Friday, November 06, 2009

Book Review: Deep Church

I have mentioned before that one of my personal yardsticks for measuring a book, for good or for ill, is the number of dogeared pages, underlined or highlighted passages. If I read a book and find nothing noteworthy to agree or disagree with, then I have wasted my time and my money. After finishing Jim Belcher’s Deep Church, my copy is replete with dogears and underlining, most for positive reasons and as such meets my test for a solid, worthwhile book.

Jim takes on a difficult and frankly thankless job. He is not going to make many friends, especially in the traditional corners of the church (as evidenced by a hit piece “review” from 9 Marks, a ministry that ought to be more gracious). I am not expecting to find Deep Church on my seat next year at Together for the Gospel. It is however an absolutely vital conversation to have and one that is overdue. I just hope it is not too late.

First and foremost, I commend Jim for being gracious to those that the traditional and Reformed communities have been anything but gracious to for far too long. I appreciate that Jim is willing to use words that get you in trouble (missional, community), to read books written by Christians and talk to Christians who are given the stink eye from much of the church, to ask questions and come to conclusions that are not in line with the most rigid segments of the traditional church. Jim gives these concerns and questions a real hearing, not a passing dismissal and again for that I thank him. I have plenty of books from Reformed authors that hammer the emergent/emerging crowd with nary a thought as to whether their criticisms are valid.

Much of the book is structured around the concerns of the emergent church, the response of the traditional church and the proposed “third way”, the “deep church” way. What I found to be unfortunate is that often the emergent argument was actually the one based more in Scripture and less in knee-jerk reactions and empty traditions. That tended to be a hallmark of the traditional camp, a camp that I find a great deal of common ground with. In far too many instances, the conservative traditionalists even among the Reformed are as reactionary as the most ardent fundamentalists railing against dancing and Pok√©mon cards.

I of course have some qualms. I found that a lot of the retained “Great Tradition” and other traditions that are based more in religion than Scripture to be misguided. He also favors the “ancient” rituals of the church: Reciting set prayers, liturgy, church officers, hierarchies. These traditions that stem from antiquity are not my cup of tea and I think until we unleash ourselves from these extra-Biblical traditions and the institution of the church we are going to struggle.

Another troubling aspect is how much of the book is about Jim, his church, his way. Over and over we get anecdotal stories from Jim’s life and ministry (some of which are helpful) as well as “this is how we do it at Redeemer”. In some places the book sounds more like a pitch to come join as members of Redeemer than it does an academic work about the “deep church” or it smacks of having discovered something heretofore unknown among the church which always rubs people the wrong way. I understand what he is saying and why he uses “real life” examples but I also think it opens him up, fairly or not, to charges of self-promotion. I am sure that was not the intent but it certainly comes across that way more than once.

I think the biggest fault of Deep Church is that it doesn’t go far enough. It looks for a middle ground in-between two traditions and misses the best source of what the church should look like: the New Testament. Much of what the deep church model is based on is creeds, confessions, schools of thought and philosophy. All very valuable but instead of being primarily concerned with conformation to the Scriptures, Deep Church seeks consensus among two streams of Christian theology and philosophy. It doesn’t strike me that Jim asks the obvious question: what if neither the traditional or emerging church is right? What if the third way is not a blend of traditional/emergent but instead is something completely different?

Overall, Deep Church falls short. That is not criticism but an observation. But it does so while taking a number of steps in the right direction. By opening this dialogue and asking these questions, Jim Belcher is going to pay a price among many of my fellow Reformed believers and he already has. In spite of that, he has courageously started a conversation that will hopefully spread. There are always going to be those who are looking for the next bogeyman, the next fight on both sides but for those who are in either camp and recognize that something is wrong with the way we “do church” (and something is grievously wrong) Deep Church might just be the spark to get conversation going. I hope that my fellow Reformed brothers will take the time to read this book and seriously consider the questions it raises and the concerns of our brothers who are emerging/emergent. They are not right about everything and their solutions are often off-base or even make things worse but at least they are willing to look beyond tradition and ask the hard, uncomfortable questions. Thanks to Jim Belcher for giving us a glimpse into this world that stays true to the Gospel without being snarky to those with whom we may disagree. This review sounds very negative but there is a great deal worthwhile in Deep Church and it is a book that needs to be read in the church. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves the Body of Christ and wants to see the visible expression of it be more faithful.

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