White Horse Inn host Michael Horton recently spoke with Jim Belcher. He is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, and author of Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emergent and Traditional (IVP, 2009).
Why did you write this book and what were the experiences behind it?
In the mid-1990s when I was doing twenty-something fellowship at Lake Avenue Congregational Church, I was part of a conversation that back then would have been called Generation X, or Gen-X ministry. Gen-X is the slacker generation that followed the Baby Boomers and includes anyone born in 1965 and some ten or twenty years after that. There were a number of folks on the staff at Lake Avenue who began entering into almost a national conversation that became the emerging conversation. There were things I liked about that conversation, but there were also things I was struggling with and wanted more of.
So we went to plant a church in Orange County, and after a couple of years when the church was going very well, I became involved in a new denomination, a new tradition, a new history. We were developing a different style of worship. We were really embracing liturgy and the church traditions and history, but we were also modern and contemporary at the same time, engaged with the culture. About 2002 or 2003, I began reading some of the books from my old colleagues: Mark Oestreicher, who is with Youth Specialties; and Rob Bell, a friend of mine and colleague who is at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids. In these books, I recognized many issues we had discussed, but there were a number of things I had some concerns with, or what I would call "Calvinist misgivings"-I get that from Richard Mouw at Fuller Theological Seminary. There were some things that I was just a little uneasy about. I liked a lot of their critique, but I didn't often like some of the answers. So I decided to set out and think-as someone who knew these guys-of what a sympathetic critique would look like.
It started that way, but within a few months of writing up the proposal and working with InterVarsity on it, I shifted from a sympathetic critique to a critique of someone who's on the inside. I realized the emerging church is more than just a few people. It's a broad movement, which I had been part of, and a lot of what they recognized as problems with the traditional church, I also held as well. So I decided not to write a critique of anyone but to work on a dialogue between the two sides-the traditional church and the emerging church-and to present a third way. I look at both sides' strengths and weaknesses and then move beyond this to a different way.
What are some of the big questions being posed by people in the emerging camp?
Is it true that the traditional church is too wedded to the Enlighten-ment, and thus it has become too individualistic, that it doesn't have a strong sense of community in that we are sanctified in community and that we grow in community? They're most critical of the megachurch movement on this: it's a purveyor of goods and services. How can they serve the individual? They're not looking to develop community. So their response to it oftentimes is home churches, house fellowships, a smaller ecclesiology that does not have all these obstacles.
It's amazing to me that this is presented as "postmodern" versus "traditional," when just twenty years ago many of us were writing in critique of this innovative model of the church growth movement based on consumerism and so forth, which they're now calling the "traditional model."
That's right, and they group not only the megachurch model into the traditional. The funny thing is, when I first started reading some of their critiques, I agreed with them. People in the Reformed camp-such as Os Guinness, you, and David Wells-have been critiquing the megachurch model for years. The emerging church throws into the critique the entire Reformed movement, the Lutheran movement, a lot of the Anglican Church-historic, confessional, creedal churches. Then the protest goes, "Wait a minute. You're throwing us into that. That's a little unfair." I find myself saying, "You're a little late to the party here. We've been critiquing this for a long time." And so I had to sort through what it is they're really after. As postmodern or as modern as they think they are, in some ways it's ironic that they're going back to models that in some ways are ancient. But the difficulty is, and I say this in the book, that they don't often link the ancient model, which they pick up pragmatically, to the ancient creeds and confessions.
What would be another critique?
Another critique would be worship. They think that the worship in the megachurch and even in the traditional church-hymns, liturgy, sermons, etc.-is antiquated and outdated and that they need to use more of the arts, be more creative, use more dialogue. So they work to be innovative, whatever it takes to engage the culture. I think it's critical that our preaching, the way we communicate, and even our worship connects with people in the pews. I don't have trouble with that. I think the difficulty comes for them when they want to do that, but they don't have a standard that will keep them from becoming exactly like the culture. Everybody likes to think they're biblical, and everybody wants to think they're connecting with the culture. But what is it that really keeps us from losing our grounding and becoming syncretistic, like the culture?
The Quakers and the Plymouth Brethren movement eschewed any kind of church office or strong emphasis on preaching and Sacraments. How much of this is really new?
John Armstrong and I visited Solomon's Porch, where Doug Pagitt is the pastor and where Tony Jones attends. Afterward, John said, "This really reminds me of the Brethren movement and Brethren services in the Sixties. It doesn't seem very emerging or that radical. I've seen it before." Interestingly, in Doug Pagitt's book on preaching, he mentions a critic who asks, "How is what you're doing in your service any different from a Brethren church service?" So even Pagitt acknowledges that people have critiqued him in that way and that there's not a lot of difference between them. When you go to the service, it's very warm, very trendy, very cool; it's almost like friends sitting around on couches and having good spiritual discussions. But there's no formal preaching of the Word, although they did talk about the Scriptures, but there's no Sacrament. I think these guys have been influenced by mentors in that Brethren tradition.
What do you think are some of the helpful admonitions our emerging friends give us?
There are many areas in which to learn and grow from dialoguing with them. I think they've actually tapped into the individualism of the church. They are calling for a recommitment to community and the importance of fellowshipping together in that part of the church. I think there are times when even Reformed believers need to have a better understanding of the corporate nature of the church.
In its public assembly, it's corporately structured in its liturgy and in its Word and Sacrament ministry; but what happens the rest of the week?
The emerging church says that our faith really needs to be taken out into the world, and so they want to engage culture, but they don't always have the resources. The irony is that the Reformed tradition has tremendous resources for understanding how our faith relates to the rest of the world and how we live together in community during the week, but we often don't focus on that as much.
In the area of the gospel and the kingdom, I think there are times where even in the Reformed camp we have downplayed the importance of the kingdom of God and what Jesus talks about in the Gospels. We oftentimes give the impression that we've pitted them against each other: justification and then the gospel of the kingdom; instead of understanding that they're really the same thing, when Jesus announces the kingdom of God and he invites us in, the process of being invited in is through atonement and through justification and through the salvific process and what Christ has done on the cross. Yet when we move into this new realm, we're into the kingdom. Reformed folks say we're not dualistic, but oftentimes we live dualistically, and I think what they're calling us to do is to live non-dualistically. Unfor-tunately, what happens is that if you don't get the atonement side right, and you move into the kingdom without that really squared off, you move then into what we would call law and there's no motivation of the gospel to keep us going.
In your book, you point out how it shares with megachurches-and even before that, with more traditional, fundamentalist, and evangelical churches-moral imperatives not necessarily always grounded in gospel indicatives.
Exactly. It's exciting the way they do it, which is different from how the old fundamentalists approached it. They're not worried about smoking and dancing, and so they're exhorting for the kingdom. When you first read it, it's very exciting: "I want to live 100 percent for the kingdom and to take care of the poor"-that is, activities you actually do find in the Bible. But as you begin to read, and the excitement wears off, you realize that these are still imperatives without the indicatives to give us the power, and you begin to find yourself losing steam. In the end, it's the same result. People are going to give up or they'll become Pharisees and be proud that they can do it: "Why can't you have the same commitment?" Most of my friends who grew up in that environment have gone back to the world and live the way they want.
One helpful issue you bring up is the priority often given to belonging over belief. Or at least, the temporal priority: first of all, people should belong and then, after a while, hopefully come to Christian conviction. What does that do to not only church membership but to baptism, especially when it seems that the model in Acts is that people heard the gospel preached, came to saving faith and then said, "What's next?" To which the reply was, "Be baptized."
That's right. This Sunday I'm preaching on Acts 2, so I'm right at that text. I think what has turned the emerging people off to a lot of the traditional church is the feeling that the message of salvation is clean up your life first and then come in. I don't think it's wrong to say that before you join the church, you need to become a believer. But we see in the life of Jesus that sinners and nonbelievers hung out with Jesus to the point where the Pharisees had bad thoughts about him. But there comes a time where he sets his face toward Jerusalem and starts challenging the crowd and his disciples, asking: "Are you with me? Do you know who I am? Do you know what I'm going to do? Do you really believe? Are you ready? Repent and believe the gospel." There is a stage where that's the natural progression.
The emerging church has done a good job of saying, "We've put up artificial barriers, whether they are cultural or moral barriers for people even coming anywhere near the church. We want to drop those barriers and let everybody in because they need to belong." I've tried to say that belonging is a part of it for some people, and it's important, but there's going to come a time where they have to be challenged to go deeper with the gospel: to confess, repent, join the church, be baptized, and so forth.
In the deep church, we have said that we want to be open and guest-friendly. We want people to be able to come and interact with us in public worship. I think Ed Clowney used to call it "doxological evangelism": let them come in and hear this in a public setting. We're going to challenge them as they come into our presence to come closer to the well that is Jesus, to the gospel, and to repent and believe. When that takes place, eventually membership happens, and they come deeper and deeper in. I had a tough decision with a guy a while back, however, who didn't want to repent or change, nor did he want to come deeper in, but he wanted to be a member and to take the Lord's Supper. I told him we were glad he was here and that he could hang out as long as he wanted to, but that the gospel was calling him to repentance.
We've spent time talking about the practical concerns about church life, that it's inseparable from the doctrine that shapes it. When we talk about the Emergent Village and the doctrinal trends you see with Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and others, does it trouble you?
All three of them are different, but there are some similarities. I began to have some concerns four or five years ago when people started saying, "We don't like the direction," and they were a little coy or weren't coming right out and saying what they were saying. There's a drift to Doug's theology with which I'm extremely uncomfortable. I find his last book really disturbing, and I think Scott McKnight would have said the same thing. I'm trying to be as gracious as I can, but I need to point out the areas in which the church needs to grow so I don't shut down any dialogue. But at the same time, when somebody really moves away from the fourth- and fifth-century consensus; that is, Tom Oden's Classical Orthodoxy or C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.
Now, we're not talking about evangelical consensus but about Christian consensus.
Yes, exactly. When you start saying that you reject these key doctrines, which have rooted the historic church for thousands of years, then you need to be called out, because at that point your community and the Holy Spirit that you said has guided you in this, has now taken you outside of a 2,000-year tradition, and that's a dangerous place to be. And so, I do call him out on that as lovingly as I can, because I had a great time visiting his church, and I enjoy him and he's an incredibly interesting guy. But when you categorically deny the blood atonement and say that it's credited to outside forces and it's not biblical, you're saying that all the doctrines from the fourth and fifth centuries and from the Reformation are not set and that you want to rethink it all. That's the part that worries everyone.
"Rebooting" is one of the phrases McLaren uses. Again, it sounds so modern. You think of Immanuel Kant and the great paragons of modernity, all the way up to the modernists that orthodox Protestants such as J. Gresham Machen were up against in the 1920s and '30s: Let's start over; let's tear down the old city blocks and rebuild skyscrapers; we'll build from the foundations up. It sounds pretty Cartesian and foundationalist.
Of course, you can do that. If you don't have the same view of outside authority-and the only authority is you and your community-then really, every generation needs to start all over again. You don't want any of the inherited wisdom of the past, because that's going to get in the way of your understanding of truth. So you throw that out, you wipe the slate clean, and you and your group get to do all the writing. And, of course, as you say, the irony is that it is very modern.
Turning now to your alternative, how would you define the third way that you're proposing here?
We have the emerging on one side and the traditional on the other. There are strengths and weaknesses in each. The way I define "traditional" is the broadly evangelical church, with a small "t." This is the movement that coming out of the Reformation would have been part of the radical reformation that moved into independent churches and became the evangelical church. The Reformed church, with its liturgy and its Word and Sacrament, really lost out when it came to American Christianity. It didn't win the battle or become part of the broader evangelical movement. When I talk about the "traditional church," I'm talking about a church that is rooted in the Scriptures, but that looks to tradition with a small "t." They are the "No creed but Christ" church. What I also call the "traditional church" goes back to the original "Tradition" with a big "T"-what Dan Williams calls the "Big T Tradition," which I think is reforming, vibrant, and dynamic and has the resources for further reformation. That's what Calvin and Luther returned to. When someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to reform the American system on civil rights, he didn't just pull it out of the ethos of the day. He went back to the Constitution and even to the Scriptures. You appeal back to something that allows you to have the moral high ground, if you will. So much of the traditional church with a small "t" cannot go back that far because they've disavowed it. And so when they get into a shouting match with the younger emerging guys, they argue as to which side is biblical. They don't have the resources to go beyond that and to appeal to the larger tradition that could get them out of this.
So, first of all, what I say is important for the deep church. When we look to form our church, we're looking at three things: we're biblical; we want to connect with the culture-being contextual and being all things to all men in order to reach them, which is important; and we have this great tradition. Obviously, Scripture is the most important, but the other two are also critical for understanding how we as the church can be connected into the twenty-first century. I think that gets us to what Newbigin says: the problem with most churches is that we're either syncretistic and we look exactly like the culture, or we're completely irrelevant and we don't connect with the culture. I think when we have Bible tradition and a desire to be missional in the culture, we're neither syncretistic nor irrelevant. We're actually extremely relevant, but distinct at the same time. We're really what Hauerwas wanted, which was a resident alien. We're both alien to the culture, but we're also residents in the culture.
Peter and the other apostles exhort us to live as strangers and aliens in this passing evil age, yet they also call us to work well with our hands, to give to those in need, to be effective in our callings, to pray for those in authority over us, and to be salt and light in the world. Negotiating that is more difficult than saying it ought to be done.
Those are the tricky parts, but I think if we look back to the grand tradition, even this tradition is being reformed, which is also what the Reformers did. The goal isn't to be primitivistic and just to go back and say that's the whole thing.
We can't, in any case.
But it becomes a resource, and it becomes a resource for navigating tricky waters such as you just raised. How do we be both distinct from the culture and salt and light at the same time? How do we stand away from the culture and be distinct as a distinct community that Christ is forming, but at the same time, engage it in love and all of those exhortations? Well, we look to the Scriptures certainly; but at the same time, there are fabulous resources in the history of the great tradition. It's what Christopher Hall calls the "history of the Holy Spirit," how it's worked through the church. Those resources help us navigate these waters so we don't become either irrelevant on one side or syncretistic or chameleon on the other.
Regardless of where we are on the spectrum of this debate and conversation, your new book is helpful. On every topic, you express your point of view in a fair and evenhanded way and state some of the representative positions out there-and you don't just go for the most obvious and egregious error-so I think it's a healthy conversation starter for those of us who need it. We all need to be part of the conversation and not just critique each other.