A review of Jim Blecher's new book on the Deep Church.
For those of you logos users out there you may already be aware of this book. Deep Church was offered for free this month on faithlife.com. I love that I can double dip on the free books between logos.com and faithlife.com. Some of you may be thinking a book with a title like this one has to be about the secret church illuminati within the Church. It would be funny, but no. This book is actually a look at the struggle between the Traditional church which includes basically all churches and the Emerging church.
Many of you will have no clue why a book like this would even be necessary because most Christians are not even aware of the Emergent Church movement. If your looking for some examples of the popular teachers in the movement, the key movers would be Brain McLaren, Rob Bell and Doug Pagitt. The movement is basically a protest against what they view as modernistic, pragmatistic and formalistic aspects of the contemporary church. Now the movement is not monolithic. Belcher lists three different divisions in the Emergent conversation as they call it: "Relevants who don't want to restructure theology but want to update worship styles, preaching techniques and authority structures in the church; Reconstructionists who hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture but are rethinking the form and structure of the church to include house churches and monastic communities; and Revisionists who question even fundamental evangelical doctrine and wonder whether they are appropriate for the postmodern world" (Belcher). Central to their message are the following seven protest:
Seven Protests of the Emergent Church
Captivity to Enlightenment rationalism- The Emergent church contends that the Traditional church has become compromised by modernism, rationalism and pragmatism as evidenced by the church growth movement and seeker driven churches.
A narrow view of salvation- The argument here is that the Traditional church has placed too much emphasis on how to be saved and not enough on living as a Christian. To the Emergent church, the gospel is about the Kingdom of God and living out the mission of Jesus.
Belief before belonging- The Emergent church believes that the Traditional church has erected barriers to belonging by requiring ascent to certain theological points such as salvation. They believe the church should have open borders where seekers can "come and go, ask questions, engage eternal issues and get to know God."
Uncontextualized worship- Because Traditional church may use music that is hundreds of years old, they have become incapable of reaching out to the current culture.
Ineffective preaching- They contend that traditional preaching has exalted rationalism and devalued experience. Spiritual formation has been relegated to the head.
Weak ecclesiology- They accuse the Traditional church of being more focused on form than mission.
Tribalism- Christendom is fractured and is known more for what it is against than what it is for. The Emergent church believes that the desire for power is behind all the division within Christianity.
The Emergent Church is pretty accurate in many ways of diagnosing the problem with the Traditional church but coming up with a solution is another story. There solutions seem short-sighted. The Emergent church revolves around the concept that the world is now post-modern and so the church must become post-modern as well. The Emergent Church seeks a relational hermeneutic based on postmodernism's constructivist epistemology that knowledge is created in community.
This hermeneutic leads to a relational-set concept of belonging within the community. There is no need to be saved in order to belong to the community. With this lack of emphasis on the salvation being necessary for belonging in the community; there is a watering down if not denial of basic gospel doctrines such as penal substitutionary atonement. They criticize the traditional gospel as being individualistic and ignoring the creation around us. Their version of the gospel is establishing God's kingdom on earth. This has to be the greatest error of the movement. I shall return to this point later.
The Deep Church
The deep church is presented as a third way: something between Traditional and Emerging. Belcher's main goal is to build a bridge between the two camps. His view of new ecumenicism rests on an agreement on basic credal Christianity that is common to all groups. He says:
“If we can agree on the essential matters, the 'unity of the gospel' then we have a shot a rebuilding trust and moving forward.”
The problem with the new ecumenicism is that there are a lot of essential differences that are ignored. Between the Traditional church and the Emergent church, the doctrine of atonement is a huge barrier. While some in the Emerging camp may not deny substitutionary penal atonement, many of the popular leaders in the Emergent camp do. Notice that I use Emerging and Emergent in contrast here. Emerging churches tend to be those in the first strand who hold traditional doctrine but challenge methodology. Emergent churches are willing to challenge even the basic core truths. In this sense, I believe Belcher is off track. The core truths of the gospel are more than just the trinity, deity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, incarnation, resurrection and return of the Lord.
Belcher might be on the right track to seek to take the accusations of the Emergent church and see if the Traditional church needs to examine a new way of doing things. He gives his own seven points to describe the Deep church:
Suggestions to have a Deep Church
Start or join a community group- This is one aspect that I believe Belcher is right on with. Believer's are called to community in the church and so often the Traditional church has failed to provide a sense of community to believers. They come to church, listen to the preaching and then go home. They never live life together as a community. We should take seriously this suggestion.
Keep the gospel of forgiveness and the Kingdom at the center of your group- This point is intended to bridge between the traditional presentation of the gospel as individual forgiveness and the Emergent churches gospel of kingdom impact. I believe there is another way of presenting this truth without the compromise of biblical doctrine.
Become missional- the phrase missional is a term used for reaching out to the community in acts of mercy. It is about time the church reached outside its four walls with both the gospel and the love of Christ.
Become a shalom maker- Belcher bases his point here on the book Creation Regained by Al Wolters. This point again goes back to having a kingdom impact on the political world around us. We are called to make peace according to Belcher.
Become a deep worshiper- Surprisingly, Belcher makes a case for traditional hymns and the roots that they provide. He challenges us to find excitement in our worship though these hymns.
Model centered-set thinking- I haven't dealt with the three modes of belonging in churches too much: bound-set, centered-set and relational-set other than the brief mention of relational set above. Belcher believes churches should be centered-set which he presents as being so Christ focused that people will be drawn to the center. A center-set church doesn't erect unnecessary doctrinal barriers but rather seeks to make seekers feel like they could become part of this community. I believe there is a lesson for traditional churches here though I still believe a bound-set model is what scripture presents.
Be the deep church first before you request it from your leaders- This point is an encouragement to seek unity and not division.
A word of caution
While I believe this book does a great job encouraging us to take a look at some of the flaws we have allowed into our churches that we wouldn't see ourselves, there are some serious unbiblical assumptions made. First, I believe that Belcher is misguided in seeking to build a bridge between the Traditional church and the Emergent church. Differences over the purpose and priority of the gospel are significant differences. Just because Traditional churches have over-simplified the gospel at times and its intended impact does not mean that a denial of core truths is acceptable. The new ecumenicism like the old denies the need to be like-minded within the church and that doctrine provides the basis for that unity as well as relationship. Secondly, the centered-set model while providing some needed challenge to the rigidity of Traditional churches and how well they invite seekers into their midst, ignores what the bible teaches about how churches are united. The bible says that many were added to the church "such as would be saved." Be inviting, but belonging cannot precede belief.