Interview: Jim Belcher Goes 'Deep' in Traditional, Emerging Church Debate

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

Jim Belcher has written a book breaking down the debate between the traditional and the emerging churches.

To some, it's an answer to their prayers as the book represents arguments on both sides fairly from the perspective of someone caught in between. To others, like Dan Kimball of Vintage Faith Church, Deep Church is hopefully the last in the large stack of books on the emerging church debate – some of which have been insightful and some of which have been "totally crazy."

"To me it feels like a closing chapter and a new hopeful one moving ahead and now beginning," Kimball wrote on his blog.

Belcher may be a rare find, as someone who is an insider and a friend to both traditional and emerging circles. He uses that to his advantage to try to move both camps beyond the divisions toward unity.

CP: You seemed to have an advantage many others don't in writing a book like this because you were a friend to church leaders on both sides (emerging and traditional) and able to draw perspectives/opinions from both. Did you have any trouble listening to both sides without any bias?

Belcher: No. I think you're absolutely right. One of the reasons I decided to write the book is because I knew and have worked with men and women on both sides and have deep respect and love for them. And so I felt like I was really unique in that sense that I could speak to both sides and I had experience with both sides, and I had the credentials both academic and in ministry where I thought both sides would listen as I stood in between the two groups. I read one review I think it was in Christianity Today, it was a very short blurb, they said there's only one of me in the whole world. I think it's just being funny.

What so often happens is that if you're squarely in the traditional camp and you try even to give a sympathetic critique, it's really hard for the emerging side to listen. And I think the other way too. If you're in the emerging camp and you come across as angry towards the traditional … and I just felt like nobody was listening. So I felt like if I stood there in the middle as an insider to both that I could, I would have a chance to have both sides actually listen. And that's what's bearing out. What I've been absolutely amazed is that people on both sides, even if they disagree with my third way, really are not disagreeing with how I represent them and they actually are loving the book and telling people about the book even if they have differences with what I propose.

CP: You seem to be an avid reader. You took the time to read not just a few books but as many books as you could lay hands on to really understand the two sides plus you visited with many of the key leaders. And I think a lot of Christian leaders on both sides appreciate that.

Belcher: Particularly because I'm in a denomination that's on the traditional I didn't feel I needed to prove myself to them. But I felt like even though I had a foot in the emerging camp that I really had to demonstrate that I was going to listen to them and that I was going to really capture well what they were saying, not just cherry pick things that I didn't like that is so often done, but actually hear their full arguments, their full positions. So between reading their books, reading as many blogs on the emerging conversation, the history of the emerging conversation, and then getting on airplanes and going to visit and spending time with them I thought was really important so they felt like they were heard. That's what they're saying. They may disagree with my conclusion but they're all feeling like they were heard and they were represented well. That's what I think all of us were called to do. It's not just me. Anytime if we're going to persuade someone we have to listen well and we have to represent them in a way that they would recognize, not the way the critics would recognize.

CP: You define emerging church but how do you define traditional church in the context of your book?

Belcher: One of the areas that I couldn't go in as much depth with is actually provide the same kind of definition of the traditional church that I did for the emerging church. The book would've been too long. So I kind of give a short hand where I say in this sense, the traditional church is anybody who shares a very common critique of the emerging camp. But I do go down into more specifics as we get into the chapters.

To me the traditional church is really the church …I call it "small t" where they follow traditions but they're not linked in to the Great Tradition or at least not the way that I would like them to be. And so these are churches that are independent … that broke away from the magisterial reformation, the Calvins and the Luthers of the world. Calvin and Luther were too connected to the Great Tradition and so these churches wanted to break away even further. Their model was no creed but Christ. These are most of the Baptist churches, a lot of the Anabaptists, the Mennonites would be in this category, independent churches. They tend to be what we call "low churches" – they don't have a liturgy, they're not connected to the historic ancient church. Those are the ones, even though they're called traditional it's kind of a misnomer because they're only traditional because the way they do church has kind of gotten stuck from the way it was done in the 16th century. But in the 16th century they thought they were very revolutionary in the way they did the church because they split off from the liturgies of the past.

CP: So your definition of traditional doesn't include believers like the Reformers?

Belcher: Some of those in the Reformed camp are critical of the emerging church. There's no question about that and I quote a few of them. In that sense that somewhat confuses my argument. But what I'm really going after is those who are in the traditional camp but it's tradition with a small t. It's tradition only because they've done it for the past three or four hundred years but they are not connected in to the Great Tradition that goes all the way back to the 1st century and was most clearly defined in the 4th and 5th century with the creeds and the confessions of the ancient fathers. They didn't want that so when the Reformation came, a lot of churches and a lot of thinkers felt like the Reformers did not break completely from the Great Tradition and stayed too close to the Catholic Church. So what I most call the traditional church are the low church, non-liturgical, non-historic, non-ancient parts of the traditional side of things.

CP: You're part of the Presbyterian Church in America. But does your church resemble a typical traditional Presbyterian church?

Belcher: I guess you'd have to define what typical is because within the PCA there's a lot of variations in how we do things. Certainly in our doctrine and our theology we're similar to the rest of the PCA because we all subscribe to the Westminster standards. But when it comes to worship, when it comes to how we connect with the culture around us there's a lot of variety in the PCA, particularly amongst the new church planters. For me, drawing lots of lessons from the emerging church, lots of lessons from kind of newer philosophies of ministries, we do things at our church that are different than some of the, for instance, southern Presbyterian churches.

CP: If I had to summarize how you founded redeemer, is it accurate to say: You were dissatisfied with the traditional church yet cautious about the emerging church, and unable to find a happy middle church. So you founded your own?

Belcher: Right. That's what the book is – my quest to find the third way, particularly in something like worship that's neither just like the traditional but I had concerns about the emerging so we kind of had to work out our third way.

CP: Do you present your church as the answer to reconciling both sides or is it more of a starting point from which churches can begin to stop fighting?

Belcher: I don't think we would ever say that "we've got it all right. Look at us. This is the model." I think what we've said is as we've tried to lay out a third way as I do in the book that Redeemer is an approximation, it's an attempt to figure out what this looks like in practice. So I think you can learn from Redeemer but we don't have all the answers. The book Deep Church is as much for me and my church as it is for other people as well.

I like the way you put it – it's a starting point. It's not the end all and be all. I don't think we've got it all figured out.

CP: Are there other churches that model after yours? How many attend Redeemer? What's the crowd like in terms of age, cultural background, etc.? And what do you wear when you preach?

Belcher: The book's only been out a month. I know a lot of people are getting really encouraged by the book. The important thing is everybody lives in a different city and everybody has to contextualize the message differently. It's not going to look exactly like it does in Newport Beach and it looks different depending on who's doing it. We're by purpose not a huge church – about 250. What we're in the process of doing now is moving towards church planting and multi-site because we don't really want to get too big. You lose the ability to really know each other. I think somewhere between 200 and 350 is about as big … it may be too big if you look at Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.

We are four generations. When I was at a bigger church, we really wanted multi-generational worship and we really wanted the whole body to be together. That's the thing I think we miss when we segregate the age groups is we miss the opportunity for the different age groups to mentor each other. Ethnically, Newport Beach is about 92 percent white and we are much more ethnically diverse than that. Mostly I'd say we are Caucasian and Asian just because of the era we live in.

Normally what I wear is some sort of Khaki pants, almost like a casual Friday outfit, with usually a short-sleeved shirt that's not tucked in and pretty casual shoes. Our worship team will wear jeans. That really fits where we are in the desire to connect with all the age groups that are there.

CP: You say your goal is unity – in what sense? In the sense that you want all the Christians to dialogue and be civil with each other or something deeper?

Belcher: It certainly is that. What I want Christians to be able to do is first discover what they have in common and be excited and rejoice in that. And secondly, and only after that, do we spend time talking and dialoguing about our differences and learning from each other and growing together. I think so often in this day and age where everything is so divisive, we jump right to what our differences are and that divides us.

What I'm after is getting the church to be united around deep church or mere Christianity, as C.S. Lewis said first, so that we can work together and move into mission and really present a unified front to a watching world instead of one that's always arguing and complaining. Why would someone out there want to join a family that's always arguing; they can get that anywhere. But what they want is a group of people who deeply love and trust each other even in the midst of having differences. So primarily that's what I want amongst Christians and denominations but I also want to see that be a reality at the church I pastor where we have differences whether they're political or theological but what we rally around are the core essentials – that first tier things of the Gospel and who God is and the trinity, the authority of Scriptures in our lives – and it's those things that we rally around even as we have our differences.

Pastor John MacArthur has a book out, The Jesus You Can't Ignore, and in it he criticizes the conversation and dialogue that evangelicals are promoting without affirming truths. What do you think of that?

Belcher: I quote Richard Mouw who is actually quoting Martin E. Marty from Chicago and I think it was Marty who said that what we're after is convicted civility. As Rich Mouw at Fuller taught me, so often that people have civility do not have conviction and I think that's what John MacArthur's talking about. If all we have is civility but we never get around to conviction that's no good. But the other thing that happens, according to Mouw, is that often those who have conviction don't have civility. What we're after is both – conviction and civility. We want to be convicted about those first tier things, we want to be passionate about them and even dogmatic about them, because those things are clear in the Scriptures and that Christians have held in common for 2,000 years.

But in the areas of differences that we don't have the same amount of confidence in – second tier things – baptism, Lord's supper, membership – we hold a little looser, we have a little more civility in those things or what Richard Mouw calls "cognitive modesty" because we Christians have disagreed on these things for years but we don't want to break fellowship over there. What we want to do if find what we can agree on. I would agree with MacArthur in one sense that we can get too mamby-pamby, too milk toast if all we are about is civility without conviction but I would also push back and say yes but it is so important that even in our convictions we're civil and that we have both. I think that's what people want. They want people who believe in something but they want it to be done with modesty, with humility even as they're dogmatic and convicted. We can be nice about it.

CP: Would you applaud partnerships like the one between John Piper and Mark Driscoll who are from the traditional and emerging camps, hold similar theological convictions but differ in every other way? Is that what you'd like to see more of?

Belcher: Yeah, sure. I think it's great. I remember in the early days where many in the traditional camp were highly critical of Mark and even in print have been critical of him so to see them working together is great. But I'd like to see it even broader than that. I think in some ways Mark has really left, at least as he said, the emerging side but I think there's plenty of men and women in the emerging camp that I'd love to see working with Piper and those guys. These are people who very much are in the mere Christian strain and would fit into the deep church way of thinking.

CP: But I read that Piper met with a couple of those in the more far left side of the emerging camp in an effort to try to work together but in the end, they realized they were just too different and had such different perspectives and ways of thinking that it just wouldn't work.

Belcher: They both walk away and blog on it and say that neither side heard the other side. My challenge to that is to be able to listen to each other better. One of the things I want to make clear is just because I'm calling for more convicted civility, it doesn't necessarily mean that there's not going to be disagreements that make it hard or impossible to work together. When I set out the mere Christian, the deep church vision on unity (in chapter 3) there's still substance to that. It's not so wide that everybody can fit into it and there are people who are not going to fit into it and they're going to self select out or we would have to challenge "can you fit into this historic 2,000-year-old agreement best articulated in the creeds?" and there's going to be people who can't. Those are people that we have to call out and really challenge and say this is what historic orthodoxy's been for 2,000 years, can you agree with this? There's going to be people who say "no, I struggle with that." And I think at that point there is no way to really work together at least theologically and to be aligned ecclesiologically. We're still civil to them, we still can be friends with them but it makes it really work together if we can't hold those basic tenets of unity. And I think at that point we only decide that we can't work together with tears in our eyes and with great sadness because we are fighting in a good way for unity as much as we can.

CP: You mention in your book that you have to be a Nicene Christian to be a member of your church. Does that mean you just have to recite the Nicene Creed and believe in it?

Belcher: That's exactly right. That's the basic. Some of my Baptist friends have disagreed with that part of the book that we have what we call low-bar membership to the extent that if you can recite the Nicene Creed which Christians have been able to do for the last 1,500 years that we're not interested in the denominational distinctive that then get added to that. Not that we're not interested but you can become a member even if you disagree with the distinctive. For instance, we do have members at Redeemer who don't necessarily agree with our view on infant baptism. But they're still members in good standing.

CP: Pastor Dan Kimball wrote on his blog saying your book is "almost a great wrap up of the past 10 years and a hopeful way of looking to the future. I think we have reached a point to where things in the river of the emerging church world have dissolved into individual streams which are quite different." He also noted that he doesn't use the term "emerging church" anymore because of it being so different than when he first used it. Can you respond to that?

Belcher: Dan's a friend and he's in the book. I think there's some truth to that. I don't want to necessarily disagree. I think there's a sense where the emerging movement has run its course in some ways. I think that's why so many people are interested in the book Deep Church because it kind of moves us beyond. But I think before we move beyond, the history of the movement needs to be told because even though the name may have dissolved into different streams, the concerns are still there, the protests are still there, the problems with the traditional church are still there even if the movement has somewhat fragmented. I think it's important to at least tell the history of it. I think what he's saying at this point is let's now move on. Let's look to the future. And that's exactly what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to say "historically in the last 20 years, some of these are going to remain, but here is a proposal to move us beyond, move us forward into mission together." And I think that's what he's saying is a good thing about deep church.

CP: Anything you want to add?

Belcher: No, other than that I'm hopeful. What I more than anything want to see is unity in the church so that we can move forward together on what we agree with, continue to dialogue on our differences but move forward into mission and I'm hopeful that this book has really broken down some of the distrust from each side and the two sides are beginning to dialogue. They're not as threatened by each other. I think that's good for the church. And I just encourage everybody to get the book and to think about it, figure out in what ways can the book challenge them to be the deep church.