Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jim Belcher’s “Third Way” for the Church

I read this book last week and highly recommend it. I couldn't put it down. Below is a review of the book from Kingdom People.

Many of the issues related to church planting in the postmodern West are interestingly echoed in the Muslim world: the contextualization of biblical faith, how the gospel impacts worldview, and the nature of the church. 

As Belcher looks for a "Third Way" between Traditional and Emerging, I feel in many ways that I am also looking for a third way between Rejectionist and Insider.

Jim Belcher’s “Third Way” for the Church: "

Just when you thought the Emerging versus Traditional conversation had arrived at the point where everyone was safely nestled in their own camps and set in their ways, a Presbyterian pastor comes on the scene and challenges our tacit approval of evangelical fragmentation.

In Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (IVP, 2009), Jim Belcher proposes a ”third way” between Emerging and Traditional. Deep Church is for evangelicals who resonate with much of the Emerging Church’s critique of contemporary evangelicalism, and yet have misgivings about some of the proposed solutions of Emerging advocates. Using the term “deep church” from a 1952 letter written by C.S. Lewis, Jim proposes a way forward that focuses on the strengths of Traditional and Emerging churches.

The book is as much narrative as theological analysis. Jim tells the story of his early involvement in the Emerging conversation. As he evaluates the Emerging critique, he visits actual churches. Far from being an armchair critic, Jim sets out to witness what the Emerging Church is like “on the ground.”

Relying on Ed Stetzer’s division of the Emerging Church into Relevants, Reconstructionists and Revisionists, Jim then considers the validity of Emerging concerns regarding contemporary evangelicalism. In a parenthetical statement near the beginning of the book, he sets the tone of discussion by saying, ”I believe that even when I disagree with others, I can still learn from them.” (36)

The central thrust of Deep Church is a call for unity around the central tenets of the faith. Jim seeks to ground our unity in the central confessions of ancient Christianity:
“We are not ashamed of our tradition; we embrace it and practice it. But at the same time we desire and promote the broader unity of the church.” (65)
Jim’s view has postmodern sensibility, and yet he steps back from fully embracing postmodern philosophy. He critiques Emerging leaders for “jumping on the postmodern bandwagon too quickly.” He sees problems with the idea that the community’s relational hermeneutic should be the final criterion for judging right from wrong. He writes:
“Apart from revelation, there is nothing to hold a particular tradition, community or history accountable. There is no prophetic voice.” (83)
Jim also evaluates the Emerging emphasis on bringing people into relationship with the church before they actually believe. In the Emerging mindset, belonging precedes believing – even on mission trips! Jim carefully considers the Traditional church’s criticism of this idea. In the end, he advocates a nuanced view that portrays the church’s proclamation of the gospel as a well. The well attracts people closer to conversion. But at some point, Jim believes there must be an inside-outside boundary.

The chapter on the “deep gospel” is important. He agrees with Emerging leaders that the traditional understanding of the gospel has been reduced to individual salvation. But Jim ably exposes the reductionism in the Emerging view as well:
“Brian McLaren’s view of the kingdom, which is supposed to be so liberating, tends toward legalism. Without God’s atoning grace, the message of the kingdom sounds like law. and this is, I believe, why so many of my college friends dropped out of Christianity. They could not pull it off.” (119)
Regarding worship, Jim points us back to the ancient church:
“Only the living tradition of the fourth and fifth centuries, passed on through the ages… can help us contextualize the gospel in our worship without it becoming syncretistic or ossified over time.” (134)
Regarding preaching, Jim refuses to pit biblical narrative against systematic theology. He writes:
“The pastors at Redeemer preach sermons rooted in the Bible – both the drama of salvation from each of the Testaments and the wonderful doctrines of Christianity.” (139)
Deep Church is one of the best books to “emerge” about the Emerging Church. I found myself nodding my head in agreement with most of Jim’s critique and proposed solutions. And yet, I have a few misgivings of my own.

First, as a Baptist, I disagree with the idea of setting such a “low bar for membership.” Jim’s church does not require members to subscribe to anything that is outside the bounds of Nicene Christianity:
“Let me provide an example. To become a member of Redeemer Church you must be a Nicene Christian, committed to ‘living as becomes a follower of Christ’ and be willing to submit to the community. What about views on baptism? The Lord’s Supper? Politics? The end times? The anti-Christ? Although important and although we hold views on each of them, holding different views on these topics will not keep you from the Well of Redeemer and belonging to our church.” (158)
I agree that some of the above examples should not be a hindrance to membership. But setting the bar this low appears very invidualistic.

If some in the congregation believe in believer’s baptism by immersion and others believe in baptizing infants, what will take place?

If some believe that women can and should be elders or pastors and others disagree, what will happen?

If some believe in speaking in tongues during worship and others do not, how will that be handled?

My question is this: Is it possible to have a high bar for local church membership (meaning, ask for a certain level of doctrinal unity on some secondary issues) and yet still demonstrate significant appreciation for other churches and denominations that disagree? I think so. I share a certain level of unity with Jim around the central tenets of the gospel and I agree with his “centered-set hermeneutic.”

Regarding fellowship, I can cooperate with Jim as a Nicene Christian. Regarding local church membership, I belong to a Baptist church, which involves an additional level of unity on other issues. Can I still be a Nicene Christian and a convictional Baptist? Can I still be an advocate of “deep church” and have high bars for local church membership? I think so.

On another note, I wonder what the reasons are for Jim’s emphasis on the fourth and fifth centuries. Jim advocates a return to our roots, to the pre-pragmatic era of Christianity. I am glad to see the emphasis on our heritage.

But even as Jim admits “there is not a golden time to return to” (136), it appears that the fourth and fifth centuries serve as a quasi-Golden Age for the book. If we are going back so far, why stop at the fourth century? Why not return to the first?

I like the Robert Webber-influenced “Ancient-Future” emphasis in this book, but I wish that Jim would have made a case for why it is appropriate that we return to the 400’s. Why not return to the 16th century? Or the 900’s? It appears to me that our post-Christian society is becoming more and more like the world before Constantine. I need more reasons for accepting that the Christendom era Jim describes is the most relevant to our day and age.

Overall, Deep Church is a must-read for any pastor or church planter. Jim offers a proposal filled with gentle hope. If you have felt like you are caught in the crossfire between the Emerging and Traditional camps, you will enjoy insights of Jim Belcher and his hope-filled proposal for a united, stronger evangelicalism."

1 comment:

Timothy said...

Too many good books to read!