher identifies as characteristic of emerging churches – I was eager to understand how he defines the new category that he calls “deep church.”  Given Belcher’s academic background in political philosophy (PhD, Georgetown), it came as no surprise that the new category of church proposed here was defined with the utmost rigor in its distinction from both traditional and emerging churches.  Despite the careful precision of his logic and the many points on which he and I would agree, there was ultimately something unsettling about his arguments.  This feeling of unease prompted me to read the book through a second time and then to go back through certain crucial passages for a third time.  This struggle to articulate precisely my concerns about Belcher’s work epitomizes my assessment of Deep Church as a “challenging” book.

Before launching into a discussions of the content of Belcher’s work, let me affirm that one of the finest qualities of Deep Church was the way in which Belcher presented his arguments.  As a good philosopher, he always is careful to present a sympathetic reading of those whose work he is engaging.  Admitting that he finds the caustic rhetoric volleyed between advocates of traditional and emerging models of church to be offensive to our unity in Christ, he is careful to speak kindly and respectfully, even toward those with whom he has substantial disagreements.  It occurred to me that in its form as well as its content, Deep Church is a significant work of theological peacemaking.  I pray that as I briefly seek to assess this important work (and especially as I seek to communicate my lingering unease) that my words would be as irenic as Belcher’s writing was here.

After substantial reflection, I wonder if what Belcher offers here, while undoubtedly worthy of its “deep church” name,  is perhaps not deep enough?  It seems that Belcher’s depiction of the church here – and in particular the framework of points on which he engages the emerging church – portrays the church primarily as a religious community, and not a real  all-encompassing community in the lineage of the biblical nation of Israel.  This distinction is perhaps most visible in Belcher’s concept of vocation – i.e. an individual has a vocation, which although influenced by the theology and worship of the church is pursued by the individual apart from the life of the church.  “We go about our business,” says Belcher, “without drawing attention to ourselves” (196).  This “going about our business,” our vocation, unfolds in the “real world” and the church is simply a community of moral and religious formation, where we are prepared to participate redemptively in culture.  In contrast, I would maintain that our primary vocation, our calling, as the church is to be the people of God, a real community that in its life together has it own distinctive (and contextual) economy, politics, etc.  There is, I would argue, no vocation apart from following in the way of Jesus as the church.  We are given gifts and we do work, but these must be submitted to our calling to be the church, “a holy nation, a peculiar people.”

It seemed therefore that the framework of Belcher’s description of deep church was more reflective of church as a religious community than as a real community.  Consider the points on which he engages the emerging (and traditional) churches:

  1. Truth and how theology in done
  2. Salvation: How one “becomes saved” vs. “How he or she lives as a Christian”
  3. Believing vs. Belonging
  4. Worship
  5. Preaching
  6. Ecclesiology: Form vs. Mission
  7. Tribalism vs. Cultural Relevance

As a means of engaging Belcher’s work here, allow me to offer my own vision of church beyond the categories of traditional and emerging – a vision that could be called “deeper church” and that is rooted in the experiences of churches like Englewood and Reba Place (Evanston, IL), that are seeking to be real communities in which a new economy, a new politics, etc. emerge as we daily deny ourselves and care for one another and our neighbors.  To be fair, I do see hints of this sort of community in Belcher’s work, particularly in the stories he tells of his own church community, Redeemer Presbyterian Church – of the doctor in their church who sacrificially served his family in a time of need, and of the family whose story of transformation is told in the book’s conclusion, etc.

The first characteristic of a deeper church, as I have already mentioned is that it is a real community, and not merely a religious one.  The life of the church is not only shared in common, it is holistic.  Indeed, for the deeper church, there is no life apart from that of the church community.  Let me be clear here that I am not advocating for the isolation of the church community, but rather that we engage our neighbors and the powers-that-be through the church community and not through individualistic careers.  The primary task is not (to use Belcher’s idea) transforming a culture that is external, but rather being a culture (a “contrast society” to use Gerhard Lohfink’s term) in the fullest sense of the word, whose countercultural life together bears witness to the good news of Christ Jesus.  In my experience, neither traditional churches nor emerging ones have much interest in being real communities.  Certainly there is a lot of talk about “community” in emerging churches, but rarely is it the sort of self-denying community to which we are called in Christ.

The second facet of a deeper church is that of tradition.  Belcher rightly observes that in reaction against traditional forms of church, emerging churches come dangerously close to denying essential facets of the Gospel.  Similarly, traditional churches tend to be short-sighted in the “traditions” to which they cling.  Thus, out of commitments to modernity, denomination, etc, a sort of triumphalism emerges.  Belcher bridges this divide by referring to the “Great Tradition” of the creeds and their promise of a mere Christianity.  Unfortunately, this sort of textual foundation, while useful to the modernist project of theology, does not go deep enough.  The deeper tradition is that of the people of God which began in God’s promise to Abram to gather a people, continued in the formation of the Israelite people and continues to the present in the Church.  It was within this people, this community that the creeds emerged.  Thus, the fundamental story is not only about God’s redemption of the fallen creation, but about the way in which God has chosen to redeem the world, namely by the gathering of a people.  Gerhard Lohfink has astutely noted that the language of God “making God’s name holy” that we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is a reference to Ezekiel 36:22-24 in which God’s name is made holy by the gathering of a people.

This idea that the way of Christ is primarily social leads into the next facet of deeper church, namely that of salvation.  As Belcher rightly attests, the accounts of salvation in both traditional and emerging churches are individualistic; traditional churches focus on one’s conversion, while emerging churches focus on one’s transformation.  In Belcher’s account of deep church, both of these elements are significant, but the primary story is still that of the individual.  For the deeper church, however, salvation is primarily social – i.e., God is calling and saving a people.  Thus, the end of salvation, so to speak, is not the eternal salvation (or damnation) of an individual’s soul but rather the redemption of all creation.

Related to the facet of salvation is that of atonement.  In this regard, Belcher recognizes both the short-sightedness of individualistic understandings of atonement in the traditional churches and the temptation to dissociate from “the hard edges of the cross” (111) in emerging churches.  It seems that Scot McKnight has offered a substantially different account of atonement in his lesser known and underappreciated book, A Community Called Atonement (Click here for our review).  First of all, McKnight’s account is a social/communal one, but furthermore it reminds us of our calling in the church as a cruciform people – literally, the body of Christ – a people who daily die to ourselves and who, by the grace and Spirit of God, are resurrected as a people that bears the likeness of Christ.  This cruciformity is a distinctive mark of a deeper church.  In dying to ourselves as individuals, it is no longer our individual stories or careers that drive us, but rather that of the redemptive work of God in Christ (and by extension, the Church, as the Body of Christ).

The final facet of the deeper church that I wish to name here is related to that of our cruciformity as the church.  The traditional church, emerging church and Belcher’s deep church all place a great value on cultural relevance.  The deeper church in contrast, is less concerned about relevance (or “effectiveness”) but rather with faithfulness to the cruciform way of Christ.  The alluring temptation of cultural relevance usually takes the form of diluting the cross (a love that prefers to die rather than return evil for evil) for the sake of relevancy.  Cultural relevance therefore tempts us with its own form of Christianity without “the hard edges of the cross.” In contrast, the deeper church thus forsakes the Constantinian craving for power and works from the margins – albeit margins that we, through the death and resurrection of Christ, are confident will someday subsume the whole.

Deep Church is a significant work and I appreciate the labor of love that Belcher has poured out here and his commitment to peacemaking in the church.  However, for the reasons I have very briefly sketched here, I believe Belcher’s vision of deep church does not go far enough.  I encourage people to read Deep Church and to engage it.  I am concerned however that by fixing our gaze on Belcher’s vision of deep church, we may constrict our imaginations about what God is calling us to be as the Church.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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