Summer Reading Group: Deep Church

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The election of Ted Wilson as President of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists has been heralded as a victory for Traditional Adventists. The fact that it makes sense to speak of sides with the conservatives winning and by extension the liberals losing indicates something is terribly wrong. The increasing polarization of society is invading our church with divisive results.

Can we find a bridge to cross the traditional/progressive divide? Is there a third way for the majority who are still in no-man’s-land wondering what the incendiary comments, screaming polemics, and deadly exclusion are all about? If there is a third way, is traveling along this path possible or even desirable?

Jim Belcher explores these questions from his own Evangelical perspective in Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. As we gaze with sympathetic eyes over Belcher’s shoulder, perhaps we can find a way to do as Wilson exhorted us in his inaugural address – go forward.

Belcher’s term for the third way is ‘Deep Church’ in reference to C. S. Lewis’ description of the inclusive universal Christian faith in Mere Christianity. As Lewis noted, Deep Church may lack humility. However, Belcher’s lack of humility in holding up his own church as an example of the Deep Church is redeemed by his insight and sincerity.

Belcher reveals that he is both an insider and an outsider to the Emerging Church Movement. He is an insider since he was involved in the North American conversation from the beginning and remains sympathetic to the questions and concerns with which the Emerging Church struggles. Yet, he feels like an outsider given his discomfort with the answers some in the Emerging Church are expressing.

To keep us all on the same page, definitions are needed. Because the Emerging Church is relatively new and notoriously difficult to pin down, Belcher attempts a definition. He identifies seven representative categories in which the Emerging Church calls for change in Christianity.

  1. Captivity to enlightenment rationalism in which the Traditional Church condones modern individualism, rationalism, and pragmatism leading to the mainline social gospel or fundamentalist tribalism.
  2. Narrow view of salvation emphasizing justification over sanctification and the future salvation of souls at the second coming over the present inclusive Kingdom of God.
  3. Belief before belonging such that Traditional Churches set up boundaries to keep some in and others out. This category is familiar to those acquainted with Rick Rice. The emerging emphasis on belonging before believing includes a call to revitalize evangelism by recognizing the importance of community.
  4. Uncontextualized worship in which out of touch worship forms alienate the current postmodern culture.
  5. Ineffective preaching which is no longer an effective method of spiritual formation. Instead, the Emerging Church calls for spiritual formation in which we learn from one another in a participatory community.
  6. Weak ecclesiology leads to an emerging concern that the Traditional Church is too hierarchical and more concerned with institutional survival than being the missional, sent people of God.
  7. Tribalism in which the Traditional Church is seen as sectarian and unwilling to engage the culture.

It should be evident that there are many similarities between the Emerging Church and Progressive Adventism as well as between the Traditional Evangelical Church and Traditional Adventism. The content of Wilson’s recent sermon and the progressive critiques leveled against it covered all seven of these categories.

One of the difficulties with defining the Emerging Church is its great diversity. Belcher recognizes this in part by discussing three main emerging groups as identified by Ed Stetzer – Relevants, Reconstructionists, and Revisionists. The Reconstructionists provide a convenient middle group to represent the third way.

  1. Relevants are theologically conservative Evangelicals who are deeply committed to both orthodox belief and the historic forms of church while seeking to make worship more contextual.
  2. Reconstructionists also remain orthodox in belief while seeking institutional change toward a less hierarchical, more missional church structure.
  3. Revisionists are the most radical, questioning and re-envisioning both traditional beliefs as well as the church structure.

Belcher is concerned with our tendency to emphasize the most egregious examples and question the motives of the other side. Instead, we must define our conversation partners in a way they would recognize and assume the best of intentions. Because we fail in this, there is a profound lack of trust between both sides and without trust there can be no restoration of unity which Belcher states is his ultimate goal.

The introductory section of the book closes with a discussion of the ancient creeds. Belcher sees these as a first tier of belief where unity in relation to the ancient creeds allows for a broadly ecumenical deep church with freedom for a wide variety of interesting second tier beliefs.

The first three chapters are a helpful introduction to the concepts Belcher will explore in more detail later in the book. However, there were several issues which stimulated divergent thoughts.

Belcher assumes, as do most, that the Revisionists represent an intentional, top-down response to postmodernity which is imposed upon naïve believers by (mis)leaders. Instead, the very term emergence implies a bottom-up groundswell from a variety of backgrounds converging into a complex whole which is greater than the sum of its varied perspectives. Emergence Christianity then is not a capitulation to postmodernity. Rather, it is an outgrowth from the same forces which brought us to our postmodern perspective, and thus represents a very Adventist concept, present truth.

Another faulty assumption is the often repeated idea that deconstruction is undertaken to allow for re-construction. Rather, as Peter Rollins points out, the purpose of deconstruction is not to clear a space so that a new foundational structure can be re-constructed. Instead, deconstruction is an ongoing, warming hermeneutic which keeps beliefs fluid and prevents them from freezing into the rigid boundaries of the Traditional Church.

Belcher did recognize the fallacy of conflating the Emerging Church with Emergent Village and further reducing the entire movement to Brian McLaren. However, he did not acknowledge that the Evangelical perspective on the Emerging Church is part of a much larger movement embodied in Emergence Christianity which was brilliantly described by Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence.

Belcher’s limited reformed perspective also fails to recognize the contributions of Adventists such as Samir Selmanovic who has opened the door to conversations beyond mere Christianity in his book It’s Really All About God. Rather than the enemy which Belcher makes Muslims out to be, Samir affirms Islam and other religions as interdependent conversation partners.

While I resonate with Belcher’s concept of unifying around a central point, I remain uncertain that this focus should be the ancient creeds. I prefer the simplicity of what Scott McKnight calls the Jesus Creed – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” This fits with Alden Thompson’s concept of the one, the two, and the ten.

In addition, Belcher’s concern over the unorthodox beliefs of the Revisionists is more nuanced from our Adventist perspective. Through questioning beliefs such as the duality of human nature and the reality of an eternal hell, Revisionists actually move closer to our understanding of orthodoxy.

Despite my differences of opinion with Belcher, I remain hopeful that as we respectfully converse with him and one another we will discover a third way which will transcend our polarities and help us better appreciate the present though not yet fully realized Kingdom of God. I pray that we don’t have to wait until the ultimate fulfillment of our Advent hope to go forward in unity.
*****
Brenton Reading is a medical doctor and recently finished a fellowship in pediatric radiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Radiology, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. He is an avid reader and is interested in the confluence of faith and culture, occasionally reviewing books and films for SPECTRUM.







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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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