Christianity Today annually selects finalists for its featured Christian book awards. Out of 472 titles considered, 12 made the cut for 2009, among them Gordon graduates Jim Belcher’s Deep Church and Christian Smith’s Souls in Transition. Belcher’s ministerial writing and Smith’s sociological work caught the judges’ attention for the categories of Church and Pastoral Leadership and Christianity and Culture, respectively.
Interview by Joshua Hasler '09:
Jim Belcher ’87
What does Deep Church mean?
The phrase comes from an interview C. S. Lewis gave in 1952. The deep Church is the “mere” Christian Church. It is rooted in the Great Tradition, going back to the early creeds and confessions. Others, like Tom Oden, have called it the rebirth of orthodoxy.
Who is Deep Church written for?
First, it is for those who like aspects of the emerging and traditional churches but sense there is a third way. Second, it is for those who have heard about the emerging church but don’t know anything about it. Next, it is for seminary students and young church planters who are formulating their own philosophy of ministry. Deep Church is a handbook for them. Finally, it is for veteran pastors who are discouraged in their ministry and need a shot in the arm—something to inspire them.
For those new to the dialogue, can you tell us what the emerging church is?
I use Ed Stetzer’s description of the three camps that make up the emerging church: the relevants, the reconstructionists and the revisionists. The relevants have the most in common with the traditional church, sharing much of its theology but wanting to be more contextualized. The reconstructionists share similar theology but are really interested in changing the church to more represent first-century Christianity. The revisionists are the ones who have challenged the traditional church’s theology the most.
Why are they unhappy with the traditional church?
I found seven protests that were common in their critique: captivity to Enlightenment rationalism; a narrow view of salvation; belief before belonging; uncontextualized worship; ineffective preaching; weak ecclesiology; and tribalism.
How is Deep Church a third way?
I first let the emerging church explain its protest; then I give the traditional church a chance to push back. After appreciating what we can learn from both sides, I present a third way that can get us beyond the stalemate and bring unity to both sides.
What do you hope this book accomplishes?
I hope it gives people a deep passion and love for the Church. Second, I hope it brings unity to the Body of Christ—because without it our witness to the watching world is compromised. Finally, I hope it inspires people to move confidently into the future with a roadmap in hand; to participation in what God is doing in His world.
How does this book reflect your personal story? Where is Jim Belcher in the Deep Church?
Deep Church is about my own quest to discover what God wants for the Church; a Church that is rooted in the transforming gospel; has deep, meaningful community outwardly focused in mission; and teaches that God cares about all areas of life and that we are called to be agents of shalom. I hope my readers not only join me on my quest but make it their own.
Christian Smith ’82
What were your goals in Souls in Transition?
The book pursues multiple goals. One is to contribute social scientific knowledge about an important aspect of religious life to help build my field and discipline. Another is to help educate the general public, especially people who care
about young people, about their religious and spiritual lives and about the social forces and cultural influences that shape their lives.
How does Souls in Transition build on your previous work on American teens?
Methodologically it follows the same sample of teenagers as they have grown into their emerging adult years, ages 18–23. This means in this book we are able to trace teenage-era influences that shape their lives five years later. One chapter in the book also specifically follows up with many teenagers whose stories were featured in Soul Searching, showing both the continuity and changes in their lives and some of the reasons for them.
Is Christian education a factor in your findings?
The influence of parents and other adults turns out to be one of the most important factors shaping their religious and spiritual lives during the ages of 18 to 23. If by Christian education you mean attending a Christian primary, middle or secondary school, that’s harder to analyze well, since very different sorts of students are sent to those schools for very different reasons that tend to associate with different outcomes. Education in Christian schools can be powerful in strengthening the faith lives of youth, but almost always only when it functions as a reinforcement of parental and family influences, not as a replacement. We have not yet had the chance to analyze our data on the effects of attending Christian liberal arts colleges, like Gordon; that is still in the works, and I hope the findings will be coming down the line soon.
What implications does this book have for the Christian church?
The book spells out a number of findings that have clear implications for the church, but some of the most important I can summarize here are these. If church leaders want to “produce” youth who as 18–to 23-year-olds are strong in and practicing their faith, they should concentrate on certain key factors. The first is promoting in their teenagers prayer, Scripture reading, basic theological understanding, believable responses to doubts about faith, and personal religious experiences. The second is equipping and motivating parents of teenagers to proactively model for and talk with their children about the importance of Christian faith. The third is equipping and motivating spiritually mature nonparental adults in churches—including youth ministers and youth group volunteers; but also simply other adults who take the initiative to get to know and share some of their own lives with some teenagers in church—to build real relationships of care and concern with youth during their teenage years. All of those tend to exert powerful influences on teenagers that carry on even after they have left home during the early emerging adult years.
Christian Smith, Ph.D., is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, as well as the director of its Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Smith’s research focuses primarily on religion in modernity, adolescents, American evangelicalism and culture. Besides Soul Searching, he is the author or coauthor of 10 other books.