Deep Discipleship by J.T. English

Deep Discipleship - greatlywondering.com

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. 

The What

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. 

English writes:

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.

THe How

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.

Deep Discipleship

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.

Live Not By Lies | Rod Dreher

Live Not By Lies CoverHistorians are going to have a wealth of events to study from 2020.  Perhaps more than the year 1968. No doubt one thing they will analyze will be the unabashed rise of totalitarianism in the West, which is the topic of Rod Dreher’s new book Live Not By Lies. Dreher analyzes the rise of what he calls “soft totalitarianism” in the US by talking to people who lived through totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc. As he did in his book The Benedict Option, Dreher focuses on how Christians can preserve their faith during these troubling times.   

What is This?

If you’re wondering what totalitarianism is—

According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”

I grew up in the 1980s during the Cold War. It seems bizarre to me to even need a discussion on the dangers of totalitarianism; yet, here we are. From cancel culture having people fired for differing opinions on Twitter to mobs screaming at passive diners to raise their fists in solidarity at restaurants, totalitarianism is being accepted. Let’s be honest. It’s even being celebrated by some. I realize that not everyone will agree with that statement. Many will not agree with Dreher’s conclusions in Live Not By Lies, but it’s very difficult to ignore the facts. 

The same..

Dreher interviews Christians who lived through brutal totalitarianism in the Soviet Bloc, and here’s what he found:

What makes the emerging situation in the West similar to what they fled? After all, every society has rules and taboos and mechanisms to enforce them. What unnerves those who lived under Soviet communism is this similarity: Elites and elite institutions are abandoning old-fashioned liberalism, based in defending the rights of the individual, and replacing it with a progressive creed that regards justice in terms of groups. It encourages people to identify with groups—ethnic, sexual, and otherwise—and to think of Good and Evil as a matter of power dynamics among the groups. A utopian vision drives these progressives, one that compels them to seek to rewrite history and reinvent language to reflect their ideals of social justice.

…but different

These Christians survived absolutely brutal persecution. Dreher describes horrific torture methods used by the Soviets. Many of the people he interviews or their family members spent decades in prisons or gulags. As Dreher examines how they maintained their faith, it’s obvious that there are differences in the totalitarianism we face. In some ways, what we face is even scarier. Dreher writes:

To be sure, whatever this is, it is not a carbon copy of life in the Soviet Bloc nations, with their secret police, their gulags, their strict censorship, and their material deprivation. That is precisely the problem, these people warn. The fact that relative to Soviet Bloc conditions, life in the West remains so free and so prosperous is what blinds Americans to the mounting threat to our liberty. That, and the way those who take away freedom couch it in the language of liberating victims from oppression.

structure

Live Not By Lies starts with a brief history of the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. He looks at the sources and the parallels with what is happening in the US today. Dreher analyzes what he considers the two factors driving “soft totalitarianism” today: the social justice movement and surveillance technology, which has become a huge part of our consumerist culture.

The second part of the book examines forms, methods, and sources of resistance. Dreher attempts to answer the following questions by examining exactly what the Christians in the Soviet Bloc did in order to survive:

Why is religion and the hope it gives at the core of effective resistance? What does the willingness to suffer have to do with living in truth? Why is the family the most important cell of opposition?… How did they get through it?… Why are they so anxious about the West’s future?

difficult topics

Obviously, this is a contentious topic. Live Not By Lies discusses some difficult topics. Dreher has already been attacked and criticized. He doesn’t seem to accept the media-driven narrative of the death of George Floyd and the social justice movement. How exactly does he describe the soft totalitarianism affecting the US? Dreher writes:

Today’s totalitarianism demands allegiance to a set of progressive beliefs, many of which are incompatible with logic—and certainly with Christianity. Compliance is forced less by the state than by elites who form public opinion, and by private corporations that, thanks to technology, control our lives far more than we would like to admit…

Today’s left-wing totalitarianism once again appeals to an internal hunger, specifically the hunger for a just society, one that vindicates and liberates the historical victims of oppression. It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of “victims” to bring about “social justice…”

This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.

The rub

For Christians, therein lies the rub—“liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized.” Aren’t Christians supposed to care for the weak and marginalized? The answer is yes. Christians should and do care for the weak and marginalized. The problem is ideology in these movements is king, and the ideology is ultimately atheistic and therapeutic. Christianity is allowed as long as it bends to the ideology, not the other way around. 

These movements are trying to use totalitarianism to create a utopia based on their ideology. As Mark Sayers says in one of my favorite quotes, “They want to create the kingdom of heaven, but without the King.” That is their end goal. Ask yourself, what is the end goal of Christianity? What happens when the goals of the ideology clash with Christianity?

Dreher writes:

In therapeutic culture, which has everywhere triumphed, the great sin is to stand in the way of the freedom of others to find happiness as they wish. This goes hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which, along with ethnic and gender identity politics, replaced the failed economic class struggle as the utopian focus of the post-1960s radical left.

original sin

It all goes back to the original sin: the individual wants to be a god. The individual wants to create his or her own brand of heaven where the only sin is anything causing unhappiness. In that kind of culture, even using the pronouns “his or her” is controversial because it could offend someone. Dreher writes:

Christian resistance on a large scale to the anti-culture has been fruitless, and is likely to be for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the spirit of the therapeutic has conquered the churches as well—even those populated by Christians who identify as conservative. Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.

What can we do?

Honestly, the scariest part of all this is we unsuspectingly welcome totalitarianism. We live in a far more technologically advanced society than the 1980s Soviet Bloc. The opportunities and ability to surveil private life are unbelievable. As Dreher says, “There’s nowhere left to hide.” It’s almost cliche to point out anymore. We are far more similar to the society in Huxley’s Brave New World, than we are Orwell’s 1984. Why? Because we happily invite our oppressors into every aspect of our lives, as long as we’re kept happy with endless entertainment and shiny consumer goods. We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to suffer. Dreher even recounts how one Soviet Bloc survivor he talked to is horrified at the use of smartphones and Amazon Echo in US homes. They lived the nightmare described in 1984.

The subtitle to Live Not By Lies is “A Manual For Christian Dissidents.” The second part of the book specifically gives the strategies the Christians in the Soviet Bloc used to maintain their faith and survive. If you haven’t guessed it, the title of the book has a lot to do with it. The title comes from a quote by Solzhenitsyn, a Christian who survived the gulags. And yes, their Christian faith was crucial to their survival. In fact, much of what our society wants Christians to let go of turns out to be crucial for surviving totalitarianism. Let’s not fool ourselves. There will be suffering, but we must persevere.

conclusion

This is a difficult topic. It’s hard to hear these comparisons and read these stories. It’s difficult to step outside the ideologies and narratives that seem to want to help people and really see what the end goal is. I think the strategies presented in the second part of the book will be essential in the coming years. Live Not By Lies is not a happy book, but it’s a necessary book. I recommend you read it and ask yourself the hard questions.  You can get a copy of the book here.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans

greatlywondering.com

I bought Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans edited by Robert Elmer recently. I’ve had it on my want list for a while, but what made me pull the trigger was watching Puritan: All of Life to the Glory of God. By the way, the documentary is pretty expensive. The only affordable option I found to stream it was through Faithlife. That being said, Piercing Heaven has been a blessing.

The book organizes the prayers by practical topics, for example, “Help Me Ask for Help,” “Prepare My Heart For The Lord’s Day And The Lord’s Table,” “Help Me Through My Time of Sadness and Suffering,” and “Help Me Rest in God’s Love.” I love it, because it emphasizes the Puritans’ desire to focus on God in very practical ways in all aspects of life.

These prayers feel more accessible and perhaps more usable than those in The Valley of Vision. I feel like I can pray these prayers without feeling too ornate or poetic or archaic. They feel very natural. That may be because they often prayed God’s Word back to him. That’s not to say these are “lite” prayers. Elmer writes in the introduction:

Their aim was neither casual nor perfunctory prayer. The prayers of the Puritans shook lives to the core, pled with a sovereign God for mercy, and praised him in the brightest sunshine of grace.”

Elmer has updated some of the language in these prayers edited from sermons and other writings, which also helps make them accessible. Rather than go on, I’d like to just share some excerpts from the prayers.

This excerpt comes from the end of a prayer in the section titled, “Forgive My Sins.”

Precious Lord! May I, like Paul, be able to say, “not as though I had already attained”—because I long to catch up to and hold fast to you, Christ Jesus, even as you have caught up to and held fast to me.

So come, Lord Jesus, to your bride the church. Be the fountain of life to all your redeemed, until you bring your church below to join your church above, so they will dwell together in the light of your countenance, forever, amen.

I especially like this prayer in the section titled, “Prepare My Heart for the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Table. The following are excerpts—

There can be nothing better than to praise your name, O Lord, and to declare your lovingkindness in the morning, on your holy and blessed Sabbath day…

…We declare your greatness and power. Yours is the glory and the victory, and we praise you. Everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, and you excel as Lord of all. Riches and honor come from you. You reign over all. You give grace to all. Power and strength are in your hands…

…May my chief delight be to dedicate myself to your glory and honor, not my own way or my own will. When I cease from my works of sin, as well as the works of my daily calling, may I, through your blessing, feel in my heart the beginning of that eternal Sabbath, which I will celebrate with saints and angels in unspeakable joy and glory, to your praise and worship, in your heavenly kingdom forevermore. Amen.

If you’re looking for a prayer book, I highly recommend Piercing Heaven. It’s something you can use both in private and in public worship. You can pick up a copy here.

Books To Be Quarantined With

Books | greatlywondering.com

I stole this idea from Seth Lewis’s Blog, because I really like this idea of books to be quarantined with. It’s kind of like books to be stranded on a deserted island with. Haven’t we all kind of been involuntarily sent to the deserted island of our homes? Anyway, it got me thinking of what books I would recommend. So, instead of binging on Netflix or playing marathon sessions of Animal Crossing, check out some of these books.

Fiction

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart—What could be more appropriate; yet, I have a feeling that a lot of people don’t even know about this book. A mysterious disease wipes out the vast majority of the human race. The book doesn’t really go into any details of the disease or how it happens, but instead focuses on how people go on—first, with one man who seems to be have been immune and then, gradually, with the other survivors he meets.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens—This is the epitome of Dickensian novels. It’s long, but remember, you have a lot of extra time on your hands. Even though it has a lot of pages, it doesn’t feel long. It was released in installments. Read it leisurely. Don’t be discouraged by the title. It’s full of great characters. There’s mystery, drama, and social commentary. You will be transported to another time and place.

Peace Like A River by Leif Enger—This is a classic, but I bet you haven’t read it, have you? I’m a sucker for stories of journey-filled quests. A little brother travels cross-country with his father and sister to find his outlaw big brother. There’s humor, tears, and miracles. You can’t help but love these characters, and the prose is beautiful.

NonFiction

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer—Yep, another really appropriate choice, because we’ve essentially been forced to clear our calendars and slow down. However, this book will give you some practices to help you slow down for good and improve your spiritual life, instead of just using the free time to gorge on entertainment. Ultimately, the practices will help improve your life in general. I review this one at length here.

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson—Feeling like you should be creative and productive during this isolation? Adorning the Dark will inspire you. This is part memoir and part book about creativity. It reads like a conversation with a good friend who happens to be a songwriter, recording artist, poet, and author. I also review this one in depth here.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman—This was an eye opening book that completely changed how I viewed culture. It was written in 1985, but it’s eerie how relevant it is now. Just look at this quote: “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” Prophetic?

Graphic Novels

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud—This category may be new to some, so this is a great place to start. “Graphic novel” is just a pretentious way of saying long comics, but they typically deal with more topics than just superheroes. There’s a certain amount of magic that drives the image and text on the page to your brain, which brings it to life. This is another eye opening book.

Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman—(content & language warning) This is a classic in the graphic novel category and a perfect example of how comics can deal with poignant topics. This is a holocaust story. I think what really makes Maus interesting is how Spielgelman weaves together his father’s Auschwitz narrative, his own difficult relationship with his father, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it all by writing the book.

Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire—(content & language warning) This one is actually in several volumes, because it was a comic series. I’m also a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories, and this one includes a quest and cross-country journey. So, it’s one of my favorites. The thing about post-apocalyptic stories is they almost always include glimmers of hope. Gus is a character you will empathize with. I didn’t want to put this one down.

Keep in mind Amazon is not shipping most books right now. You may want to opt for digital versions or find them from other retailers. I’ve seen several smaller booksellers running great deals with free shipping. Spend your quarantine wisely and enjoy.