The solution to our shallow churches

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

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 and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate of … Read More

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24