Emerging, Traditional, or Deep? A Review of Jim Belcher’s “Deep Worship”

Zac HicksWorship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment


Review of Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (Downers Grove, IVP: 2009)
Chapter 7, “Deep Worship”

Our pastoral team has been reading through Deep Church, by Jim Belcher.  We were intrigued by the subtitle, because we felt it captured our vision for our local church: “A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional.”  Most of us had the opportunity to personally meet Jim a few weeks ago when he spoke at St. Gabriel the Archangel Episcopal Church just down the road from us for a conference on church, culture, and mission.  Our musicians were part of a joint worship service (you can read about our experience), and Jim actually got our CD and took it home to his folks.  Nice!

Deep Church is a book about church, culture, and mission…not worship, necessarily.  However, he does have one chapter that intersects with worship in a significant way, and I felt that it was worth chewing on.

He begins the chapter by recounting the worship wars in which many churches have been entrenched for decades.  As Belcher listened to both sides, he laments:

“I had grown weary of the thinness of contemporary worship, which seemed so lifeless and often done by rote. But I didn’t want to return to the traditional style I grew up with, which seemed devoid of the real presence of God and focused on the passing on of information” (p. 124).

While these are broad-brush generalizations, I believe Belcher captures the heart of how many young evangelicals feel about the state of worship in our churches.  In fact, I believe that this sentiment is at the heart of the hymns movement and the resurgence of interest in liturgy.  This has led Belcher and others to search for a third way, which he calls “deep worship” (playing off the “deep church” theme borrowed from C. S. Lewis).

Belcher explains the reaction of the emerging church.  He discusses Dan Kimball’s book Emerging Worship, and pauses to reflect on Kimball’s concept of multisensory worship.  Belcher then recounts his oddly “normal” experience visiting the church where Kimball is pastor–Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA.  Belcher describes the service as God-focused and Christ-centered, with singing, a meaty sermon, candles, and lots of visuals (I am simplifying).  Belcher mentions that it is important to emerging leaders like Kimball to re-introduce a sense of the sacred into worship spaces and that the sacred can be felt and understood through interaction with all of one’s senses.  This longing for the sacred, again, is at the heart of the rebirth of explorations in liturgics and hymnology among evangelicals.  Belcher would also admit (as I would want to point out) that Kimball’s brand does not come close to representing the broad-sweeping emerging church.  Some emerging churches are house churches who know nothing of “sacred sanctuaries” (except that, by the Holy Spirit, their homes have become such). 

As in other chapters and topics in Deep Church, Belcher then presents the opposing side’s reaction (he calls the opposing side the “traditional” church, though that word should not necessarily link one’s thought to traditional styles as popularly understood but rather the traditional ways of “doing” church).  He cites several authors critical of emerging worship, though he points out that the authors have built straw men rather than accurately representing the heart of the emerging movement.  Belcher’s conclusion to all said so far is interesting:

“The emerging and traditional churches have the same Achilles’ heel—a faulty view of tradition.  Both are committed to the low-church view of church-tradition.  This has locked them into a model of worship that is dated and severely influenced by the Enlightenment.  They are handcuffed by a style of worship contextualized during the Reformation that no longer connects with postmodern people” (p. 133).

A powerful indictment! He goes on to argue that we as evangelicals have pitted tradition against the sufficiency of Scripture, which we need not do.  After diving into tradition for the last 10 years of my life, while still being a committed sola Scriptura Protestant, I have to agree with Belcher’s assessment.  It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with someone in my church responding to the fact that we were going to be utilizing acolytes (children candle-lighters) in our worship services.  She had commented, in a humble, confessional kind of way, “It feels so Catholic,” as if just because something were rooted in a non-Protestant tradition it is somehow challenging our sense of Bible-centeredness.  There is so much value in recovering tradition, because we connect with believers across time and realize that the Church is bigger than this present age. 

Belcher then goes on to something that intrigues me and which I have wrestled with in regards to the free utilization of tradition.  From Jonny Baker (author of Alternate Worship), he borrows the pop-music concept of “sampling” as a metaphor for the way the emerging church has utilized tradition in worship.  “Sampling” is taking a musical segment from another song and inserting it, often repetitively, in a new song (think of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” or 2Pac’s “Changes”).  From Baker:

“Post-modern cultural savvy, combined with an evangelical tendency not to defer to high church regulation, led alt worshipers to treat this treasure chest [i.e. tradition] as a kind of dressing-up box.”

It’s as if we’ve taken bits and pieces of liturgy from various traditions and played dress-up with them.  This certainly is cutting and provocative.  Belcher’s ultimate point is that when liturgy is sampled as such, it is being stripped of what makes it meaningful and powerful, namely, the “Great Tradition,” as Belcher calls it.  Belcher, having studied well the philosophical underpinnings of postmodernism, fears that the postmodern tendency to construct meanings will be at play here…We’ll take this aspect and that aspect of liturgy and give them a new spin or new significance they were never intended to have.  It would be similar to taking a Scriptural quote and using it out of context.

What I can’t figure out from Belcher is whether or not he is totally against sampling of this sort or whether he’s against uninformed sampling.  Personally, I can’t imagine that one would rule out all sampling.  I don’t see how taking an Anglican confession of sin from the Book of Common Prayer and utilizing it in a Presbyterian liturgy is somehow reconstructing its meaning.  A confession is a confession.  The text speaks for itself.  Perhaps Belcher is referring to certain types of sampling.  If so, I would like some clarifications or examples.  As I see it, the positive side of sampling is that it tears down some of the walls of our denominationalism without compromising our distinctives.  I would be uncomfortable with some aspects of Eastern Orthodox liturgy (e.g. certain ways of relating to the saints and Mary), but I’ve found many aspects of Orthodoxy worth incorporating (e.g. the “Phos Hilaron,” or one of their liturgies of forgiveness and reconciliation).  Is it somehow disingenuous to that tradition to do so?  Again, I’m betting that Belcher and I do not disagree, because his concept of the “Great Tradition” is really the notion of what all Christians rally around in belief and practice (for instance, the Apostles’ Creed).  But if that’s the case, then I don’t understand how sampling violates that Great Tradition.  Perhaps I have misunderstood Belcher at this point.  To give him the final word on this:

“If we are serious about reclaiming the Great Tradition, we must look beyond our own experience to the formative eras (apostolic or patristic) of the faith and not just for the practices” (pp. 135-136).

Belcher’s next section exposes the truth about tradition:

“There is no golden time to return to…There is no return to the pristine church, no true historic form; it never existed.  And it does not mean converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy” (p. 136).

This is an important point, and as I have said before (and noted by many others), some disenfranchised evangelicals have abandoned the contemporary church, not for other more traditional evangelical churches, but for what they perceive as a more ancient and rooted brands of Christianity—Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  Belcher quotes theologian Thomas Oden:

“All of the traditions have an equal right to appeal to the early history of Christian exegesis….Protestants have a right to the Fathers.  Athanasius is not owned by the Copts, nor is Augustine owned by North Africans…The Orthodox do not have exclusive rights over Basil, nor do the Romans over Gregory the Great.  Christians everywhere have equal claim to these riches and are discovering them and glimpsing their unity in the body of Christ” (p. 136).

I used to feel “temporally inferior” as a Presbyterian Protestant, because I was not heir to the Great Tradition in a way that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were.  Then I read Hughes Oliphant Old’s The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, and I was given a glimpse into a larger view of Protestantism.  As is the case with Presbyterian worship (as argued by Old), it is the case that, with every Protestant tradition, while there may be varying levels of discontinuity with the past tradition, there are still points of continuity which link even us newbie Protestants to the one holy catholic and apostolic church.  And we have a rightful claim to that tradition.

Belcher ends the chapter by describing worship at his church.  He’s quick to point out that it’s not about showing off his church; it’s about showing how one Christian assembly attempts to flesh out “Deep Worship.”  His seven descriptors are:

1) Ancient and new – incorporating old elements and new elements (this makes me think, by the way, that I have misunderstood his critical comments on “sampling” above).  Here, to my pleasure, he mentions the major players in the hymns movement (Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Church, and Sandra McCracken) and looks favorably on what we love: setting old hymns to new music.

2) Biblical drama – liturgy reenacts the drama of the Bible; Belcher groups his worship in “calling, cleansing, constitution, communion, and commission”; I like this!

3) Joy and reverence

4) Priesthood of all believers – minimizing the disparity between “those on stage” and “those in the audience”…love it!

5) Profound but accessible sermons

6) Weekly Communion

7) Guest-friendly—doxological evangelism – a phrase taken from Tim Keller, carrying the idea of worshiping before the nations (Ps 47:1), such that the praise of God, because of its vibrancy and authenticity, becomes attractive.

Overall, this was a very good chapter that I think is worthy to be read by all worship leaders, at least throughout the next ten years as the emerging church continues to exert its positive and negative influence.  Perhaps if there were one thing I could wish for more of throughout Deep Church, it would be scriptural argumentation and interaction.  Belcher’s strong point, in engaging this debate between the traditional church and the emerging church, is his extremely thorough study and understanding of both sides.  More than that, he is intimately acquainted with many emerging leaders and has, in a sense, “grown up” with them as he was acquiring his theological chops.  However, in a thorough discussion like this, I would want a bit more scriptural interaction.  I know its insinuated and that Belcher’s primary concern is to dialogue with the voices on the issues who have done that interaction, but in positing a third way, I was hoping for biblical argumentation to be a bit more overt. 

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