Deep Church | Notes & Review

Posted on September 5, 2011


Jim Belcher. Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. IVP, 2009. (233 pages)

This book is written for those who are caught in between [emergent & traditional]. They are unhappy with the present state of the evangelical church but are not sure where to turn for an answer. (13) …this book is written for those on the outside who want to understand the debate (14) …for seminarians, those who are attempting to work out their ecclesiology (14) …for pastors who have been in the ministry for a while and have begun to question how ministry is practiced in their context. (14)

CHAPTER 1: There From The Start

According to Driscoll, postmodernism is the term for life after the failure of the Enlightenment. Postmoderns are not constructing a city but building an underground community, one that undermines the foundation of modernism. It is developing a radically different environment of inclusion instead of exclusion, community in place of individualism, service instead of power. Postmodernism rejects the narrative of universal truth based on reason, proposing instead that truth is local, found in communities of meaning. (25)

CHAPTER 2: Defining the Emerging Church

…if this whole conversation is about adopting new methods to reach a changing cultural environment, then the emerging dialogue is not so revolutionary. It is a conversation of contextualization, not wholesale change, … (37)

When someone in the emerging church calls for the total recalibration of the church, they are saying that the traditional church has been wrong–that its understanding of the church is unbiblical. (30)


  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


“relevants” – theologically conservative evangelicals who are not as interested in reshaping theology as they are in updating worship styles, preaching technique and church leadership structure

“reconstructionists” – typically hold to a more orthodox view of the Gospel and Scripture but are rethinking the current form of the church and its structure.

“revisionists” – are open to questioning key evangelical doctrines on theology and culture, wondering whether these dogmas are appropriate for the postmodern world.

…we must define our conversation partners in a way that they would recognize. …It is wrong, cautions McKnight, to narrow emerging to emergent, emergent to Brian McLaren, Brian McLaren to postmodernity and postmodernity to denial of truth. (49)

CHAPTER 3: The Quest for Mere Christianity

Trust is confidence that the other person’s intentions are good and that we have no reason to be protective or careful around them. (53)

The problem for evangelicals, Stott contends, is that we have a “pathological tendency to fragment.” We place doctrinal purity over unity, or we stress relational unity over sound doctrine. The reality is that Jesus wants us to be equally committed to both–the peace and purity of the church. (54) [VIA: I’ll get to this a bit more in my comments below, but it is statements like these that make this a hard read for me. First, is the polarizations and false dichotomies that Belcher posits. Second, this is the first of two references to Jesus in the entire book, which is fine except for Belcher’s closing remarks.]

Christians whose traditions have long separated them from each other are now finding their unity in the classical consensus. Trust is being rebuilt! “How do such varied Christians find inspiration and common faith within this joint effort?” “By affirming together,” says Oden, “that the texts on which Classic Christianity” rests are ecumenical and catholic in their cultural range. (59) [VIA: Here is another difficulty, a plea to the creeds, a significant contention within the emergent/traditional conversation that is simply assumed as a starting place.]

I guess in the hypercharged world of polemics and rhetoric, we feel we have the right to suspect anyone who does not hold our positions. (59)

CHAPTER 4: Deep Truth

We agree with Frame that the most important things are those that are most broadly confessed across denominational and theological traditions. (67)

…the emerging church’s understanding of postmodernism is very different from the traditional church’s, which has created all kinds of confusion, distrust and animosity. (75)

…foundationalism…is a quest for certainty. It is an attempt to justify one’s beliefs, to build them on a foundation that can’t be assailed.” (77)

Foundationalism is the view that knowledge can be based on self-evident truths that don’t need any backing from religion or any other external authority, that is, knowledge that has “invincible certainty.” (78)

“Nothing is bomb proof or certain when it comes to what we know. Classical foundationalism built on self-evident truth is not tenable.” (78)

Postmodernism helps us see the importance of interpretation as well as the fallacy and danger of universal, totalizing reason. (81)


It is one thing to reject classical foundationalism but quite another to explain how we take our varied interpretations and build a way of life out of them. (81)

…although postmodernism is open to some revelation, it cannot and does not provide an outside authority to guide life in community. (82)


“Splitting the two,” says Nick Wolterstorff. The trick is to be neither foundationalist nor anti-realist. We can’t meld an incompatible metaphysic and epistemology, which both sides have tended to do. A third way rejects classical foundationalism and hard postmodernism. This is what it means to be the deep church. (83)

First, I have no doubt that the deep church must be postfoundational. … We do it by living within the biblical story, which teaches and transforms us. (84)

Second, the deep church believes in foundations. But the foundations are built on belief, not reason. (84)

Third, we stand firmly in what Newbigin calls “proper confidence.” (84) The deep church calls this “multiperspectivalism.” (85)

It’s my contention that the deep church is postfoundational and centered-set. (87)

CHAPTER 5: Deep Evangelism

In other words, they have reduced “conversion to doctrinal affirmation or the transfer of theological information.” He rejects this view because it is not biblical. Conversion can’t be reduced to simplistic formulations. (95)

I’m in favor of belonging, but I don’t want to shortchange belief. (96)

Can we stress belonging without stunting the growth of mature Christians who are already part of the community. (98) [VIA: Excellent question. This is living in the tension, and that ought never be “resolved.”]

“In the first part of Jesus’ ministry, he’s training the disciples so they would know exactly who he is. …Jesus is answering the disciples’ questions about Jesus’ identity. …Jesus would not embark on his final journey to Jerusalem until after this specific transition took place. (99) This major transition occurs once the disciples finally understand exactly who Jesus is. (100) [VIA: Is this a fair statement, that they “finally” understood “exactly” who Jesus is? I find this to be a bit dubious.]

…throughout the second section of these three Gospels Jesus repeats this prediction of his upcoming sufferings, death and resurrection multiple times.” (100) …But once they joined the community, Jesus challenged them to not just be part of the community but to commit themselves to him. …They became his disciples.” (100)

What empowers us for discipleship? The key is understanding the gospel of the kingdom in all its fullness. (104) [VIA: But isn’t that exactly what the “emergent” church is attempting to do? So, how could this be a “third way?”]

CHAPTER 6: Deep Gospel

Brian’s concern for the kingdom of God, they [the Traditionalists] contend, does not bring balance to the church but fundamentally changes the Christian message. (111) [VIA: And in this statement is where I fear Belcher has established his ethic. There is an attempted balance between these two that he is striving for without seriously asking the question ought the “Christian message” actually be changed or rather, re-established?]

Both claim that they are misunderstood. Yet, ironically, both claim to understand the other side perfectly well, which is why each rejects the other’s position. (112) Can we learn from both sides and maybe even transcend some of each side’s weaknesses? I think we can. (112)

The way forward is to realize that each accuses the other of reducing the gospel. The traditional church argues the emerging church has reduced the gospel to social action and the emerging church contends that the traditional church has reduced the message to individual salvation. (112) [VIA: But one is correct, and the other is incorrect.]

CHAPTER 7: Deep Worship

Ron argues that the emerging church at its core is anti-authority, anti-tradition and individualistic. (131)

Put another way, I suggested to Dan that the emerging and traditional churches have the same Achilles’ heel, a faulty view of tradition. (133)

Robert Webber warns evangelicals about the danger of “primitivism” (the belief that we can return to a golden age of the church). There is no return to the pristine church, no true historic form; it never existed. (136)

In order to be faithful we must draw on not only Scripture but tradition as well. But we also draw on our cultural sensitivities and our desire to “worship before the nations,” making sure that our worship is accessible to an outsider. (137) …The following points reveal how Redeemer Church has attempted to accomplish deep worship.

  1. Ancient and new
  2. Biblical drama
  3. Joy and reverence
  4. Priesthood of all believers
  5. Profound but accessible sermons
  6. Weekly Communion
  7. Guest friendly–doxological evangelism

CHAPTER 8: Deep Preaching

But the problems ran deeper than just lack of dramatic movement. We were exhorted to love Jesus more, live more faithfully, avoid the world and serve obediently in the church. This kind of preaching tended to be moralistic and legalistic. We were told what to do but not where the power comes from to do it. The call to obedience was positive and negative–flee the world and serve God. I remember someone summing up the message of this kind of preaching with, “You suck, try harder.” Growing up I got a steady dose of this. I could never seem to pull it off. The harder I tried, the more I failed. I wanted to love Jesus and serve him, like my pastors asked, but I kept falling so short. I bounced from being “on fire” for Jesus to being totally indifferent and demoralized. Every winter at church ski camp I recommitted myself to Jesus only to return from the mountain-top experience and break this commitment the next day. The guilt tore me up inside. I was a mess and I knew it. But I did not know what to do. I just kept going to church where I was told to try harder.

But nothing seemed to work. And it did not work for my friends. Within a few years after attending a Christian college, many of my friends, who like me had grown up with this kind of moralistic preaching, had walked away form the faith. They just could not get their life to measure up to the ideal that preaching presented. No matter how much knowledge they accumulated about the Bible, it did not help. They gave up in frustration. I don’t blame them.

I discovered this type of preaching produced two kinds of people: (1) Pharisees, who were proud that they were pulling off the Christian life, or (2) dispirited dropouts, who simply gave up because they could not live up to the high expectations.


Doug is not calling for a new technique to energize traditional preaching. He is calling for a new method that is intimately connected to his relational-set hermeneutic. (147)

CHAPTER 9: Deep Ecclesiology

Institutions care most about their survival. …They want safety, not challenge; security, not risk. (162)

…”church always face the twin dangers of cultural captivity and cultural irrelevance.” (170)

The following outlines five practical ways these are worked out in the deep church.

  1. Balance. …be both institution and organism.
  2. God calls leaders.
  3. Worship as a means of grace.
  4. Cultivate tradition.
  5. Tradition is profoundly relevant.

CHAPTER 10: Deep Culture

Though the Bible rejects worldliness, it does not condemn the world, which, of course, includes God’s creation. (185)

Sociologist Christian Smith argues that evangelicalism best thrives when it is simultaneously distinct from and engaged with the wider society. (195)

We should be known as those who create culture for the common good, for all people and not just fellow believers, culture that makes life better, whole, for the entire city.

CONCLUSION: Becoming the Deep Church

  1. Start or join a community group
  2. Keep the gospel of forgiveness and the kingdom at the center of your group.
  3. Become missional
  4. Become a shalom maker
  5. Become a deep worshiper
  6. Model centered-set thinking
  7. Be the deep church first before you request it from your leaders.


My goal is that you have seen Jesus in this book. [VIA: While I understand the sentiment behind this statement, I have actually seen very little of Jesus. Rather, I saw quite a bit of upper/middle-class privileged, Western, white men arguing.]

— VIA —

Let me first say that I deeply appreciate Belcher’s work. I resonate with the endorsements that this is important. It seems so terribly difficult to have a conversation these days where true understanding takes place, and Belcher has done his homework and has graciously striven to find a “third way” of having these internecine debates. I honor the work and research that he has put in, and the the fact that he is a pragmatist in his own congregation/community that he leads.

However, as I have already interjected my comments in the quotes and notes above, there are several problems that I see with this work that may ultimately compromise the very things Belcher is attempting to remedy. With all respect to the title, it doesn’t seem as if Belcher really goes deep enough to discover the deeper realities behind these conversations and ideas. I perceive that this is the result of Belcher’s strong value for reconciliation, a value which I cherish, but one that, in my estimation, has compromised all three — Emergent, Traditional, and the “third way” that Belcher is proposing.

Thus, throughout the book, Belcher makes the argument that there is an equal misunderstanding by the Traditionalists and the Emergents. But he admits that many, if not all of the Emergents are either products of or defectors from the Traditional Church. Thus, it is clear that the Emergents have quite a clear view of what the Traditional Church is, what it stands for, what it teaches, etc. The misunderstanding, stated as objectively as possible, lays on the side of the Traditionalists. The story he tells of the interaction between John Piper and Tony Jones & Doug Pagitt on pages 10-12 evidences that quite well. Agree, they have very different epistemologies, worldviews, and theological conclusions. But it is clear from even that conversation, and many others, that the Emergents know well the Traditionalists, where as the Traditionalists are confused about the Emergents. This is, in my estimation, a problem for Belcher’s work, mainly that in an effort to bring reconciliation, in an effort to find common ground and unity, there must be “equal blame” to come to the table. In all reconciliation efforts, this is an important first step, and I value the ethic. However, it is dangerous to the deeper realities and the deeper truths about the circumstances that are before us.

Perhaps “truth” is not as important a goal in this work as is “reconciliation” and “unity.” Perhaps. But is it worth it?

In that same vein, some of the elements Belcher uses appear to be polarizations that are perhaps real, but exacerbated for the point of the writing, and some of them with slight misrepresentations for the sake of “equalizing” the argument. Some dichotomies are simply false (which I’ll get to), and the issues are actually not so at odds with each other when reading carefully.

And, more problematic is that Belcher’s attempt at proposing a “third way” is actually a re-framing and restatement of one of the two sides. In other words, “the third way” in some issues for Belcher is really “the Traditional way” with some “Emergent” influence. (Not to mention that Belcher’s congregation is, by definition, emerging.)

To some specifics.

On page 82, Belcher states “I am not comfortable adopting a relational hermeneutic. I believe that God’s revelation in the Word tells us what is real and provides the authority for Christian community.” (82) There are two problems. First, this statement at face value is a Traditionalist perspective. This doesn’t sound very much like a “third way.” It sounds very much like the foundationalism that he dismisses a few paragraphs above in the chapter. But second, (and here’s to the deeper truths), his adherence to the Word being “God’s revelation” is a relational hermeneutic. This is an idea that was passed down to us by communities of faith. I know I am in the minority in this thought, but I simply have not been persuaded that any of these “doctrines” are anything else but relational and communal.

On page 83, Belcher critiques the Emergent side stating, “But apart from revelation, there is nothing to hold a particular tradition, community or history accountable. There is no prophetic voice.” This is an example of a misrepresentation. Just because the accountability is fluid and flexible, and just because accountability doesn’t look authoritarian and hierarchical, doesn’t mean that it does not exist. In addition, to state there are no “prophetic voices” is perhaps a bit overly dramatic. The Emergent side is full of prophetic voices, many who are listed in the book.

On page 61, Belcher appeals to “Classical Christianity” (the creeds) as our common ground. While different from my other critiques, this is simply perplexing. Especially when he gets to the “Deep Culture” section of the book. The creeds, and “Classical Christianity” emerged within the particular culture(s) of that time. Appealing to that segment of our history seems arbitrary? Why not first-century Judaism? Why not the “Shema?” Why not first-century metropolitan ecclesiology?

The chapter on evangelism (chapter 5) discusses belonging vs. belief. Let me reiterate, I appreciate the conversation. However, his illustration is a homosexual parishioner. He discusses his wrestling with this individual’s membership, and simply presumes that this is an agreed upon issue. He states matter-of-factly, “I want to follow my conscience on biblical matters.” (97) (A Traditionalist perspective). Then there is the statement that “the New Testament emphasizes teaching and doctrine” (97) (another Traditionalist perspective), however, he provides little to substantiate this claim. Not only does Belcher not resolve the “issue” of this homosexual individual and maturity in Christ within his congregation, but states all of these items as mere assumptions, again, from a Traditionalist perspective, then uses them as the grounding place for the “third way” church proposition.

In his work on Brian McLaren, Belcher writes, “I get the sense that his critique of the traditional church’s gospel reductionism has led him to downplay certain doctrines of salvation — the doctrine of atonement and more specifically the teaching of justification and penal substitution. He doesn’t deny these teachings but downplays them in an unhealthy way.” (113) What is missing, Belcher contends, is the ” ‘how’ of Jesus accomplishment through the cross, through the blood of Jesus and forgiveness of our sin.” (117) On page 118 he says clearly that “Brian is not denying these doctrines, but by not mentioning them he may be allowing them to eventually die of neglect. And besides, without them the definition is not correct. This is, I am afraid, gospel reductionism.” (118) I find this evaluation to be a bit unfair. First, the critique seems to be centered on McLaren’s absence of statement. But as any teacher/writer knows, it is impossible to say all things, so one must choose to say the most important things in some areas, and that in balance with what others have already said. Second, this is, in my view, evidence that the Emergent sector (McLaren in particular) understands the atonement very clearly, and is attempting to bring balance to the definitions and meanings behind the Scriptures in this area. This is not “gospel reductionism” as Belcher puts it, but rather “Gospel expansionism” without putting a whole lot of emphasis on what is already understood by Traditionalist definitions of atonement.

In Chapter 8, Belcher writes, “But when preachers contextualize the Bible to culture without the wisdom handed down through the ages, we too easily allow culture to shape our theology.” (153) But again, he appeals to Nicaea, which was a culture that shaped theology.

Chatper 10 on culture seems to suggest that we ought to be culture creators. I actually agree with much of what he writes here, but must point out that the “deeper” realities of culture have to take into account two specific things: the “artifacts” of culture, and the “values” of culture. Call it the “hardware” and “software” of the human experience. While I can’t elucidate on this at all here, many have written about Christianity’s continued influence on the culture through its values. I would argue, the artifacts, are not of much concern in Biblical narrative.

Let me bookend this by saying again that I appreciate the work Belcher did, the values that drove his writing, the conversations that this book has begun, and the reconciliation that is to be had. I am a richer person for having read this book. I simply do not see Belcher’s “third way” as a third way at all, but rather a compromise of two polar opposites with Traditionalist leanings and biases. Taking some from one and taking some from the other, dismissing the extremes of either side does not make a “third way.”

However, in spite of my critique of this book I will encourage colleagues to read it and immerse oneself in the loving and listening conversation a practice that was clearly evident in Belcher’s work.

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