December 4, 2020

iMonk Classic: Review of “Deep Church”

9780830837168mClassic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted September 15, 2009

“A chastened, invigorated traditionalism, re-rooted in deeper, better soil and paying attention to the younger voices and cultural changes, is the better evangelical future.”

Jim Belcher’s fine book, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional has been at the top of my book review stack for over a month. After living with my nose in my own book—a book stuffed with criticism of the current evangelical scene—it was a refreshing experience to read Belcher’s good work.

Deep Church seeks to examine a third way between the traditional and emerging camps, a way Belcher has discovered in his own journey from early years as an emerging church advocate to more recent experience as a PCA church planter. The narrative—and this book is just as much narrative as teaching—is a fascinating one, as Belcher doesn’t hesitiate to name names and to characterize positions bluntly and honestly. If anyone can be said to attempt an impartial moderation of the emerging/traditional divide in evangelicalism, it is Belcher.

It is, however, my opinion that Belcher’s book, despite a valiant attempt to be impartial, amounts to a thorough revelation of the failure of the emerging church to offer an answer for evangelicalism, and a clarion call to the position this web site has taken for most of its history: the post-evangelical appropriation of the great tradition; the wisdom of the broader, deeper more ancient church, in meeting the evangelical challenge today. A chastened, invigorated traditionalism, re-rooted in deeper, better soil and paying attention to the younger voices and cultural changes, is the better evangelical future.

Over and over, Belcher returns to Nicene level confessionalism and ecclesiology as the practical answer for the issues raised by the emergers and the failures of recent evangelicalism. He affirms the centered nature of the church over the attempt to nail down a bounded identity, and he rejects the “belief before belonging” model that has forced contemporary conservative evangelicals into a position of defensiveness and exclusion. Belcher sees congregationalism at its best facilitating the movement that Jesus himself initiates and sustains, a movement that allows vulnerability and inclusion within lowered boundaries of theological affirmation while working toward committed congregationalism and meaningful confessionalism for disciples involved in ministry.

Belcher’s version of the church takes the agitation and questions of the emerging movement and combines them with the ancient wisdom, pragmatic realism and more culture-savvy approach of the ancient church. Within the respect for structures and boundaries of the traditional church, Belcher suggests and illustrates how to build a church worthy of the concept of “Mere Christianity/Deep Church” that Lewis talked about.

Belcher is not a polemicist, and his measured responses to some of what he discovers in the emerging quarter and among the truly reformed underplays the seriousness of what is discovered. But Belcher has grasped what many of us have been hoping for: this is not an either/or discussion any more. It is a matter of evangelicalism’s future.

I was especially interested in how Belcher discovered, by way of church conflict, the good aspects of having a denomination—not to tell you what to do or believe as much as to provide a team to help and provide back-up when times are difficult. Denominations in evangelicalism might be surprised how their image can change when they are coming to the rescue and not providing reasons for embarrassment or abandonment.

There are jewels galore in this book. It’s careful, wise, well-written and I believe essential for this stage in the evangelical journey. What’s it’s not is the last word in the battle between Tony Jones and John MacArthur. It is, thankfully, a book everyone who resonates with post-evangelicalism needs to read. Belcher’s refusal to join a team and commitment to learn from others provides a remarkable backdrop where Nicene “Mere” Christianity never looked better or more practical.

This is a “must-read” on the bookshelf of any church planter or missional-minded evangelical.


  1. Despite the widespread praise when this book was first published, I think it is possible that it was underappreciated.

  2. “how to build a church” – what? Men do not build the church – Christ does. “good aspects of having a denomination” – what? How can division be a good thing? And what about in John 17 where Jesus prays for our unity? Sounds like religion has set in…

    • “how to build a church” – what? Men do not build the church – Christ does.
      Are these two thoughts mutually exclusive? How does Christ build his church if not through the actions of men and women?

      “good aspects of having a denomination” – what? How can division be a good thing? And what about in John 17 where Jesus prays for our unity?
      Do denominations necessarily = division? How unified in thought and practice does the visible church need to be before it is considered united?

      How unified in theology and liturgy were the ancient churches in Jerusalem and Antioch? (I am thinking of the place of Gentiles in the church and Paul’s confrontation with Peter.) Was that a “divided” church?

      • John 6:44 answers your first question about building the church.

        Denomination does mean division – look it up. We will probably never all think the same but that does not mean we should divide over our opinions – this would mean we think more of our opinions than each other.

        Once again they did not all think the same, but they were not divided. If you think they were, please show me in scripture where they were divided…

        • But the fact of the matter is, unless you belong to one of those “non-denominational denominations” that thinks they and they alone have the truth, and that all the rest are all either merely “religious organizations” or are in apostasy, the genie is already out of the bottle and there’s no way to stuff her back in.

          So how does one deal with today’s reality, short of telling everyone: “Hey, you’re all in error and we’re the only ones who have the truth, so abandon hope all ye who don’t follow our non-denominational denomination!”

    • “Having a denomination” in the sense that Michael is referring to here means having oversight by and accountability to a body above and beyond the local church.

      • But I can only find where Christ is the head of the Church in scripture. What you are describing is the way a business or government is run – not the living organism of the Church. I guess it takes faith to believe that Christ can lead His people directly…

        • Christ leads his people through the Spirit, who in turn works through what God himself has ordained: church, word, sacrament. The church is God’s organization, not ours. If I read the NT correctly there are at least two levels of church administration: the local congregational level, and the “apostolic” or episcopal level beyond the local church. “Denominations” function on that episcopal level. That does not eliminate Christ leading his church, but recognizes the Biblical form by which he does it.

          I’m not sure what you mean by “Christ leading his people directly…” but I am sure that the Bible nowhere portrays the church functioning like that.

  3. There are many times when a pastor needs the defense of a denomination. One of the easiest to explain is in the area of salaries. When salaries are considered on the national level by an assembly of clerics and lay people, often the guidelines that come out are sane and reasonable. However, when salaries are left to the local church, all too often the historical result has been impoverished pastors and arguments against paying pastors “too high” a wage. While there are some clear exceptions to the rule, your average non-denominational pastor earns a salary that is usually very low for the work and training expected. Even Saint Paul had to argue to the Corinthians that they had a responsibility to pay their pastors enough to take along their wives on their travels.

    But on their broader points, I agree that an Evangelicalism that is more responsive to the great stream of Church history is an Evangelicalism that is likely to avoid the pitfalls of “every wind of doctrine,” and more likely to present a Gospel that is appealing, sound, and balanced.

    • Where were salaries for pastors addressed in the bible? I believe Paul was talking about the Apostles who traveled to places to plant churches.

      • They are not addressed directly, since the idea of a formal salary, in the way in which we think of one today, was not a concept back then. But, there are some reasonable verses that talk about taking care of leaders. Even in the passage where Saint Paul defends being fully supported as an apostle, yet he gives a much broader principle when he says,

        “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.”

        This goes with his instructions to the Romans:

        “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”

        And, by the time he writes his pastoral epistles, he directly speaks about pastors when he says:

        “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.'”

        Thus what begins in 1 Corinthians as a defense of the right of an apostle to receive full and unstinting support is extended over the next thirty years to deaconesses and very clearly and directly to elders (priests, pastors).

  4. Are “Nicene Christianity” and “Congregationalism” reconcilable? Doesn’t Nicene Christianity imply episcopal polity?

  5. The Seeker says

    I think that the reviewer was incomplete in his review of Belcher. Belcher not only argues that hardline emergents fail, but he is also hard on the evangelical movement itself.

    If you are looking for a bit more detail in a review you will find one here:

    Belcher Review