Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

dCBrian McLaren, the often cited “theologian” and “father” of the emerging church movement, wrote something in the introduction to his book A New Kind of Christian that has always stuck with me. He had grown up in a fundamentalist sub-culture, had been pastoring an independent community church for many years and was writing about his crisis of faith. He recalls having a moment of clarity when he realized he had a major decision to make: (1) he had to stop being a Christian or (2) he had to find a new way to be a Christian. Even though he didn’t use this language, he was, in a sense, looking for a third-way.

I had a similar “faith-crisis” experience in college, so as I read A New Kind of Christian, I had mixed emotions of frustration and gratitude. I was frustrated because the strength of the new “way” McLaren was looking for, I had found in historic (reformational) theology. My newly energized faith was being built on the biblical theology of Herman Bavinck, the cultural criticism of Herman Dooyeweerd and the cultural engagement of Abraham Kuyper. I was also being nurtured by more recent expressions of culturally engaged evangelicalism from Lesslie Newbigin, Al Wolters, Os Guinness and John Stott. As I read McLaren’s supposed “new” way to be a Christian, I kept thinking: “Why doesn’t he know or cite these Christians!” I often contended that had McLaren (and others) read Creation Regained (Wolters), The Transforming Vision (Walsh & Middleton), Reason Within the Bounds of Religion (Wolterstorff), or When the Kings Come Marching In (Mouw) the whole emerging church movement may never had happened.

In Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional, Jim Belcher makes a similar case. He points out that a third-way is possible, but that many of the emerging church leaders have failed to see that it was here all along. First, he defines and separates the emerging church family into three helpful types: (1) Relevants: leaders who are not as interested in reshaping theology as they are in updating worship styles, preaching and leadership; (2) Reconstructionists: leaders who are mostly orthodox theologically but who focus on changing church structure, often moving toward more informal forms of worship; and (3) Revisionists: leaders who question evangelical theology and pretty much everything else.

Making these distinctions is essential in order to get a better picture of what the emergent movement is trying to do and to better clarify our critiques. Most relevants are simply evangelicals that want to attract more people to church; most reconstructionists are evangelicals who don’t see the value in the “organized” church; and most revisionists are Christians who aren’t sure they want to be evangelicals. If you have a problem with seeker/market driven/hip mega-churches, take your shots at the relevants. If you think formal church structures and denominations are vital (even biblical), criticize the reconstructionists. If you think orthodox/evangelical theology as outlined in the creeds and confessions of the traditional church is essential to following Jesus, revisionists will drive you nuts. But, with the help of Belcher, at least we have a better sense of where the lines are drawn.

I grew up in the Lutheran church, was a part of a “free church” for ten years and currently worship in a Mennonite community. I deeply resonate with Belcher’s longing and need for tradition. I’m impressed by the way he has discovered an implemented a third-way at his church: especially his well-rounded, blended forms of worship music and weekly communion. I also appreciated that Belcher affirms the emergent emphasis of “belonging before believing” and yet challenges the emerging churches to call people to commitment.

For my work, I was most interested in Belcher’s story of how learning about the Gospel of the Kingdom revolutionized his college experience. As a college student he realized that his faith was indeed “something big enough to base my life on.” I had a similar conversion experience toward a more holistic, culture engaging Gospel during my later years of college and early young adulthood. Belcher and I have been aided in this journey not so much by re-inventing or re-imagining a new way to be Christian, but in realizing the many faithful Christians of the past who have wrestled with similar concerns and provided the church with helpful tools to navigate faithfulness.