Just over ten years ago, my friend Steve told me he was part of a core group that wanted to plant a church in my neighborhood, not far from downtown Kansas City, MO. He wanted to know if I knew of a place they could meet. I suggested the unused third floor of our church building. That was the beginning of Jacob’s Well, an emerging congregation, pastored by Tim Keel.
The struggling Presbyterian (PCUSA) congregation of which I was a part of played the supporting role of landlord and cheerleader from 1998 until 2003 to the newer merging congregation. In 2003, the Presbyterian congregation dissolved and sold the facility to Jacob’s Well. Jacob’s Well now has three Sunday worship services and a vibrant ministry presence in the community.
I found a lot in common with Jacob’s Well and the questions they wrestled with. I’ve attended a couple of Emergent Village events. I’ve attended local discussion groups. I continue to read books, articles, and blogs by several of the key personalities connected with the emerging church (of which Emergent Village is but one expression.) There is also a community of Emergent folks inside the PCUSA called Presbymergent that I follow. I’ve been at least at the edge of the emerging church movement since before it … well … emerged. So what is the emerging church all about?
Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional is a book by Jim Belcher, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Newport Beach, CA. Belcher offers a brief account of how the emerging church came to be and acquaints readers with the significant contours of the at least the American expression of it. I like his characterization of the emerging church movement as a desire for what C. S. Lewis called mere Christianity or “deep church.”
Belcher lays the defining features of traditional Evangelicalism and characterizes the Emerging church as a protest movement against Evangelicalism’s cooption by Modernism. While many emerging church folks share some common critique of the traditional Evangelicalism, Belcher identifies three types of responses:
The Relevants. Still hold to traditional theology but believe that worship and ministry need a serious make over for the message becomes more relevant to the postmodern world.
The Reconstructionists. Tend to be influenced by Anabaptist “resident aliens” perspectives and a desire to return to a pre-Constantinian early church model … they hold to more orthodox views of Scripture but see a need for more radical change in mission and ecclesiology.
The Revisionists. They are questioning core theological understandings as well as virtually every other aspect of what has historically been known as Christian. This third group includes some key leaders of the Emergent Village and is the group that most people first thing of when the “emerging church” moniker is mentioned. (I think it is also safe to say that the great majority of Mainline Christians who call themselves emerging are of this camp.)
Over the last two thirds of the book, entitled “Protest, Reaction and the Deep Church,” Belcher walks us through seven key issues that the emerging church is protesting. With each he explains how traditional Evangelicalism has responded to the protest and then how he sees Deep Church as a response. The book is written in a very engaging gracious conversational style, with Belcher offering considerable autobiographical accounts that relate to his journey and the formation of the church he planted.
I think Belcher has his finger squarely on the pulse of what is happening with the emerging church. He is offering some insights for how church could be done differently that escapes some of the Evangelical versus emerging church conflict, as well as some useful insights about church that have application beyond that conversation.
The book also really brought into focus for me why I always feel like such an outsider to the emerging church conversation. My frame of reference is Mainline Christianity, which has a whole different set of Modernist baggage than Evangelicals do. Postmodernism presents major challenges here as well. The only “emerging church” conversation I find is with those who identify strongly with Belcher’s Revisionist group. I’m not a Revisionist. Go to any emerging church venue that isn’t dominated by Revisionists and it’s like walking in on someone else’s family squabble (i.e., Evangelicals versus Emerging). Where is the conversation for non-Revisionist mainliners who aren’t Hauerwas Anabaptists or McLaren social progressives, but see the need for serious rethinking of what it means to be the church? This is not a criticism of Belcher’s book but rather an acknowledgement of how his clarity helps bring other issues into focus.
If you want to get a handle on what the Evangelical and emerging church controversy is about, and considerable insight on alternatives to the controversy, you need to read this book. It is one of the best two or three books I’ve read on the emerging church movement. Hat’s off to Belcher for a very important contribution to the conversation.