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 / Dec 30

Editor’s Note: We asked some of our staff members to share books they enjoyed reading this year. We hope this will give you ideas about what to read in the new year.

Phillip Bethancourt

The Road to Character by David Brooks

In The Road to Character, New York Times Columnist David Brooks explores the important relationship between our external lives and our internal character. Through powerful stories and strong prose, he makes a case for why our lives should not be defined by “resume virtues” that focus on accomplishments over attitudes but by “eulogy virtues” that focus on character over credentials. Drawing on the collective wisdom of many great thinkers including Augustine, Brooks makes a strong case for why who we are is more important than what we do. Though the book lacks an explicitly gospel-centered approach to character, Christians who read the book will be challenged to think through the Bible's call to exemplify the fruit of the Spirit in everyday life.

Daniel Darling

On Writing Well by William Zinser

I've been writing professionally for almost 20 years, yet had never read Zinser's magnificent work On Writing Well. Every writer should read this. He's humorous, thoughtful and sharp. Zinser makes you love the craft of writing in a way that you won't if you don't read this book.

Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

Andy Crouch is always good, thoughtful  and is always making us think in new categories. Playing God is no exception. Crouch takes us on a rich journey through the Scripture and the use of power. I can't say enough about how this book changed the way I think about how power, rightly applied, contributes to human flourishing. This books picks up on the language of “culture-making” and “image-bearing” that made his first book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, such an important read. Leaders at any level should put this on their reading list.

Jack Kemp: The Bleeding-Heart Conservative Who Changed America by Morton Kondracke and Fred Barnes

When I was in high-school, I argued in a debate that Jack Kemp would be a better nominee for President than Dan Quayle in 1996. It turns out that neither of these guys ran, but Kemp ended up as Bob Dole' s running mate that year in a losing effort. Kemp was a transformational force in politics. Stubbornly (even, at times, against the Reagan White House) for supply-side economics, Kemp could be a difficult negotiating partner from his position in Congress. But Kemp's contribution to the conservative movement, sadly lost in this polarizing and fear-mongering age, was a big-hearted view of people. Kemp strove to advocate policies that lifted up the poor. He courageously spoke out against racism and urged, prophetically, for change in America's urban core. This book presented Kemp as he was, flaws and strengths. Would it be that today's candidates displayed more of Kemp's big-hearted conservatism.

Samuel James

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This WWII-era novel about a young boy thrust into the violence and evil of Hitler’s Youth and a blind girl struggling to survive the occupation of Paris is a gripping, beautifully written tale. Doerr skillfully weaves the vulnerability and hope of childhood with the brutal wages of war, and the result is a book that you won’t put down. An upcoming movie adaptation means you should read this book as soon as possible, for I can practically guarantee that Doerr’s prose is deeper and more satisfying than any screenplay could capture.

Jason Thacker

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower

Brower explores the history of our nation and the presidents through the lenses of the people who serve at the White House. This fascinating account of the private lives of the presidents and their families focuses on the group of people who make the White House run. I enjoyed hearing about the behind-the-scenes happenings of people who are typically unnoticed at the world's most famous address.

Andrew Walker

The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America by Richard John Neuhaus

My favorite book from 2015 is an older book, Richard John Neuhaus' Naked Public Square. Originally written in the 1980s, the book became a classic for re-energizing the role of religion in democracy. While technical and often digressive, the book's powerful prose and understanding of church and state speaks to its staying power.