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The solution to our shallow churches

An Interview with J.T. English about “Deep Discipleship”

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January 20, 2021

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

In our modern age, our problem “is not that churches are too deep, but too shallow.” That is just one of the insights you’ll find in this interview with J.T. English about his book, Deep Discipleship. English exemplifies the best of what it means to be a pastor-theologian. As a shepherd, he is interested in caring for the hearts and souls of believers. As a theologian, he seeks to help Christians love God with their minds. And far from being at odds with one another, English shows us that sound theology leads to more intimate knowledge of God, the kind that is truly life-changing. Read below to discover even more wisdom from English’s important book on discipleship.

You’re well known for stating that “theology is the most practical thing in the world,” which you do a good job of modeling for readers in Deep Discipleship. Can you unpack that statement for us? Many people think of theology as purely intellectual. Could you explain why you believe theology is actually very practical?

Sometimes theology gets a bad reputation in the church. Unfortunately, sometimes theology can be used in the church to cause harm or to create distance between Christians. I know that when I first became a Christian, the idea of doing theology sounded very academic and intellectual. It wasn’t until I learned what theology was that I realized that theology is for everyone. Theology is, in its most basic form, words about God. Everyone has thoughts, ideas, and words about God—even atheists. I began to realize that theology is not the cold, distant, and intellectual enterprise I had thought, but rather, it was the most practical thing in the world. The question is not, “Are you a theologian?” but, “Are you a good theologian?” At the heart of Deep Discipleship is the hope that every member in our local churches would recapture the idea that they are invited into the task of theology—the task of singing, praying, and glorifying our Triune God.

In the book, you argue that the church has a “discipleship disease” that we’ve often misdiagnosed and mistreated. What is the church’s discipleship disease, and how ought we treat it?

As with any disease, treatment of the disease hinges on correctly diagnosing the disease. In my experience, most churches are primarily interested in lowering the bar for participation in the life of the church. We see people leaving our churches, students leaving the faith as they go to college, and perhaps most importantly a lack of seriousness among our members about what it means to be a follower of Christ. As the church has examined these symptoms of our disease, many have come to the conclusion that we are asking too much, not too little of people. I believe that is the wrong diagnosis. 

Our discipleship disease is not that churches are too deep, but too shallow. People leave our churches not because we have given too much of Christ, but far too little. We are building philosophies of ministry that give people a shallow and generic spirituality when we need to give them distinctive Christianity. We have developed ministry approaches that seek to grow crowds, not grow Christians. In Deep Discipleship, I argue that churches need to adopt ministry paradigms that focus on growing deep and holistic disciples of Jesus.

There are a couple of statements in your book that have taken on new significance since the pandemic forced the church to make some adaptations. You say, “Virtual discipleship cannot create deep disciples” (55), and, “The fastest way to disrupt a journey of deep discipleship is to forsake regularly gathering together with the church” (87). So, in this “time of plague,” as Russell Moore calls it, how can churches continue to pursue deep discipleship when so much has changed?

I am so thankful that so many churches have been able to pivot their ability to preach Christ and make disciples in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In my own ministry setting at Storyline Fellowship, we are constantly trying to think of ways we can stay engaged with our people and our community in the midst of so much change. In light of all of that, I am not of the opinion that church has changed forever. On the contrary, the church has an opportunity to recover the New Testament vision for what it means to be a church. The church is not built on circumstances, the church is built on Scripture. We have the opportunity to recover what it means for us to be the people of God, filled with the presence of God, in the places God has situated us, pursuing the purpose God has given us—to preach Christ crucified.

Hand-in-hand with growing as a disciple of Jesus, you say, is being a student of his Word (108). What are two or three pieces of counsel you would give to Christians (or non-Christians) who desire to develop as readers of Scripture? 

At the heart of being a disciple is to be a learner. We are called to learn the way of Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, through Scripture. No disciple ever graduates from being a student of God’s Word. The best ways to grow as a student of the Bible are to: 1) Read the Bible regularly; 2) Read the Bible prayerfully; and 3) Read the Bible in community.

You’re adamant that the vision of deep discipleship laid out in the book is “scalable, sustainable, and strategic for any church” (187). There are many churches out there that would like to develop more depth in their discipleship practices but are afraid they don’t have enough staff or adequate funding. Can this really be done in any church?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes! I have seen so many churches begin to adopt this philosophy of ministry and they are seeing beautiful fruit in their people. If your discipleship strategy is entirely dependent on staff, you are not making disciples who make disciples. This paradigm shift to deep discipleship invites churches to invest in a vision for the church that is not dependent on more staff, but on creating holistic disciples.

Over the last several decades, there seems to have been a trend in the church that has prioritized community over and above theological education. What, would you say, have been the effects of this? Why should churches recapture a vision for theological education that takes place in the local church?

Community is indispensable to discipleship, but community is not synonymous with discipleship. Over the past decade most churches have gauged their ability to make disciples with their ability to connect people to community. This is a bad metric. If our only goal is to put people in community, it is possible that all we are doing is pooling ignorance. The goal cannot simply be putting people into community, but putting people into specific communities that are learning about the way of Jesus together.

You talk often in the book about your wife, Macy, and the impact that she’s had on you as a disciple-maker, saying that “no one has taught you more about God” than she has. What’s the most important thing that you’ve learned from your wife about God?

My wife is my best friend, and it is true that nobody has taught me more about God than her. Specifically, she has taught me how to joyfully follow Jesus through suffering. Macy is one of the most joy-filled people I know, but she has also suffered immensely. Watching her lean into Jesus through her suffering has been one of the best theology lessons I have ever learned.

You can order Deep Discipleship here.

Photo Attribution:

B&H Books

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Chair of Research in Christian Ethics at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author