A few weeks ago I downloaded Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church from christianaudio.com. It was on a special offer at the time. I found myself compelled to keep listening. The book has a website, and you can also read an interview with the author.
This book is an example of a “model” of the church. I don’t think there are enough similar books. By the very nature of it, any “model” book is going to be such that most readers will disagree with at least part of it. There are so many conflicting approaches to doing church today that the chance is high that you will not see eye-to-eye with everything any writer of such a book develops as his vision of how church is meant to be. There are surprisingly few of this type of book, but I very much enjoy reading them. Another example of this genre is Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. In both Warren’s book and Belcher’s you see a clear picture of how the church can be built. I really can’t think of that many other examples of this genre, can you? I think it does us good to read such visions, as it should help us to develop our own vision of what we believe God is calling us to build.
Belcher attempts therefore a task almost guaranteed to get him criticism. To be even more dangerous, his model is trying to steer a middle course between two avowed enemies—the emerging and the so called “traditional” evangelical church. This piqued my interest as I would agree with many of the criticisms of the so-called “traditional” or “conservative” church that the emerging people have advanced. But I disagree with almost all of their offered solutions. In particular, I am very much on the traditional or conservative side when it comes to doctrine. Oddly, however, some of those in what you could term the “Bible-focused” end of the emerging movement do sound like a bit of an echo of the “New Church” movement in which I have grown up. But, if Belcher is aiming for a “third way” between the traditional church and the emerging, I, along with many others, am working for a “third way” between the cessationist traditionals and the wacky charismatics. But enough of the model I am giving my life to. What of Belcher’s?
The first thing to say is just how much Belcher tries to be fair to both perspectives. As an introduction to both sides of the modern chasm this is a very helpful primer. He has met with many of the key figures from the emerging movement and is incredibly kind to them. In fact, so much so, that initially I was wondering, for example, what his perspective would be on the atonement, which is one of the areas of great controversy today. As the book continues, Belcher declares himself to be a believer in penal substitution, but in this and every area, he carefully explores the views of the emerging group.
Ironically, as Belcher points out, what is now called the “traditional” church is, in fact, based fairly firmly on a foundation of largely leaving aside the traditions of the centuries. “Bible Only” is the rallying call. Thus, this group could almost be called the “anti-tradition” group. Belcher argues that this dislocation from the historical roots of Christianity has led to a weakness and an inability to adapt to changes in the world while staying true to the message once-for-all delivered to the saints. In the face of the increasing enmity of the culture to the church, many conservative churches are on the defensive, possibly more actively concerned about protecting their own purity and preventing the loss of their members than saving the lost.
Early in the book Belcher does a great job of explaining the difference between the “bounded set” way of doing church and the so-called “centered set.” He explains this in perhaps the best way I have heard by the following illustration. A farmer in a nation where smaller farms are the norm will manage his farm and protect his animals by putting fences around the boundaries of his farm. These aim to keep the animals in and enemies out. A farmer with a very large farm as seen in the Outback of Australia, will not be able to do this as the farm will simply be too big to fence. This farmer will therefore create a watering hole in the middle of his farm. The assumption is that the animals will not stray too far from the water. Thus, rather than worrying too much about adherence to doctrinal statements among new attenders of churches, it is argued, we should make sure that the preaching and other key aspects of our church life are so enriching and so central that people will be drawn back continually to them. Of course, there will be times when boundaries are very much needed, and Belcher acknowledges this. But, especially for a larger church, he is dead right that the priority has to be on making the very center of church life pure.
Belcher spends a lot of time arguing for “mere Christianity” as per C. S. Lewis’ vision. It is from Lewis that he gets the phrase “Deep Church.” He argues for a return to the ancient creeds and practices of the church. Where many evangelicals have argued for “Bible only” and a rejection of anything ancient, he argues for a return of some of the practices of denominational traditions, and a return to ancient beliefs and creedal practices. He argues that only those traditions can provide an anchor that will enable us to negotiate the changing culture. You may not agree with him entirely. But you will find yourself thinking again about how we do church. In particular much of what he said about community life and interaction in church life did very much resonate with me.
Although I found that while there was much to disagree about, the very act of hearing him define his view helped me to be clearer about my own view. Also, there was much to agree with him about as well. I therefore commend this book as a helpful tool for everyone to read and be challenged by, especially by those in some form of church leadership.