Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

(IVP; USA, 2009)

This is the first book I have read on kindle which was fun!  If you didn’t know, you can get a free version of kindle for PC from Amazon which means books cost around 1/3 the price!

Deep Church is a thoughtful and useful critique of Emerging Church movements and the Traditional Churches which have spawned them, focusing on the US context.  What was particularly interesting to me was that Belchers ‘third way’ seemed not much different from the kind of ‘classical christianity’ that many in the Anglican tradition might take for granted.  (JB interacts with the ‘new ecumenism’ of Tom Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, to define this term.)  Given that Belcher’s critique focuses on protestant traditions in America, it was really helpful to gain some perspective on the differences within the Emerging Church world wide.  I felt that Emerging from an historical Anglican context differs from the US context Belcher is describing in a few significant ways:  1. it’s existing liturgical and sacramental practices;  2. stronger continuity of pre-modern Christianity through-out the Enlightenment era;  3. a more sophisticated expression of the reformed priority of scripture;  4. a habit of unifying fellowship with others in the denomination holding different perspectives which, when coupled with strong leadership in the hierarchy like it has in the UK, promotes experimentation with new forms or formats without fragmentation.

In a similar vein, it was helpful to reflect on JB’s three main groups in the emerging family – 1. relevants;  2. recontructionists; and 3. revisionists.  Each of these groups have a different hermeneutic and a different relationship to the historical church.  I am oversimplifying the book’s analysis when I say this, but it is particularly useful to distinguish the engagement with post-modernism in these distinctions.  JB argues that much of the misunderstandings (and mistrust) between the emerging church and traditional church as a whole are derived from different interpretations of postmodernism, seen clearly in the debate around whether postmodernism is a cultural shift continuous or discontinuous with modernism as expressed in the Enlightenment.  The term postmodernism is now used loosely in a wide variety of contexts to describe the fact that the western world has changed radically in the past half century.  I would call these sociological (or socio-cultural) definitions.  However, in philosophical and political terms postmodernism is referring to something much more specific – about ways of new ways knowing and thinking which are commonly grouped under the terms ‘relativism’ or ‘pluralism.’  The questions are around subjective and objective reality – in what way is the gospel a universal entity across time, space and relationships?  It is easy to see how mistrust occurs if one conversation partner is assuming post-modernity is synonymous with subjective relativity and the other is using the term to refer to a cluster of cultural shifts!  My own version of post-modernity is, unsurprisingly for a sociologist, a socio-cultural definition but it  incorporates reference to the epistemological and hermeneutic shifts in response to the new global realities made possible by the technological revolution.

A second thread of insight that I gained from reading Deep Church was incidental to the book itself.  JB has quite a good discussion on the debate about ‘bounded set’ ways of being:doing verses ‘centered set’ ways of being:doing  – a model made familiar to many in Australia through Al Hirsh, Mike Frost and the Forge network.  (If you’re unfamiliar with these terms check out M Frost & A Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come:  Innovation and Mission for the  21st-centrury (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003)).  In a centered set model, individuals are drawn to the central gathering point (eg. Jesus)  by virtue of their own desires for connection rather than by virtue of rule or role.  Anyone who is turning towards Jesus is welcome in the community.  JB proposes that, in order to retain objective tenants of gospel belief, a gospel community must maintain an ‘inner circle’ of belonging.  A circle of people who will maintain the truth and subscribe to the high standards of living prescribed by the gospel.  This is a problematic notion for relational community – how does one not prevent an ‘us and them’ if there is an inner circle of membership?

It was at this point that I recalled the notion of ‘vicarious membership’ coined by sociologist Grace Davie.  (see Religion in Modern Europe, 2000)  Vicarious membership is a sociological phenomena whereby a large number of a social group express their membership vicariously through a small committed minority.  In Europe and the UK, Davie observes this happening with religion – large portions of society expect the church (building, faith and ministry) to be maintained and do indeed avail themselves of the services of the church when deemed relevant.  Society expects the faithful to be faithful!  It seems to me, that as a person of no or variant faith enters into a christian faith community, there is always an element of vicarious faith in Jesus Christ.  The new comer relies on those who are more established in the group and look to them for guidance as to how to behave, what to believe and how to interact.  It’s simply the old fashioned notion of socialisation!  When membership is defined by an individual’s connection to other members (belonging before believing) as opposed to membership by signing a bureaucratic form, minimum regular attendance or doctrinal adherence to a predetermined profession of faith, there will always be an element of vicarious faith in the socialisation process.  Unless the centered set model is sophisticated with insights from organisational psychology about group formation, it cannot sustain the weight of expectation put upon it as a descriptor of emerging church communities.

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