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.