Book Review

Finding more enjoyment in God through deeper discipleship

February 4, 2021

The American church is experiencing a crisis of discipleship. Our churches are leaking members, young and old, and are often plagued by a widespread nominal devotion to Christ. And though secular winds have long been blowing across American culture, the church’s discipleship crisis is not an imposition levied against us by secularism. It is a self-imposed malady; a “discipleship disease” (7). It is this disease that J.T. English, in his book Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus, believes the church has misdiagnosed and, as a result, mistreated. And, likewise, it is this disease that he seeks to address and remedy. 

English, the lead pastor of Storyline Fellowship in Arvada, Colorado, formerly served as a pastor at The Village Church in Texas, where he founded and directed The Village Church Institute and implemented much of what he describes in this book. With prophetic boldness and theological precision, he speaks directly to the church, calling her to a deeper vision of discipleship.

As the waters cover the sea

One of the dangers of misdiagnosing a disease is that, in doing so, you are almost certain to mistreat it. This, English argues, is precisely what seems to have happened within our churches. Over the past few decades, as parishioners have increasingly vacated our pews, “we’ve come to think our disease is that the church has become increasingly irrelevant and requires too much from people who want to get involved” (7). Believing that we’ve diagnosed the problem correctly, the church has proceeded to lower the bar of discipleship. We have kept our people in the shallows. 

In an early chapter of the book, English shares a story about a recent trip to Lake Tahoe, where he found himself standing on the shore, staring across a lake measuring over 1,600 feet in depth, and calling to mind the words of the prophet Habakkuk: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). It was this picture that reminded him that the “bottomless, infinite, and boundless God will cover all of his creation” as the waters cover the sea (16-17). The church’s discipleship problem is not that we’ve gone too deep and asked too much of our congregants, but that we’ve not gone nearly deep enough. English’s assertion in the remainder of the book is that “discipleship should be deep because God is inexhaustible” (37).  

More than anything, English’s vision of deep discipleship is about the enjoyment of God. More central than an uptick in attendance or a bustling church ministry, “God is the goal of deep discipleship” (37). The only remedy for discipleship in the shallows is to plunge headlong into the depths of the Triune God. 

Asking better questions

Having established a firm theological foundation, that God is the goal and the means of deep discipleship (37), English then seeks to apply that theology practically to the process of disciple-making in the church. He does so by asking and answering a series of questions: where should disciples be formed (Ch. 2 and 3), what do disciples need (Ch. 4), how do disciples grow (Ch. 5), where do disciples go (Ch. 6), and finally, why would my church not do this (Ch. 7)? It is these questions, meant to juxtapose some of the more inferior questions we often ask of our ministries, that drive the remainder of the book, building a sort of blueprint meant to help church leaders catch and apply the vision of a more substantive, holistic practice of discipleship. And in answering all these questions, English takes the reader back, time and again, to the God-saturated nature of Christian discipleship.

The church’s discipleship problem is not that we’ve gone too deep and asked too much of our congregants, but that we’ve not gone nearly deep enough.

But it’s his final question (why would my church not do this?) that many church leaders may find themselves tripping over. After all, English’s primary experience with this occurred in a well-funded megachurch in the buckle of the Bible-belt. Can deep discipleship, the kind that he describes in the pages of his book, really occur in places like the Pacific Northwest or in the rural deep South? English’s retort is a resounding “yes.” Not only is his vision of deep discipleship a theological must-have, but, he argues, “the vision of deep discipleship . . . is scalable to any church, sustainable in any church, and strategic for any church” (187). In other words, not only is the vision of deep discipleship necessary and integral to forming whole disciples, but it is fundamentally achievable, no matter your context. 

A reorientation to reality

English’s book is idealistic, and he should make no apologies for that. For too long, the church’s discipleship practices have been devoid of depth and biblical holism. As American culture continues trending more toward secularist ideologies, the church needs disciples firmly rooted in the God of the Bible, both for their own health and for the continued advance of the gospel. His vision of deep discipleship—discipleship rooted in the gospel and in the God of the gospel—is the remedy for a church who has lost her bearings. 

Though English advocates for a certain discipleship structure regarding the scope, sequence, and strategy it necessitates, his most valuable contribution in Deep Discipleship is his theology of discipleship. He states: “Discipleship is not just a program but a total reorientation to reality” and “in being reoriented to reality, disciples begin to view everything through a God-centered lens” (21). This is the essence of Christian discipleship, that in all things we live unto God. And it is precisely this that English is calling the reader, and the church, into. “Deep discipleship is all about helping people find greater and deeper enjoyment in the Triune God” (207). May it ever be so. 

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

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