By / Dec 14

We began our gender and sexuality series by examining what the Bible teaches us about these important topics. And as we close out this series with two more episodes, we’re going to concentrate on the Church and how pastors and leaders can disciple their members to wrestle with and hold fast to God’s good design for us. Because gender confusion has disproportionately affected younger generations, we’ll spend a lot of time today focusing on discipling those at the forefront this ideological assault. 

As we discuss these important topics, you might have additional questions. We’d love to hear from you. Please e-mail us at [email protected] and let us know how you’re processing this conversation. 

Joining us on today’s episode are several of our former guests: Katie McCoy, the director of women’s ministry at Texas Baptists; Steven and Amy Castello from City on a Hill Church in Boston, where Steven is the lead pastor and Amy is the director for women’s discipleship and care; and Christopher Yuan, a professor and the creator of “The Holy Sexuality Project.”

You’ll also hear from Dr. Dub Oliver. Dr. Oliver is the president of Union University, a Southern Baptist college. He completed a Bachelor of Science degree in education from Baylor University, Master of Science degree in educational psychology, and a Doctor of Philosophy in educational administration from Texas A&M. Dr. Oliver and his wife, Susie, have one daughter and two grandchildren. 

The ERLC podcast is a production of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. It is produced by Jill Waggoner, Lindsay Nicolet, and Elizabeth Bristow. Technical production is provided by Owens Productions. It is edited and mixed by Mark Owens.

By / Nov 16

When we moved overseas, we began to taste how generous hospitality can be. Sitting on drab floor cushions in sparsely-furnished homes, we were welcomed into the lives of the Roma of Eastern Europe. Roma live hand-to-mouth, and even then, what they make today is often not enough for their meals tomorrow. Despite our protests and attempts to visit without sharing a meal, they had joy and honor in feeding us as their guests. Their generosity humbled us every time.

Receiving such sacrifices convicted us of our selfishness. I began to see how closely I held what we had. I wasn’t just hoarding the food we had; I was also hoarding our space, our time, and our gifts. God was teaching me that everything I had belonged to him and was not mine to be accumulated for my family alone. 

But more than stirring a desire to imitate the Roma’s welcoming hospitality, I realized how the Christian’s hospitality has a bigger purpose: to preach the gospel of Christ who poured out everything for us. 

I’d love it if I was a natural hostess who always had a clean house, delicious meals, and cooperative children. My husband and I are introverts, our house gets messy more quickly than we can clean it, and it often feels scary to give others an up-close look at our sinful family. Opening our home can take a lot out of not just me but the whole family. If it’s hard, why practice it?

Hospitality is biblical.

We are commanded to practice hospitality. Both Titus and 1 Timothy name hospitality as one of the requirements for a pastor, but elsewhere we see hospitality commanded to others within the body of Christ. Moreover, our hospitality is supposed to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ: “Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Rom. 12:13). 

And we should not just offer hospitality to those we know, but also to people we’re unfamiliar with: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2). Furthermore, the Bible is clear that how we open up our homes matters: “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet. 4:9). 

Hospitality gives us opportunities to serve others. 

Service is a tangible way of loving one another. When we serve, we are humbling ourselves and putting the needs and desires of another in front of our own (Phil. 2). Everyone in our family has opportunities to serve when we invite people into our space. My children have learned many lessons about taking care of the needs of others because of guests. 

Jesus, our Creator and Lord, was the perfect example of a servant. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he poured himself out until he was exhausted. He “did not come to be served, but to serve,” and his ultimate service was when he gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Serving is a way we can act like Christ and point others to him.

Hospitality helps us prioritize people over stuff. 

It can be hard to let people into our home sometimes. Hospitality can come at a cost. When we have another family over, we often use our resources to feed them. My children have slept on the floor to allow overnight guests to use their beds. We have had messes left by guests that we have to clean up (including the time a toddler dumped out every one of my children’s Legos) and broken toys that we replace with our money or have to do without. 

We have long had a family saying: “People are more important than things.” This is easy to say but hard to actually believe in our hearts because of our selfish flesh. The things we own are temporary, but people have eternal souls and bear God’s image. When we have people in our home, we try to remember the significance of our stuff pales in comparison to the significance of our guests (Luke 12:15; Matt. 625-34). 

Hospitality allows us to deepen discipleship relationships.

Many of the people we have over are members of our church and have covenanted with us to encourage one another in our faith. A different facet of discipleship is caught in our home when people get to watch our family interact with each other, deepening what is taught when we study the Bible and pray together. Real life happens in our home amongst our family, and welcoming people into it is the best way to give insight into how our family functions, in all the messy ways. 

Inviting people into our home means that we cannot so easily hide our lives behind a facade presented on Sunday morning, but rather those close to us can see what we look like throughout the week and how we are trying, even as we stumble and falter, to follow Christ as a family.

Our children are also benefactors of this. Their relationships with people are strengthened when we have them in our home, allowing opportunities for our children to grow and learn from others as well. They also feel more at home within our church family because of how many people they’ve eaten meals and talked with at the dinner table. 

Hospitality provides the time and space to display and preach the gospel.

Hospitality is a means to display the gospel by using your home for the good of others. It is a way we can show what God has done and is doing in our lives. When we welcome others to our home, we have the opportunity to invite them to taste and see how good the Lord is. 

Like most Christians, we thank God before we eat for providing food to enjoy and sustain our bodies. We want to always remember that every good gift comes from him and that he alone is our provider. Remembering that God has provided our daily bread should turn our hearts to his ultimate provision: The broken body and spilled blood of Christ.

And that’s one of the sweetest parts of opening up our home: sharing testimonies about the Lord’s saving grace in our lives. We have heard stories about God’s faithfulness countless times while at our dining room table or in our living room. I am reminded that my salvation is a “gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). My children have heard how God brought people from all stages and walks of life to him. They’ve also watched us practice evangelism in our house around our normal activities. 

My family has been changed by welcoming others into our home. We’re still having our sin revealed to us and being sanctified through our attempts at hospitality, but we’ve settled into a happy family rhythm that includes people who don’t share our last name. Our kids regularly think of people who we need to have over and how we might serve them. It isn’t always easy, even after having hundreds of people in our home, but it is always worth it. 

By / Apr 14

Jesus’s healing of the man by the pool of Bethesda was an impressive miracle, except in the religious leaders’ estimation. They were more concerned that Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath, so they began attacking Jesus. In the middle of Jesus’s lengthy reply to these hard-hearted leaders, we read this: “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life” (John 5:39–40 CSB).

Our temptation is to read this with a “Yeah they got what they deserved!” mentality. While that’s understandable, we need to read these verses with humility instead. In the Savior’s words, we find a sobering warning to us as disciple-makers, especially those of us who are discipling kids. 

These religious leaders knew the Scriptures. They were the Bible trivia champions of their day. But what did that amount to? Death. All of their meticulous study of the Scriptures didn’t move them even a fraction of an inch from death toward life. In this passage, we see that there is much more than just knowing Scripture; we have to know Jesus through Scripture

We don’t want to follow in the religious leaders’ steps and train up kids who know the Bible but are still dead in their sins because they haven’t come to know the One the Bible is all about. Rather, we want to disciple kids who have learned about Jesus through the Bible, love him, and live for him. 

Learn, love, live: The foundation of the Shema

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find this three-part structure of discipleship woven into what many consider to be the seminal passage on discipling kids in the Bible—the passage known as the Shema—Deuteronomy 6:4–9. 

Learn. Notice how the Shema begins:

Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one (Deut. 6:4 CSB).

The foundation of discipling kids is orthodoxy—having a right knowledge and belief about who God is. You cannot love whom you do not know, and you cannot live out what you do not know. So, in many ways, discipleship must begin with our targeting a child’s thinking—the head. We need to help kids understand God and his ways. We need to help kids engage their minds and think deeply about the gospel. But if discipleship ended here, it would be just a matter of information transfer; the religious leaders and even the demons would be excellent disciples (James 2:19).

Love. The Shema continues:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart (Deut. 6:5–6 CSB).

God’s intention is that the truth of who he is and the beauty of what he has done to restore our broken relationship with him should stir our affections for him and others. This is why Jesus pointed to the commands to love God (in Deuteronomy) and to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) as the two greatest commands in Scripture (Matt. 22:34–40). Love is the divinely appointed conduit that helps us to put what we know into practice.

As critical as love is in discipleship, it’s often neglected. The tendency is to move straight from learning to living. This robs kids of the opportunity to engage their feelings rightly. Orthodoxy should lead to orthopathy; right doctrine to rightly directed affections. Being moved deeply, that is, being filled with gratitude, love, and awe is the only reasonable response to what we learn. So, those who teach kids don’t just target right thinking, we also go after the heart. 

But if discipleship ended with the head and heart, it would be incomplete. Love is not love without action.

Live. The Shema concludes:

Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates (Deut. 6:7–9 CSB).

Whether or not these commands to bind and write the law are to be taken literally or metaphorically, the result is the same: obedience to God’s commands should mark his people such that they are easily recognized by others.1For more on whether these instructions were intended to be literal or metaphorical, see Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 170–71; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1–21:9, Revised, vol. 6A, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994), 167–68. Knowing and loving God rightly will result in living rightly; this is called orthopraxy. Living on mission is not just extra credit for the spiritual elites; it is a requirement for all who believe, and it’s a test to determine whether a person has indeed learned and loved.

Required action is what Jesus had in mind when he explained what separates the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46. Jesus pointed to each group’s action or inaction as the reason they were judged as either saved or perishing. Jesus was not teaching a works-based salvation, but he was assuming a holistic discipleship process. His premise is that the righteous will do what they do because he knows them and has already transformed their heads and hearts It will be their natural and reasonable response to being in relationship with God. The inverse is just as true: it is unreasonable to contend that a person is a disciple of Jesus if he or she fails to live any differently. Our goal is not just to aim for the heads and hearts of those we are discipling, but also for their hands. 

Learn, love, and live: Putting discipleship into practice

How, then, do we put this learn-love-live discipleship triad into practice in our children’s ministries? Here are three tips to get you started:

  • Ensure your curriculum is balanced. Grab three different highlighters and a few sessions of your curriculum. Go through each, highlighting everything that focuses on learning in one color, loving in another color, and living in yet another. When you are done, if you notice a lack of one or more areas, consider how you can work with your teachers to include or expand those areas beyond what is in the leader guides. 
  • Ensure your ministry is balanced. Your impact on kids goes beyond your curriculum. Consider a similar exercise with your calendar and highlight your events according to what each one’s major win is or should be. Not only will this help you balance your ministry, but it will also help you as you plan each event—making sure each one is faithful to its purpose. 
  • Ensure your kids are balanced. We all have a bent toward either learning, loving, or living. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, it should be encouraged. But at the same time, we want to make sure that each child (and leader, too) is growing holistically as a disciple. So that kid who is a learner by nature may need to be stretched to love and live more. That kid who is quick to live may need to be encouraged to slow down and learn at times. We don’t want to stifle natural growth, but neither do we want to encourage disproportionate growth. 

Learn, love, and live: An inseparable triad

Learn. Love. Live. Learning the gospel must result in a love for the God of the gospel and then living out the gospel in our context. Orthodoxy develops orthopathy which prompts orthopraxy. But once the process begins, each propels a person toward the other two as a person grows to become a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. In this way, all three work together in a beautiful and fruitful symbiotic relationship. None of the parts can be removed.

  • Learning and living without loving is legalism. We see this in Jesus’s description of the Pharisees in in Matthew 23:27–28. He said they were whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside.
  • Loving and living without learning is liberalism. We see this in many cults where people live passionately under their leaders’ errant guidance rather than under God’s inerrant truth.
  • Learning and loving without living is libertinism. We see this in church history in the monks, who withdrew from society to learn about God and love him in vacuum, without being salt and light in their communities. 

Learning, loving, and living are like the three legs of a stool. Remove any one, and it all topples over. But when all three work together, they provide a solid foundation. 

The newest cycle of Lifeway’s Gospel Project curriculum was revised with this Learn, Love, Live paradigm in mind. Learn more at gospelproject.com.

  • 1
    For more on whether these instructions were intended to be literal or metaphorical, see Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 170–71; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1–21:9, Revised, vol. 6A, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 142; Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, vol. 4, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 1994), 167–68.
By / Mar 25

Does your child have big emotions? Big responses to life’s circumstances? Fear. Sadness. Anger. Disappointment. Loneliness. Just like adults, children experience difficult emotions. They feel afraid of things that may do them harm. They feel sad when they experience a loss. They feel angry when things don’t go as expected. They feel disappointed when plans change and lonely when a friend moves away. 

As Christian parents, we take seriously our God-given task to teach our children the truths of God’s Word. We know we need to disciple our children to know who God is and what he has done. But how often in our teaching do we disciple our children in their emotions?

Emotional beings

God created us to image and reflect him. One of the ways we image God is in our emotions. God feels emotions such as love, joy, peace, jealousy, anger, and sadness (see Exo. 34:14; Rom. 1:18; Rom. 5:5; John 11:35).  When we feel joy at the goodness of God, we image him. When we feel righteous anger at the effects of sin in the world, we reflect God. 

But unlike God, our emotions are not holy and perfect. The influence of our first parent’s sin is felt far and wide, affecting even our emotions. Bad things happen. People get sick and die, and we mourn their loss. People hurt us. Frightening things happen in the world around us—disasters, pandemics, violence, and more. We hurt others in our selfishness and pride. All these situations are the result of sin, and they all produce emotional responses within us. Sometimes we respond in sinful ways to the pains of life. Often, our emotions exaggerate or distort the truth.

In discipling our children, we often focus on teaching them things they need to know or do and overlook the fact that they are emotional beings and need discipleship in their emotions as well. Our children are often overwhelmed by the difficult and painful emotions of life in a fallen world. They feel big feelings and don’t know how to navigate them. They need our help to understand what they are feeling, why they feel that way, and what to do with those emotions. 

Helping our children with their emotions

As parents, we can disciple our children in their emotions. We can walk beside them in their sadness, fear, and disappointment. We can use these opportunities to teach our children about the God who made them as emotional beings. 

Here are three things to teach children about their feelings: 

1. Help them learn to identify and verbalize their emotions: Children don’t automatically know that the tightness in their belly or the pounding of the heart means they are afraid. They need the words to describe it. We can help our children gain a vocabulary for naming their emotions. We can describe our own emotions, “We are running late to our appointment, and I’m worried we will miss it.” “I am feeling frustrated because my computer isn’t working today, and I can’t get my work done.” We can also point out to them their emotional responses, “You seem worried about your spelling test today.” “I see that you are crying. Are you feeling sad because _____?” “You’ve been in your room all day. Are you feeling lonely since your friend moved away?”

2. Help your children learn that emotions aren’t bad in themselves, it’s how we respond to them that can be sinful: While emotions are not always an accurate indicator of reality, they do tell us something is wrong. They reveal something is going on in our heart that we need to pay attention to. And while they aren’t bad in and of themselves, we can respond to them in sinful ways. Feeling hurt and rejected by a friend is a normal response to the unkindness of others, but it’s not right to then turn and yell at a parent or sibling. We need to help our children understand how painful emotions originate in the Fall of man, how sin affects all that we feel. We also need to teach them godly responses to those emotions. And as they mature, we can help them learn to identify the thoughts, desires, and beliefs that influence their emotional responses.

3. Help them learn to lament to God what they feel: We all want to hide from difficult or uncomfortable emotions or simply pretend they aren’t there. As adults, we might eat a gallon of ice cream when we are stressed or upset. We might keep ourselves busy with work to distract ourselves from the things that bother us. Children might respond differently than we, but they still have a natural tendency to want to protect themselves from uncomfortable and difficult emotions. 

Our God is gracious and has provided a place for us to go with our emotions: the book of Psalms. In these words of prose, we find all the emotions of life. Specific psalms, called laments, give voice to the especially hard emotions of life. We see the godly voice all their sorrows, fears, and cares and realize we are not alone. These psalms have a particular form and structure we can follow which help us bring our own laments to God. And in teaching our children to lament, we help them learn what to do with their difficult emotions. We teach them to cry out to God and tell him how they feel. We teach them to turn to him and ask for help with their troubles. We teach them to see God as their refuge, shelter, and deliverer in all the cares and trials of life. In this way, they develop the spiritual habit of turning to the Lord with all their big emotions. 

Our children are emotional beings. They feel big things. As parents, may we disciple our children in their emotions, teaching them to tell God how they feel. “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me” (Ps. 77:1).

This piece is inspired by Christina’s new book: Tell God How You Feel: Helping Kids with Hard Emotions. For a sample of the book, click here

By / Feb 4

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. 

By / Jan 20

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.

By / Jan 4

Several years ago, The New Yorker published their weekly magazine with what can only be described as a damning photo. On the magazine’s 90th anniversary cover (one of nine), the issue depicted a man holding a phone in what’s become a sadly ubiquitous posture. Ignoring a cloudy sky and the flight of a butterfly directly overhead, this man, with his thumbs at the ready, is “bent in on himself,” staring at his little “glowing rectangle.”  

If you spend any amount of time in public spaces these days, you observe this scene with unremitting frequency. In the grocery line, at traffic lights, even sitting across the table from a friend, the glow of our smartphones has pulled our attention downward and inward. More visibly than ever, we are creatures, as Augustine and Luther long ago described us, “deeply curved in” on ourselves. The iPhone, and all its representative progeny, could not be more appropriately named. 

The formative power of habit

One of the genius design features of the modern smartphone is that it places its user at its gravitational center. All smartphone activity revolves around the person holding it, creating a subconscious bodily ritual or liturgy, as Justin Earley argues in The Common Rule. What this means for us is that as long as we hold a phone in our hands, we function as the acting center of our universe. To put it more bluntly, our world becomes self-centered. 

We would likely all agree that our collective forward-hunched posture, the constant peering into the screens of our smartphones, is a habit we’ve let get out of hand. What we may not be aware of, however, is the formative power of this habit and its encroachment into all other areas of our lives. To that point, Earley argues that our habits, whether we’re aware of it or not, actively “form our hearts.” So, if habits, as he suggests, possess the power to shape us deep down at the heart-level, and one of our most frequent habits involves this inward bend toward a phone—and toward the self—we must ask: what sort of person is this habit forming us to be?

Habits and distorted discipleship

Our smartphones have more power over us than we’re willing to reckon with. We have sold our souls to these all-powerful devices in exchange for the very real conveniences they promise. And, in so doing, we’re reaping the consequences. No corner of our lives is left unaffected by our ritualized devotion to our phones, namely the three “corners” most consequential: knowledge of God, knowledge of self, and love of neighbor. In effect, this yielding to our phones has disrupted and disordered these most fundamental competencies of the Christian faith. 

  1. Knowledge of God

John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, says that “wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In modern life, as we have turned inward, we have deprived ourselves of this wisdom that Calvin speaks of. Being “deeply curved in” means not just that we’ve neglected our pursuit of God and the knowledge of God, but that we’ve convinced ourselves—thanks, in part, to this bodily liturgy—that his existence is inconsequential. 

Being self-centered is a statement of theological belief with real-life consequences; it is an act of enthronement, a declaration of the assumed supremacy of the all-powerful “me.” This ritual that we daily participate in, if we lack prudence and vigilance, is actively forming us wayward from the God who made us. Our constant phone-ward gaze is a visual representation of just how absurd self-centered living looks. 

  1. Knowledge of self

Without the understanding that “our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone,” as Calvin says, then our ritualized, self-centered habits will only perpetuate a deeper and more rigid commitment to our own perceived self-importance and self-sufficiency. Bending inward upon oneself does not beget a greater knowledge of oneself. Rather, it welcomes the whispers of our foe (Gen. 3:5) and seeks to reign independently rather than in submission to our Maker. 

When we view citizens as digital avatars instead of people, or when we engage with fiery rhetoric instead of gentle Christlikeness, we can be sure that we’re acting as disciples of our smartphone rather than disciples of our Savior. 

As a result, our knowledge of self is not just reprioritized, but it is impoverished. The self is given a faux supremacy while simultaneously being stripped of its true vocation; we become a shell of who we were created to be. We are not meant to assume the role of God over our lives, but this is precisely what we attempt when we maintain this contorted posture.

  1. Love of neighbor

When we live our lives with the glow of our phones constantly upon our face, we are being formed for Christian malpractice. No longer is Jesus’ second greatest commandment concerned with the love of neighbor; we mistakenly prioritize ourselves. As it relates to our civic engagement, our political philosophy takes an identical inward turn. With the individual acting as the gravitational center of his or her political concern, the love of neighbor becomes a secondary consideration when we participate in this American rite. When we view citizens as digital avatars instead of people, or when we engage with fiery rhetoric instead of gentle Christlikeness, we can be sure that we’re acting as disciples of our smartphone rather than disciples of our Savior. 

Habits and Christian discipleship

Since that fateful day when the garden-intruder convinced Eve that she and Adam should rule in the place of God, we have been grasping for God’s throne. Subtly, and subconsciously, our growing dependence on our smartphones is often a manifestation of this grasping for authority and autonomy. And it is forming us into a people with an impoverished knowledge of God, an over-torqued knowledge of self, and a misapprehension of the second greatest commandment. It is inhibiting us being conformed to the image of Christ. This doesn’t mean that the smartphone is an evil device that we should shun, though. But it does mean that it’s a powerful device that we should respect. What are we to do, then? 

The very act of peering down and in toward a phone is a powerful act of discipleship, developing scores of navel-gazing persons. To combat this, the church needs new habits. Though it may seem trite and simple, the most effective habit in this fight for Christian formation may just be divorcing ourselves from our phones more frequently. Cultivating a growing knowledge of God and self, and an increasing faithfulness to loving our neighbor, requires that we dethrone our devices from their seat of supremacy. It requires that we vacate that seat ourselves.

To know God, we must develop the habit of lifting our eyes from our smartphones and gazing upon his beauty. To know ourselves, we must develop the habit of lifting our eyes from our smartphones and hearing from the God who speaks to us through his Word. And to love our neighbor, we must develop the habit of lifting our eyes from our smartphones and assuming not the contorted posture of our digital age but the cruciform posture of Jesus. 

By / Dec 15

Matt Sliger, a pastor at Southwoods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, recounts how his own children have been ministered to during his church’s response to the coronavirus.

By / Nov 10

Many things we do in church are just “baked in.” We’ve “always done them that way.” Your church might serve the Lord’s Supper quarterly, or your Sunday school class might have an annual hayride, or the women may attend that same conference together year after year. Student ministry is no different. Often, we do the same thing week after week. The students hang out, eat snacks, play a fun game, and sing worship songs. Then, a pastor teaches, and the students break into small groups. This model is traditional for student ministry across America. And traditions aren’t necessarily bad.

Our “baked-in” model of student ministry, in fact, closely mirrors the rhythms of a Sunday worship service—that is, aside from the pizza, foosball, and minute-to-win-it games. This is why many youth pastors go on to become senior pastors. They have experience planning a worship gathering, and they’re practiced teachers.

But I wonder if our student ministry tradition is worth keeping? Should student ministry look like a Sunday worship gathering? Or (if you’ll allow me to ask a more direct question), does our student ministry need to sing? After all, students usually attend Sunday morning worship, too (or at least they should), and singing isn’t something that comes natural to many teenagers. So, why keep doing it? Should we focus our efforts only on teaching the Bible and helping students apply it to their lives?

Singing is discipleship

In the evangelical church, we prioritize preaching because God’s Word is the primary tool he uses to grow and shape his church (2 Tim. 4:2). But sometimes there’s a temptation that accompanies that conviction. We’re tempted to view singing as merely the warm-up for the Sunday sermon. Some members of our congregations demonstrate that they’ve embodied this subconscious assumption by arriving late—after the singing, but just before the preaching starts—week after week. But singing isn’t merely supplemental. It’s essential. Paul connects singing with a full spiritual life when he writes, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:17–19).

We also believe that singing comes as a response to the gospel; our doxology follows our theology. We’ll spend an eternity in heaven singing God’s praises. But singing is not just reactive. It’s also formative. That’s why Paul writes in another place, “Let the message of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16). Singing helps us to remember biblical realities we may have forgotten, and by warming our hearts, it also helps us to trust and believe.

Singing is essential. Singing is formative. Singing is discipleship. And teens need it.

Students need a better song

The teenage demographic drives the multimedia industry. Producers today look to the lip-synching and dancing on TikTok and Instagram Reels to discover the next big hit. It’s equally true to say that music as an art form helps to shape how youth feel, think, and believe. You can see the cultural influence bleeding out of stars like Billie Eilish and the K-pop band BTS. Teens don’t just passively consume their music. They’re active fans, allowing the music to impact the way they dress, act, and talk.

The cultural influence of the music industry is scary for some parents and church leaders, and I’m not suggesting a separatist approach. You shouldn’t force your teenager to burn their Spotify and Apple Music accounts in a bonfire (like many of us did with our CDs, only later to regret it). I’m not sure how that would work anyway. The truth is we don’t grow in godliness simply by avoiding worldliness. More important than rejecting the music in the culture is giving youth a better song to sing.

Singing isn’t merely supplemental. It’s essential. Paul connects singing with a full spiritual life.

In Romans 12:2 Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” There are two commands there. Don’t conform and renew your mind. In other letters, he uses changing clothes as the analogy, and he says that we need both to “put off” and “put on.” That’s why theologically informed, gospel-centered singing matters so much for teenagers. It’s not just a tradition; Christ-centered worship offers the better story and better news they need. Learning to sing the good news forms youth over the course of their lifetime.

So, how can we be intentional about discipling teenagers through song? Here are three encouragements:

First, sing the whole gospel, not just the happy parts. It’s tempting to only sing songs about Christ’s victory with youth. This may be well intentioned, but it falls short. One of the reasons pop music is so appealing to youth is that it reflects the brokenness and sadness of their reality. When teens only see churches singing about triumph, it feels out of touch. It’s hard to sing about how “Jesus has won” when mom and dad just got a divorce. In fact, it feels hypocritical. 

Instead of being triumphalist, we must sing the whole gospel story: “God is glorious, the world is broken, and we are broken. Yet Jesus has worked on our behalf to make us and this world new again. We can experience this newness by faith.” Lead your youth group to sing songs of  confession and lament in addition to songs of victory. In doing so, our worship will embody Jesus’s heart and the whole biblical story.

Second, give students a celebrated role during Sunday worship gatherings. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was normal for churches to have a worship gathering for students that was completely separate from the church’s primary worship service. If you left the main gathering and walked into the youth gathering, you’d notice big differences. Each service—“youth church” and “big church”—was aimed at its particular demographic.

One result was that the primary worship gathering was aimed only at adults, and any teenagers there were simply called to observe. The trouble with this is that believing teenagers are called to encourage and admonish the church in song as much as the adults are. The Sunday gathering is for God’s redeemed of all ages, ethnicities, and cultures. We’re called to worship the risen Lord together. The 60-year-old needs the 14-year-old singing in the next row. The young married woman needs the middle school boy across the aisle who may have forgotten to put on deodorant that morning. Every part of the body is indispensable.

Reeducate your church and reinforce the role of worship as personal discipleship for all. And, if you’re leading worship, address the youth directly, and call them to engage. Celebrate their presence with God’s people, and make clear that the service is for them. Doing so will produce long-lasting fruit in their lives.

Third, sing during your youth programming too. If your church does have a program or a ministry geared toward students, don’t forget to sing. God doesn’t want kids only to be discipled through Bible study and community, but also through song. So, we should sing as often as we can. If singing was only the warm-up for Bible study, then, sure, we could ax it. But if singing trains our students to believe and hope in the gospel, then we should sing more and more.

Singing in student ministry is a way to raise up a generation of worshipers. It may help raise up a generation of worship leaders as well. When students gain a passion for worship, they need a training ground where they can grow in their ability to serve others through song. Student ministry is often a great platform for such students. It’s a place where they can use their gifts in a lower-pressure environment and still edify fellow believers.

These days, church leaders are fearful for teenagers’ futures. Data shows that large numbers of students are leaving the church. The reasons are legion, and the calls to action are many. Yes, we need to equip parents to speak into their teenagers’ lives. Yes, we need to involve teenagers in larger church community. Yes, we need to teach them Bible engagement and apologetics. But we also need to sing! And we don’t need less singing; we need more. 

Raise your voice with the next generation. Worship him through song in whatever style you prefer, with whatever equipment you can afford, and in whatever venue God has provided. But let me encourage you again. Whether they know it or not, students need to sing. Win their hearts with the gospel’s better song.

By / Jul 9

I first learned of John Mark Comer through his excellent podcast, “This Cultural Moment,” co-hosted with fellow pastor, Mark Sayers, on ministry in post-Christian cities. So, when I saw this bright orange Instagram ad for his book saying “How to stay emotionally healthy and spiritually alive in the chaos of the modern world,” I put it on my Christmas list. His rich research regarding how we all got so busy, followed by pastoral words of what to do about it, is exactly what I needed while working among the relentless news cycle in Washington, D.C.