Home > Brian's Blogs, Emerging Church Movement > Don’t Stop Believing: A Third Way

Don’t Stop Believing: A Third Way

A lot of people today are frustrated with the current state of Christianity.  They are tired of division and intramural theological debates.  Therefore, a lot of people are seeking a “third way” between conservative and liberal Christianity.  I believe that Michael Wittmer’s Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough provides just that…

Of course, I realize that not everyone will read Don’t Stop Believing (DSB) as a legitimate third way.  The liberal wing of today’s evangelical church will see it as yet another attack against postmodern Christianity.  The conservative wing of today’s evangelical church will see it as a book of “ammunition” to be used against the postmoderns.  But when I read it, I see a book that is intelligently informed by both sides.  It understands both sides, critiques both sides, and offers a “third way” solution that is biblically and culturally satisfying.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Must you believe something to be saved? Conservative Christians emphasize the necessity of belief to a fault.  The list of “necessary beliefs” begins with an acceptance of the “sinner’s prayer” and then typically moves on to much finer points in theology that must be accepted (hence the divisions in evangelicalism!).  Liberal Christians, on the other hand, deemphasize the neccessity of belief.  Who is right?  Wittmer finds a third way in emphasizing belief but deemphasizing the amount of belief required:

“How much of this larger story must we believe to be saved?  Only God knows for sure, and I am glad that the final call is left to him.  It seems possible to be saved and get large chunks of the story wrong – or at least it better be – for Christians regularly misunderstand the goodness of creation, the primacy and function of the corporate church, and our final destiny on a restored earth…Not so with other parts of the story…” (p. 42).

Mike then details those beliefs which must be accepted in order to be saved: our sin and Jesus Christ as the savior of our sin (p. 43).

Are people generally good or basically bad? Conservative Christians emphasize a person’s fallen nature due to their sin (which leads to a low view of culture, etc).  Liberal Christians emphasize a person’s goodness due to their creation in the image of God (which leads to a high view of culture, etc).  Who is right?

Mike’s extended answer to this question is found in his first book, Heaven is a Place on Earth.  But in DSB he affirms both the goodness of God’s creation (including humans who are created in his image) and the tremendous power of human sin:

“Scripture’s opening act of Creation informs us that, on a natural level and through common grace, everyone is able to do much moral, civic, and cultural good.  This general goodness unites us with all people…But the biblical story of the Fall tells us that, despite our appreciation for each other, when we drill down beneath our natural goodness, we discover that we are sinners” (p. 70).

So the third way answer to the initial question is “yes.”

Can you belong before you believe? This is an important question for emerging Christians.  Conservative Christians believe that the church is comprised of only converted Christians who possess the right beliefs (primarily about Jesus, but if you are a Baptist “correct beliefs” may also include the rapture preceding a seven-year tribulation!).  This is called a “bounded-set approach” where people believe then belong then become.  Believing in Jesus precedes belonging to the community.

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, believe that it is necessary for peole to “belong” to the church before they believe in Jesus.  This is called a “centered-set approach” where people belong then become then believe.  Belonging to the community precedes believing in Jesus.

Again, Mike seeks a third way:

“But what if we combined the insights of both, so that the strengths of each covered the weakness of the other?  What if, rather than view these as mutually exclusive options, we arranged them in chronological sequence?  The gracious, inviting nature of the postmodern order would describe the pre-Christian journey to faith, while the conservative emphasis on truth would remind us that this journey is not open-ended, but has a destination in the committed Christian life” (p. 106).

Mike’s third way approach looks like this: The pre-Christian journey to faith: belong then become then believe.  The Christian journey in faith: believe then belong then become.

The rest of Mike’s chapters provide a third way approach to issues such as: is the cross divine child abuse? does the kingdom of God include non-Christians and is it possible to know anyting?

If you haven’t read this book you should, regardless of your theological persuasion.  A generous reading will reveal to conservative Christians that many of our positions are extreme and not necessarily biblical.  However, it will also reveal to liberal Christians that many of your positions are simply over-reactions and are also unbiblical.  This book, as Mike somewhere wrote, provides “a biblical third way that combines the best insights of each.”

I firmly believe that embracing a third way such as this will result in a more unified church that can have a greater impact in the world today.  Thanks Mike for your valuable contribution.

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  1. May 12, 2009 at 8:51 am

    Thanks Brian – very good, helpful!

  2. mikewittmer
    May 12, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks, Brian. Where is John? If he writes on The Shack before DSB, we’re going to have an issue.

  3. jlemke
    May 12, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Sorry, Mike, I didn’t get to it. Busy writing my review of The Shack.

  4. Al
    December 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Reading much of this debae on emergent Church just typifies the nature of Christianity. For a longtime I allowed myself to be trapped by the Church into thinking the New Testament is correct. The best debate the Church can get into is Christ essential for a person. The notion in the 21st century of Christ being a real god is as ridiculous as thinking he is a lamb or vine. The real debate should be is how acceptable are the letters of Paul, a man who argued against the disciples who actully spent time with Jesus and apparently had a mystical revlation of Christ. Paul is a good allegorical image of anti-semetism and nothing more than a ploy by the Roman Church to eradicate the beliefs of the Jews forever, something that 2000 years later has still failed. The emergent Church thinks itself cool, contempory and modern but until it debates the soul of Christianity, which is the dictorial sayings of Paul and rejects them as herectical it is just another pointless denomination desperatly trying to get young, cool people to believe in a Jesus who has always just been an symbol of the word of God which is the Torah.

  5. March 12, 2012 at 5:53 am

    Perhaps I’m alone when I say that adding yet another “way” will move people further away from the truth of the Scriptures. It’s destined to cause more confusion among believers and prompt those who have no idea that salvation from God is through His Christ to quickly find fault with Christianity due to the fact that its house is divided. The Christian faith has been disappearing among multiple versions of the Bible and countless denominations that blur the clarity of God’s Word. These bibles and denominations are merely tools in the hands of men who want to be the catalyst of the right, best, or even the easiest way to believe and have faith in God. For the love of God almighty, stop trying to add or take away from the truth of God’s divine Word.

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