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Local Manifestations by Byron Borger




Life Together
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Harper; 1938) $13.99

In the awful years of the Third Reich, Germany had, as we all know, a kind of religious culture that fostered formal worship and little affection for the things of God. Most congregations accommodated Nazi culture in ways that we still lament. Robust, orthodox and caring Christian churches were not absent but they seem to have been rare. One outstanding and renowned example of a pastor who called for Biblical faithfulness and Scriptural attentiveness and congregational community life was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was known as an outspoken critic of Hitler who served as a spy and whose thoughtful work dismantled the gospel’s captivity to Nazi ideology. Yes, Herr Bonhoeffer was also a tender pastor, a man who did spiritual direction, who did marriage counseling, and, even on the run, at times pastored a gathered congregation. To this day, his book on being a local fellowship, Life Together, stands as one of the best books ever written on being the local manifestation of Christ’s body on Earth. Anyone interested in the deeply spiritual practices of human solidarity—being actually in relationship with one another—and how being united in Christ might manifest itself, would be wise to consider these short essays written by Bonhoeffer the pastor.

Life Together
was first published in German and made its way to North American in the early 1950s. It was written, however, in the height of Bonhoeffer’s work with a unique fellowship in the underground seminary during the Nazi years. Some suggest it reads like one of the apostle Paul’s letters, beautifully combining astute theological truth and tender, pastoral council. It describes the role of praying together, why worship is so important, even offering his insights about music and song. He commends using the Psalms. He writes about confession one to another. He reflects on the need for solitude, even as we are committed to be present to one another. Decades later, our best writers, contemplatives like Richard Foster and Henri Nouwen, have affirmed that it is one of the most significant books in the 20th century. With the 21st century hunger for authentic relationships and deeper Christian community—even as we face our own issues with the captivity of the gospel to the veneer and zeitgeist of our own time—this call to Christian community, dated as it may seem in tone and context, is still as urgent as ever.

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Deep Church: A Third Way Between Emerging and Traditional Jim Belcher (IVP; 2009) $17.00

In this review schema of recommending an older book and a newer book, there was no doubt about the older one; Bonhoeffer’s wisdom is tried and true and his book is a true classic. Although it is not brand new, there was no doubt in my mind what recent book on the nature of the church we might suggest: Deep Church is surely one of the more fascinating, wide-ranging and important books about faith communities in years! We are happy that there have been many good books on congregational life these days: books for highly liturgical churches, missional churches, postmodern emergent churches, churches committed to community, churches committed to growth, churches committed to teaching strict, Biblical orthodoxy. We have what might be considered an ‘embarrassment of riches’ when it comes to Christian literature about church life.

Yet, few seem able to be adequately multidimensional; that is, some see this or that one aspect of church as the key to renewal rather than affirming many different sides of church life. Even fewer have an open mind and gracious tone when it comes to discussing recent conversations about how the church might more effectively serve in our postmodern, fast-paced, hyper-wired, cultural context. There have been a number of recent books pointing out errors in the other books which is fine, but not many seem eager to learn, honor others best intentions or seek innovations forged from honest dialogue.

Those wanting an authentic experience of worship and community that is particularly fluid within this postmodern setting sometimes call themselves emergent. Some think this is good and some think this is bad. Enter Jim Belcher, a creative and sensitive church planter who has had good relationships with most of the leading voices of the emergent movement. He appreciates their missional vision and their passion to reject old-school rationalistic organizational models of church. He is aware of the deepest questions about postmodernism and the demise of Enlightenment-derived ways of knowing and writes about his own journey studying these things and how they apply to theology and the formation of a coherent Christian worldview.

And yet, he isn’t quite emergent. He insists on a robust sort of theological orthodoxy and fairly traditional standards of faith and practice. Belcher’s book is perhaps the best book navigating the on-going conversations between more traditional evangelicals and the hipster emergents. It is not cheap or shallow and it certainly isn’t grumpy or unfair. It is a notable effort to develop a “third way” beyond the impasse, bringing missional Kingdom vision, savvy, cultural sensitivities, mature Biblical insight and deeply rich worship and congregational practices to the ways we think about church life. If you are satisfied with everything about Christian churches, you may not need to join in this vital discussion. Most of us, though, long for better experiences of church, wishing for more appropriate customs and practices which are grounded in solid but fresh thinking. Reverend Belcher has offered us one of the best resources for this project. I hope many read it, enter the conversation, think and pray and work to see God’s churches renewed into “deep” churches.

You can order both of these books at Hearts and Minds Books. Mention Q Ideas when you order and receive 20% off.