Jim Belcher is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Newport Beach, Calif. He is also the author of a new book, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.
In the 1990s Belcher was a pioneer of Gen X ministry, a collaborator with Rob Bell and Mark Oestreicher in Pasadena, in what eventually became known as the emerging church. In 2000 he left Pasadena and moved to Newport Beach to become a church planter in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). He was committed to the PCA’s confessional standards, but continued to have a foot in both the emerging and traditional wings of the evangelical church. As the emergent-traditional dialogue intensified, Belcher saw healthy arguments on both sides. “Like a good marriage counselor,” Belcher believed he might explain one side to the other, that he, perhaps better than others, might merge the best thinking from both sides, and thereby formulate “a third way.” Here, byFaith talks with Belcher about unity, postmoderism, community, and the fullness of the gospel message.
What did you see and hear that prompted you to write the book?
It was about 2005 when this [emergent-traditional] dialogue started heating up. Leaders in the emerging movement had been writing books, and it was in about 2004 to 2005 that some in the traditional church started pushing back. Each side had good arguments, but I felt like neither side was listening. They seemed to be missing each other. As a result they were both missing a part of the solution to the problems that were being raised. I have friends on both sides. I’ve spent time hanging out with people on both sides so I thought I could explain one to the other.
But more than that was a desire for unity. I didn’t want to see the evangelical world splinter further. So this book is an attempt, in the spirit and tradition of John Stott, to bring some unity to the church.
You suggest that emergent and traditional churches can come together if both sides see the importance of unity. Where and how do we draw the line? With whom do we unite? And from whom do we separate?
I appeal to what Jesus said in John 17, and the arguments He makes for unity. I was also influenced by Francis Schaeffer who talked about the “final apologetic”—that it’s the love Christians show to one another.
Jesus actually gives [the world] the right to look at us and say, “Wow, you don’t really love one another. You’re not unified.” In the world’s eyes this supports the idea that Jesus never came to earth. It’s their response to our claim that He did come, that He transformed His followers, that He caused them to love one another and to be unified. I think this is what Stott and Schaffer are pointing back to.
Our basis of unity is centered on the creeds and confessions of the fourth and fifth centuries, and on documents from the Reformation.
It’s interesting, when people join PCA churches one of the questions we ask is: Are you willing to study the peace and purity of the church? As Reformed Presbyterians, I think we’re great at working toward purity. But we may not be so good at peace—we may at least put purity above peace. But in Scripture the two go hand in hand. So I’m calling us to a deeper understanding of the peace clause in our membership vows.
The question then is: With whom? I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting we need to have more formal relationships. What I’m talking about is a spirit of unity between churches, between Christians—because we share this unity based on the creeds and the doctrines of grace that come out of the Reformation. When we find other believers, even when they’re in other traditions or denominations, we can support them, we can pray for them, we might even work with them on the mission field or in mercy ministry projects. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
You’re stopping short of saying, “Here’s who we should separate from.”
By presenting this view of unity—it’s based on Mere Christianity—I’m not saying there won’t be some, including some in the emergent church, who, by their views, are going to put themselves outside that consensus. I’ve had emerging folks say, “Hey, it’s not fair for you to put us outside.” And my response is, “Look, I’m not putting you outside. This is what the church has held. Here are the broad outlines of evangelical orthodoxy. If you reject these core, first-tier positions, then you’ve put yourselves outside of the consensus.”
So, I’m not calling for some kind of a Kumbaya moment where there are no lines drawn. I just want to draw them in the right places.
Even when we get to the “Belief and Belonging” chapter in the book, I maintain that there are criteria for belief. We want to move people toward belief. We want to pull them into a deeper understanding of the faith, toward commitment, toward membership vows, possibly toward leadership. It’s impossible to have belief without drawing lines, without declaring that some are “in” and some are “out.” I just think that we’ve unnecessarily put people out, and we’ve distanced ourselves from some we shouldn’t have.
You quote John Stott a couple of times about evangelicals’ “pathological tendency to fragment.” What’s behind this pathology? Does Deep Church prescribe the remedy?
We have a tendency to split; that’s what Stott is getting at. Unity is difficult. I think that’s why Jesus talks so much about it. It’s difficult to love one another, but it’s easy, especially when personal issues intervene, to separate. There are all kinds of reasons why we fragment. Some are theological; some are sociological, cultural, interpersonal. In my experience, what so often happens is that there’s a personal issue but then, because that’s too hard to reconcile, we find a doctrinal difference, and we let that be the thing that splits us apart. Or it’s the other way around; a doctrinal difference festers, it becomes personal, and then we split.
We’re marred by sin, we want to be right, and that makes it hard to hold together. But God has called us to be unified. Through Jesus Christ, He’s brought people together from different nations, races, socioeconomic backgrounds; men and women; children and adults. And He says, ”I want you all to be a family.”
Thinking more specifically about the PCA, I remember Tim Keller once talked about the different groupings within our denomination. He called them doctrinalists, pietists, and culturalists. Each group, he said, comes directly out of our confessional standards, out of our tradition, or the Reformation. But we feel threatened by those whose values don’t mirror ours, who don’t see that doctrine is the most important thing. Or culture. Or piety. Or evangelism. We want to eliminate the differences instead of realizing that our diversity makes the body so rich. Keller says we have a tendency to lop off the differences, but they always grow back. And the reason they grow back is because they’re a part of our heritage—they’re who we are. We’d be better off if we learned to appreciate people who had different priorities, if we challenged each other to be more balanced.
According to the book, emergent thinkers view postmodernism differently from traditional thinkers. How so? And what do we need to know about their perspective?
I realized early on that the traditional camp and the emerging camp used the word postmodern differently. I grew up with more of a traditional view, that postmodernism was an extension of individual reason, personal preference, working out our own meaning in life, and rejecting any transcendent authority that tells us how to live.
But then I started hearing these emergent guys talking about how they wanted to be a postmodern church. So I did some investigation and realized they were using the term differently. They were seeing something that dismantled the Enlightenment project—that actually pulled the scaffolding out from under it. That was a good thing. It took away the arrogance of the Enlightenment, so that now we can figure out what’s true and right and we can tell the world what we’ve discovered. So the emerging thinkers said, “Hey, postmodernism is an ally, it’s clearing the ground again, cultivating a place to talk about faith.” In one sense I think they’re right because we’re seeing, even in the university, that there’s more openness to spirituality, and even to religion. As I got deeper into it I discovered that postmodernism—as a negative project—is good. It’s a dismantling of the Enlightenment. But beyond that, there’s no positive resource. There’s no basis for speaking about justice and truth and fairness. It just doesn’t have that because it doesn’t have any divine revelation.
So, in the PCA we need to know that there are some positive things about postmodernism, but ultimately it can’t deliver a positive worldview or a positive philosophy. People are out there searching for meaning and purpose and we, because we have God’s revelation, have an answer. It comes from the Scriptures, it comes from the Creator who says, “I know that you want purpose, I know you want meaning, I know you want authenticity and to live this robust life. And you can have that life when you live it in relationship with Me.” One of the arguments between the emergent camp and the traditional camp involves belonging and believing. It’s an argument over who’s qualified to be a part of the church community. Would you talk about that?
This is one of the emergent church’s seven protests against the traditional church. Emergents accuse the traditional church of putting belief over belonging. In the traditional church, they say, you have to believe everything and look like us and speak like us and hold our views before you can belong. As a result, in their view, the traditional church has created an “us vs. them” mentality. It makes people who are searching uncomfortable. It divides people.
As they see it, the Bible calls us to let people belong in order to move them toward belief. They say that people come to faith in safe communities; they come to faith when they can ask questions without judgment, where they can hang around and participate in community, where they begin to take on the life of a Christian. And then, before they know it, they believe. So that’s the argument: They want people to belong before they believe.
There’s truth to both views, and there are problems with both. There’s a danger in always saying you have to believe before you can belong. But there are times in the emerging camp where it seems like all they want you to do is hang around and be part of the community. They never come to the point where they call you to believe. That’s a generalization, but there’s a danger there.
A friend once gave me what he thought was Jesus’ view. Jesus, he said, had two concentric circles. There were hundreds of people who followed Him around. In a sense, even though they were in the outer circle, they belonged and He welcomed them. That annoyed the Pharisees, that He’d eat with tax collectors and sinners. But at a certain point, as He moved toward Jerusalem, He began calling these people to belief. He asked them: “Who do you say that I am? Do you know what I am going to do?” He challenged their belief, and as He did some of the people fell away, and some were brought deeper into belief. They were brought into the inner circle.
I think that’s a great model for the church. I call it a center-set church. We’re not bounded-set; we don’t set up boundaries to keep people out. We take down the fences so people can come in and participate in our worship and be part of the community. But we’re always calling them into deeper belief, deeper faith, deeper understanding, and deeper commitment—whether that’s to the Lord’s Supper, or to membership or leadership. So they get a chance to belong, but we’re always calling them deeper.
Jim, you claim that both emergent thinkers and traditional thinkers have “reduced the gospel.” How have they done that?
Early in the dialogue the emerging camp accused the traditional camp of reducing the gospel. The traditionalists, the emergents claimed, had made the gospel individualistic. They’d lost sight of its corporate function, of any corporate understanding of it. The gospel had become fire insurance. People were saved, but they didn’t live differently. They didn’t participate in the community—that was the critique.
They also said that the traditional church was too focused on justification, on the forensic part of the atonement; that it had neglected other aspects of the Scriptures, such as Christ’s victories over the principalities and powers.
The traditional church pushed back and said, “Well wait a minute, you guys are reducing the gospel, too. You’ve shrunk it to a moral theory of atonement: If you follow Jesus, you’re invited into the kingdom, so come on in and live differently. You’ve lost the sense of penal atonement, the substitutionary atonement of what Christ has done.”
So both sides accuse the other of reducing the gospel. And, at a certain level, they’re right. What I want is for both sides to rediscover the gospel in all of its fullness.
In the chapter on worship you talk about drawing on Scripture and tradition, and also on cultural sensitivities. You describe how this makes worship relevant, but not syncretistic (blending cultural thought with Christian thought). How, specifically, can we guard against syncretism?
The emerging church says to the traditional church, “You’re stuck in the 1950s. You’re not making any attempt to contextualize, to reach out to the postmodern people right around you.” The traditional church pushes back and says, “You look so much like the culture that you’ve lost the hard edges of Christianity.”
And I’m saying we want to find a way to be faithful to the Scriptures that connects with the culture. So we don’t want to be syncretistic, but we don’t want to be irrelevant.
One of the pieces that’s missing from both arguments, ironically, is the “Great Tradition.” That’s the plumb line that helps us to continually ask: Are we being biblical? Are we connecting with the culture in a way that’s not syncretistic or irrelevant?
I think the master of this was the apostle Paul. You look at his missionary sermons and he did a tremendous job of speaking to different ethnicities, different cultures, and even different socioeconomic groups. He never watered down the gospel, but he spoke differently to different groups. For years, missionaries have talked about “contextualizing the gospel.” It’s something we’re called to do, to make sure we’re not watering it down.