How far is too far? Where in terms of theology, ecclesiology, worship, preaching and mission do we draw the line in the sand and say this is too far and has lost sight of orthodox or biblical Christianity. And with regards to ecclesiology, or worship, or contextualization, where the Bible is interpreted differently, by what criteria do we even being to decide that something is too far?
These are some of the issues that have been raised with regards to the Emerging Church movement. Criticisms and even charges of heresy have been leveled against Emergent leaders and their methods, while the emergent leaders accuse the traditionalists of being out of touch, irrelevant and stuck in the past.
Jim Belcher’s new book, Deep Church, looks to steer a third way between the emergent movement and the traditionalist / reformed approach. Why a third way? According to Belcher there is good to be found in both positions. The birth of Emergent came from the desire for the church to be more engaged with our postmodern culture. They raise excellent questions at some of the irrelevance and detachment of the traditional church. Each chapter of Deep Church is an analysis, critique and response to seven ‘protests’ of the emerging movement against the ‘traditional’ Church; 1. Captivity to enlightenment rationalism, 2. A narrow view of salvation, 3. Belief before belonging, 4. Uncontextualized worship, 5. Ineffective preaching, 6. Weak ecclesiology & 7. Tribalism (i.e. unwilling to engage the culture). The traditional church in response claims to stand on 2000 years of historic Christianity which they feel the emergent movement is simply discarding. Of course the debate (or argument) that usually takes place between these two sides too often focuses on the extremes of each tradition, and making any unity or move towards each other very difficult.
Belcher writes clearly and with objectivity. He represents both sides with fairness acknowledging both the good and the bad. He also writes as someone who has traveled this journey and personally wrestled with the issues on both an intellectual and practical level. Neither is he writing from a position of here-say or assumption. Belcher has visited the churches, spoken with and has even becomes friends of many of the leading emergent figures.
Belcher’s response in each chapter is his proposed third way and it is the core of the book. This is no symbolic attempt to mediate between the two sides. This is a very real, practical and reasoned proposal for being church. From my perspective the emerging church has been stuck in ‘critique’ mode. Its only message being “the traditional church is dying”. All the books I have read have not really moved the ‘conversation forward from critique to real action. The traditionalists have also been stuck in critique mode, offering no real response. Here, in Deep Church, Belcher offers a way forward – a real response.
What I love about the book is that unlike other recent books that have tackled the emergent movement, Belcher speaks as one who has a real foot in both camps. He sees the real issues that the emergent movement have raised, but he is not willing to accept the complete re-write of historic Christianity which some in emergent are moving towards. For Belcher the anchor, or the line in the sand for the emergent movement should be the authority of scripture and the traditional historic creeds and confessions of the ancient church. But that should not quench creativity in worship, relevant and exciting (but biblical) preaching and strong community which leads to a real and transformative commitment in Jesus Christ as savior.
For this reason Belcher’s book is both timely and important.
I have commented (here & here ) on my own frustrations with the emergent movement. I have appreciated the questions they raise and have sympathized with their frustrations. I was involved with an emergent type church in the UK and I have even had a chapter published in a book edited by Spencer Burke here in the States. But I also feel that too often they cross the line of biblical Christianity.
Belcher’s book thoroughly resonated with me and it is a book I would highly recommend and encourage people to read.