Book Review: Deep Church by Jim Belcher

Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Jim Belcher has written an irenic and constructive proposal for charting a course somewhere between traditional churches and emerging churches.  He calls it “deep church,” and it is his proposal for a “third way” to do church. 

Belcher’s personal bio is interesting.  He is personal friends with nearly all the emergent/emerging leaders, yet his denominational affiliation with the PCA is far more confessional than many of his peers.  As he puts it, he is both an insider and an outsider (23-31).  This makes him an ideal candidate for drafting a conciliatory “third way.”  His writing shows his intimate acquaintance and appreciation for the emerging church, something that stands out against sea of criticism; yet, his theological convictions frame his acceptance of the emerging church. 

After introducing his story in Chapter 1, Belcher ‘defines’ the emerging church in Chapter 2.  He lists seven protests commonly made by “emergents.”  These seven responses to the traditional church outline the rest of the book (see chapters 4-10).   

In Deep Church, Belcher appeals to the likes of C.S. Lewis and calls for a return to “mere Christianity,” or more particularly, “mere ecclesiology.”  Leaning on the early church creeds, he sets out to define ‘two tiers’ of theology—one that “divides the essentials of orthodoxy from the particularities of differing traditions within the boundaries of orthodoxy” (60).  In making this critical distinction, Belcher supposes that churches can improve unity while still recognizing differences.  His point is well made, however his two-tier system lacks a necessary third distinction.  He equates unity within churches to the unity between churches.  However, there must be more unity within a congregation for the church to live in harmony than between two gospel-believing congregations. 

For instance, a Baptist church could clearly partner in an evangelistic campaign with a Presbyterian church, but try to unite these two churches constitutionally and differences concerning (paedo)baptism and church government will erupt.  Many other illustrations could be supplied.  All that to say, Albert Mohler’s theological triage (three-levels of doctrinal distinction) would improve Belcher’s argument, without taking away from the aim of his entire book.

Chapters 4-10 are the core of Deep ChurchThe format of each chapter is approximate: he takes up a specific EC protest, considers its validity and it problems from both sides, and then appeals to a particular “expert” on the matter (e.g. Francis Schaeffer on evangelism, Nicholas Wolterstorff on truth, Richard Mouw on the gospel, to name a few).  Then, Belcher concludes with practical steps towards the Deep Church and often illustrates his point with an example from his own experience. 

Overall, Deep Church offers a number of salient points with much food for thought.  Yet, its lack of biblical exposition added to an unwise neglect of 1500 years of church history weakens his argument immensely.  Favoring the church fathers, Belcher disregards the theological advances that have come from the likes of Protestant Reformers, Puritan divines, and congregational theologians.

In sum, Deep Church is orthodox and advances the conversation on twenty-first century ecclesiology.  It will stretch and challenge both traditional and emerging pastors to contextualize the gospel and to think deeply about the church.  But, at the end of the day, because Deep Church grounds its arguments in human authorities and promotes an outdated, Fifth Century ecumenism, I am hesitant to recommend it to church members looking for Biblically-saturated help.  For thoughtful pastors, it is a stimulating book, but for the inquisitive layman books by Clowney, (The Church), Carson (The Church in the Bible and the World; Becoming Conversant with Emerging Church; , Dever (What is a Healthy Church?; Deliberate Church), Stott (The Living Church) and especially J.L. Dagg would be better.

(Other Reviews: Deep Church has gotten a lot of attention in book reviews.  If Belcher’s book interests you, check out the balanced review by Kevin DeYoung  and an excoriating one by Greg Gilbert.  I appreciate Greg’s concern for Belcher’s light treatment of penal substitution–I share his concern with any model of the atonement that truncates the legal and vicarious nature of the cross–but I think DeYoung’s review is more helpful in evaluating Belcher’s third way, which DeYoung describes as the traditional way mediated through Tim Keller.)

 Soli Deo Gloria, dss