I was almost convinced that Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund was going to be my favorite book of the year, but Deep Discipleship by J.T. English gives it a run for that spot. Having facilitated Bible studies and small groups for years, I’m especially interested in discipleship and spiritual growth. Deep Discipleship diagnoses the churches’ discipleship problem and reframes key questions to point us to solutions that will grow robust followers of Christ.
What’s The Problem
English starts the book by diagnosing the discipleship problem in the church. He writes:
Over the past several decades the Western church has noticed alarming symptoms of our discipleship disease. Some of these symptoms include people leaving the church; students dropping out of church after high school; attendance dropping; and perhaps most important, a lack of seriousness among our people about what it really means to be a follower of Christ.
He goes on to say that the church has assumed that the problem is we’ve asked too much of people. So, what does the church do? Lower the bar of discipleship. I’ve heard it called “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.”
The Danger of Misdiagnosis
Churches have created programs designed to entertain and keep as many people coming back as possible. We’ve watered down doctrine and deep biblical study. In exchange, pastors have developed quick self-help, step-based positivity messages full of tweetable quips and hip graphics. Essentially, the church has begun to use marketing and business strategy to gain and keep consumers, instead of using the Word of God to make and grow disciples of Jesus.
English says the church has misdiagnosed the disease and prescribed the wrong treatment. He writes:
People are leaving the church not because we have asked too much of them but because we have not asked enough of them. We are giving people a shallow and generic spirituality when we need to give them distinctive Christianity. We have tried to treat our discipleship disease by appealing to the lowest common denominator, oversimplifying discipleship, and taking the edges off what it means to follow Christ.
The why Behind The What
If churches are bringing in crowds with slick marketing and Bible-lite sermons, how can it be wrong? Don’t the ends justify the means? English addresses the question of “why does deep discipleship matter” in the first chapter.
English uses a short example from the prophet Habakkuk to illustrate that world history is heading towards the kingdom and prescence of God. That’s the future of the world. That’s our future. That should be our greatest hope and aim. He writes:
The main aim of this book, the call to deep discipleship in our churches, is for the sole purpose of pointing ourselves and those we lead toward the infinite beauty of the Triune God. Success in ministry is not found in building programs but in building disciples—disciples who love God with all of their heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). Christ is the goal, not better or more impressive ministries. He is what we want.
English argues that there are two challenges in our culture that the church has to overcome to have deep discipleship: Self-centered Discipleship and Spiritual Apathy. I found myself underlining and taking notes on so much throughout this whole book, but especially here in the first chapter. I don’t want to overload this review with quotes, but English nails the why behind deep discipleship in this first chapter.
Each chapter of Deep Disicpleship reframes a question that English thinks the church should be asking itself. The question in chapters 2 and 3 is “Where should we form holistic disciples?” English’s answer is in the church. Chapter 3 digs into where specifically discipleship should happen in the church.
These chapters hit home for me having just heard a deacon nominee give his testimony about growing up in the church, but not feeling like he was taught doctrine, theology, or spiritual disciplines. He had to go to seminary for that. I have a similar story and feel like I had to seek those things for myself outside of the local church. English makes a strong argument that the local church should be raising up its next deacons, Bible teachers, and even pastors.
Someone should be able to come to faith, grow in the faith, and walk in Christian maturity solely from being formed by a local church. That is the basic sequence of the gospel. We are orphans who have been adopted into Christ’s family. Then, as adopted infants, we learn how to grow into mature members of the household—all of which can happen in and through the local church.
English goes on to lay out four distinctives that make the local church the primary place for deep discipleship: place, people, purpose, and presence. He walks through an explanation of each. He also goes on to discuss the difference between learning spaces and community spaces and the roles they play in discipleship.
Chapters 4 and 5 really get into the meat and potatoes. They answer the questions “what do disciples need” and “how do disciples grow.” English was previously on staff at The Village Church where he developed what they call the Training Program. It’s a one year intense discipleship program within the church itself. So, these aren’t just theories and concepts. He has very successfully put them into practice. These two chapters get into the practical “how do we do this?”
Most churches are unsure how all of the pieces fit together—classes, curriculum, groups. What I like about English’s approach here is he leaves room for individual churches to evaluate their congregations and answer questions to determine what their church’s scope and core essentials are. It’s not a one size fits all solution.
However, he does lay out three broad topics or buckets disciples need: Bible, beliefs, spiritual habits. He writes:
A healthy disciple must be growing in the understanding of God’s Word, founded on distinctively Christian beliefs and practicing spiritual disciplines. What does every disciple need? They need Scripture, doctrine, and spiritual habits.
Scope and Structure
Deep Discipleship gives enough examples, approaches, and questions to help churches determine the best scope and competencies for them. I especially appreciated the discussion on structured levels of discipleship, which allows people to eventually grow into leadership.
As one example states in the book, people should not stay at an 8th-grade level of discipleship for 40 years in the same class. People should be continually growing in their faith and spiritual maturity. Eventually, they should be disciples who are making disciples, teaching Bible studies, and leading. Which leads to chapter 6.
Where do They Go
You may be asking where is evangelism in all of this? Chapter 6 is dedicated to how deep discipleship leads to evangelism. English writes:
A culture of deep discipleship is not intent on sending a few, but on sending all. A deep discipleship church is also a missional church. A church that trains also sends. Christian maturity does not hinder mission; it fuels mission.
I like how he states there are no graduates from these discipleship programs. There are only “commissioned participants.” The chapter goes on to discuss that they don’t just emphasize people being called to national or international missions. Those are obviously important. However, they also discuss those who are called to serve in the church as volunteers, people who minister to their neighborhoods, those called to missions in their secular occupations, as well as those being called to vocational ministry.
English closes Deep Discipleship with a chapter on how to implement this model in your church. As in previous chapters, the recommended questions and approaches leaves room for churches to find what will work for their individual congregations. This is not just a discipleship model for megachurches with large staffs. English discusses how this approach can be scaled for churches of all sizes.
Deep Discipleship is probably the most practical and important book regarding discipleship in the local church that I’ve read. I can’t recommend it enough to those looking to grow deep, robust followers of Christ. I’m sure I will be coming back to this book over and over through the years. You can get a copy here.