Let me give you a part of my story: Six and a half years ago I had finished my education at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and was living in Lexington, KY, working as missionary to international students. I started to hear about something I know now as the "emerging church" (EC in this review).
At the time I was already concerned about how "locked in" traditional churches were to a programmatic mindset, a cold orthodoxy, professional pastoring. I was reading my Bible and seeing something different. I started reading books by people in or around the "emerging church conversation" and found the same hunger for community, authenticity, and church vitality.
About five years ago, after coming to northern Illinois to pastor a 45 year old SBC church, I started a blog called "Emerging SBC Leaders" (later called Missional Baptist Blog) with the intention of creating a place for young SBC'rs (especially pastors and seminarians) who wanted to enter the emerging conversation. I considered myself to be in the conservative side, strongly tied to the foundations of my faith including traditional elements. But I also saw a need for great changes in the "traditional" church. My goal for the blog was to encourage young leaders to stay in the convention and work for change rather than leave. What I found through the blog was a number of younger evangelicals who like me were dedicated to Scripture, solid theology and a love for Jesus, but who were also troubled at the state of the church (including traditional, reformed and contemporary/seeker).
Today, five years later, the blog is no more. It served its purpose. But I'm still a part of a larger conversation, or movement, of younger evangelicals who are working to see the church move in a more missional and biblical direction. I feel my thinking is headed where the always reforming church should be headed.
When I saw Deep Church by Jim Belcher was coming out, I had to get my hands on it. I too have been looking for "a third way beyond emerging and traditional." Without using those words, that's the place where I already considered myself to be. This book showed me exactly where I am on the map and why I'm there, how I got there, and why this is where the church needs to be.
The difficulty in discussing Deep Church is that I didn't merely read the book. I experienced it. It kept me up one night. It had me giddy on another. Rather than give a typical review, I want to give you four things that came to mind first when processing this helpful book. I'm still processing.
I should start by saying there are two main sections of the book: 1. How Jim Belcher took a journey in both the traditional and emerging church to get to the Deep Church, and 2. The Deep Church explained through the seven protests of the emerging church (issues of truth, evangelism, gospel, worship, preaching, ecclesiology & culture).
1. You had me at "hello" -- It only took about 10 minutes to know I was going to love this book. Belcher's story resonated with my own story in many ways, and my own longing as a pastor now. If you have a story somethign like mine, I think you will quickly attach to Deep Church. In chapter 1 Belcher wrote about his longing to discard the superficial and "develop geniune family" among Christians. He started a weekly meeting that grew to a couple hundred within a few years. These were 3-4 hour meetings of in depth discussion - and it wasn't a church plant.
It's easy to hold up remarkable examples and expect it to be the norm when they will never be. But I think Belcher is on to something, born out of a love for the gospel and sharpened by the dissatisfaction of the EC to the current state of evangelicalism. It's where I am.
2. Amazing analysis -- While I'm not an expert on the "emerging church, I don't think I'm going too far to say that this is probably the best analysis of it to date. Scot McKnight, who has spoken much on the EC, has a blurb on the back cover saying the same thing. I think Belcher gets Emergent/EC issues right, McLaren right, and several other EC voices right. He has not just read their books, but gives great detail from experiences talking with EC leaders and visiting their worship services. A great resource for all interested in the good and bad in the EC.
But Belcher isn't just an analyst-critic of the EC. He's living with a foot in the EC world and the traditional church world. He speaks to both with grace and restraint. Where there is true criticism, he goes to great lengths to explain how he gets there. Deep Church isn't just a guide toward a "third way," it's also an example of speaking from a truely "generous orthodoxy." He tries to understand first, and then offers critique.
3. The Well - Born out of Frost and Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come, it's the idea that what we need is a centered-set church. A bounded-set (traditional) church builds fences, much like a farm would for livestock. But for Belcher a better approach is a centered-set where a well is in the middle of a farm without fences, knowing that cattle will only stray so far because they are dependent upon clean water from the well. The Well for the church is Jesus Christ.
This is a key idea from the book, from the chapter Deep Truth. And it's crucial to the approach of Belcher to these very divisive issues, as well as to the "third way" he is describing. Though this idea isn't totally new to me, it has hit me afresh and affected my thinking about my church deeply. It works well with the conversation lately about being "gospel-centered."
4. Restrained application -- Far from a "how-to" book, Deep Church carefully threads the needle with practical advice. Often it's not merely advice, but rather a "how we do it" explanation of Belcher's church, which allows us to see the "third way" in a context rather than as an abstract. If you want a book about quick, superficial changes for your church so that you can baptize more people asap, look elsewhere. Belcher makes you think and rethink so that your conclusions will be reasoned and deeply rooted.
Conclusion -- I think the bottom line is that Deep Church is about the roots of the traditional church, the helpful questioning and critique of the emerging church, and better answers than many in the EC could deliver. You could say that Belcher (as one in the EC) finally found the answers to the EC's questions while staying thoroughly biblical and theological, solidly traditional and historical. These are the answers so many of us have been looking for and only finding in bits and pieces along the way. They aren't new answers. But they have never been explained better as they pertain to the emerging church and the traditional church.
This book needs to be read by those in or interested in the EC. It needs to be read by pastors in traditional churches who see the need for change. I think it will be very helpful for those who see "missional" as a key term for our churches, a key correction for the traditional church.
I highly recommend Deep Church to you. But it at Amazon. If you've read Deep Church, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.