I’ve heard it said that the worst handyman comes off as a master craftsman when putting together Ikea furniture. If you have the right pieces, the right tools, and a clear set of instructions, you can build just about anything.
Except for a small Swedish man on each page, this is precisely what J. T. English accomplishes with his new book, Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus.
English is the lead pastor at Storyline in Arvada, Colorado, but this book grew from the fertile soil of his time at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas.
Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus
J. T. English
Everyone is being discipled. The question is: what is discipling us?
The majority of Christians today are being discipled by popular media, flashy events, and folk theology because churches have neglected their responsibility to make disciples. But the church is not a secondary platform in the mission of God; it is the primary platform God uses to grow people into the image of Jesus. Therefore, as church leaders, it is our primary responsibility to establish environments and relationships where people can be trained, grow, and be sent as disciples.
Deep Discipleship equips churches to reclaim the responsibility of discipling people at any point on their journey.
In Deep Discipleship, English contends that our discipleship is anemic; it harbors a disease that the right diagnosis and treatment plan can solve. Unfortunately, though, we continually misdiagnose and mistreat our disease, which leaves us worse off in the long run. Therefore, English’s purpose is to “introduce a paradigm that will help local churches implement a philosophy of ministry that will grow and mature deep and holistic disciples” (10). He suggests we need more teaching discipleship in our churches, not less. He notes we’re actually fairly competent at the relational aspect of discipleship (77–78); and yet, while community is an indispensable part of discipleship, it isn’t discipleship by itself (83, 96, 204). We need more Bible, more theology, more spiritual disciplines, and more gospel (8). If we want to make holistic disciples, then our discipleship must also be holistic.
We need more Bible, more theology, more spiritual disciplines, and more gospel. If we want to make holistic disciples, then our discipleship must also be holistic.
Part of the American church’s discipleship disease is that we’ve lowered the bar for what we ask our members to do, hoping it’ll produce more participation in our events and ministries and, eventually, more commitment to Christ and holiness in their lives. By doing this, we’ve only brought our members into knee-deep water, but we wonder why we rarely see anyone swimming in the deep end. Instead, by raising the bar and teaching our members how to swim in the shallows, where they can still touch the bottom, we’re equipping them to tread out into the deep waters of our God and, ultimately, to train others to do likewise. English rightly observes that, to go deep, we must begin at the surface (144). However, the point is still to go deep, so pastors and ministry leaders must be creating a plan that equips and enables our members to dive (156).
Better Questions, Deeper Disciples
At our church, when the worship service feels odd and cumbersome, we may be tempted to do away with the clunkier elements to make the service smoother and more enjoyable. At that moment, we’re asking, “What do we want?”—and the answer is a streamlined, more accessible product. However, we work hard to consistently ask ourselves the better question: “What do we need?” We and our members need to regularly enter into the beautiful, but sometimes clumsy, work of calling one another to worship, confessing sin together, giving financially, serving others, and partaking of the sacraments—not to mention the other “smoother” aspects. We must allow it all to redirect our gaze to the beauty of our Savior, in whom we find the assurance of pardon and life everlasting (John 6:40).
Asking better questions—not just of our worship service, but of every aspect of our church’s discipleship practices—is the constant refrain of this book. And English consistently directs us to find the answers to these better questions in the beauty of the triune God (17). “Discipleship,” he writes, “is about a redirection of our loves to the One who is lovely” (20). Therefore, our church’s discipleship practices ought to lead our members into a deeper relationship with and understanding of our God (John 17:3), as well as greater intimacy with his body, the church. As English puts it, “The primary pathway of discipleship is God himself. God is the goal of deep discipleship” (21). Any question producing a lesser goal misses the mark of what we’ve been called to in the Great Commission and needs to be replaced with a better question (Matt. 28:18–20).
Deep Discipleship Is Urgently Needed
Looking out at our current cultural and political landscape in the West—and particularly in the United States—it’s possible that in the near future we won’t easily be able to send men and women to valuable Christian institutions (Bible colleges, seminaries, Christian nonprofits, and so on). This legitimate concern, however, only highlights the need for deep discipleship in the context of the local church. Seminaries and Christian nonprofits have immeasurable value, but there’s only one institution that Jesus promised to build and not let the gates of hell prevail against—his church (Matt. 16:18).
Many of us believe “we have to leave the church to lead in the church” (47, 152). This shouldn’t be the case. Our dependence on these organizations and institutions—which were meant to supplement the work of raising up mature disciples—stands as a witness against the church that she’s not fulfilling her calling. Recounting his journey in creating The Village Church Institute, English invites fellow pastors and ministry leaders into deep thinking about discipleship paths in our churches. Are we able to take the recently converted teenager and disciple him over the next few decades so that he can be our lead pastor without ever leaving (50–52)? Many, I’m sure, would have to answer this question with a sorrowful no. However, this question ought not leave us defeated.
With Deep Discipleship, English challenges and equips us to rearrange the ministry furniture in our churches (perhaps even to toss some out!) and create a clear pathway to form deep, holistic disciples for the local church, in the local church.
English challenges and equips us to rearrange the ministry furniture in our churches (perhaps even to toss some out!) and create a clear pathway to form deep, holistic disciples for the local church, in the local church.
Stay Calm and Press On
Deep Discipleship is both convicting and hopeful; it presents deep problems while also providing the tools to develop lasting solutions. If you’re like me, this book will point out much room for improvement—perhaps areas needing to be rebuilt from the ground up!
But while the work of deep discipleship in our churches is urgent and needs our attention, it’s work we’ve been called to continue until eternity. Unlike Ikea furniture, none of our churches will ever “complete” the work of discipleship. Our whole lives will be dedicated to the toil and struggle of presenting our members mature in Christ, by God’s strength (Col. 1:28–29).
Plant and water; equip men and women for the work of the ministry. But do it in the supreme confidence that the good work God begins in our members he promises to finish at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).