Recommendation - 10/22/20
Deep Discipleship, by J.T. English
Recommendation by Lynsey Bock
Anyone who’s ever listened to the Knowing Faith podcast would probably be able to tell you that its co-hosts (J.T. English, Jen Wilkin, and Kyle Worley) are passionate about the topic of discipleship within the local church. The Knowing Faith trio previously worked together at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas. Specifically, they did ministry together through the church’s highly successful theological education initiative called The Village Church Institute, of which English was the founder and director. So, to say that deep discipleship in the local church is a natural topic for English’s first book would be a bit of an understatement. The book is called Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus.
English’s passion for local church discipleship shines through in his writing. This is particularly the case when he writes about why deep discipleship matters:
If God is who he says he is, then nothing is more valuable than deep discipleship. Everyone is a disciple of something, but only the Triune God invites us into deep, holistic, never-ending fellowship. One of my greatest hopes in this book, far beyond a philosophy of ministry, is that our churches will be reminded of who God is. He is more beautiful than we can ever imagine. Discipleship that is geared toward self-improvement or that caters to spiritual apathy evaporates when we see him for who he is. . . . God is the goal of deep discipleship, and God is the means of deep discipleship. (36-37)
This impassioned emphasize is also apparent when he writes about why deep discipleship must happen in the local church instead of just being delegated to parachurch organizations and seminaries. English reminds readers that the local church is meant to be a manifestation of our membership in the family of God. We are meant to be brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers who shape one another: “We are a part of a family that forms” (58). But, when we downplay the importance of formation in the local church family, or turn over formation to para-church organizations because we think they’re more equipped for the task, we create what English calls “spiritual orphans”:
Spiritual orphans become primarily concerned with their own formation, not the formation of the whole family. They have no need to consider the rest of the family, just themselves. Often spiritual orphans are interested in growing in a knowledge of God but not a love of neighbor (1 Cor. 13:2). (59)
By contrast, healthy, holistic disciples aren’t just interested in growing for their own sake, but for the benefit of the whole family of God:
What would it look like for you to create a culture where everyone, in love and charity, pursued not just their own formation but also the formation of the household? Holistic disciples are not only seeking their own spiritual health but the spiritual health of the whole family. They understand that the health of the family is essential to their own wholeness. (60)
Deep Discipleship presents a winsome vision of the local church as a family where individuals are as invested in others’ spiritual formation as they are in their own. Of churches where theological education and community are not seen as in opposition to one another, but as two essentials of discipleship that produce healthy, growing disciples when properly balanced:
Disciples who are in community but are not learning run the risk of loving their neighbor but not God. Disciples who are learning but are not in community run the risk of loving God but not their neighbor. Disciples who are both learning and in community have the opportunity of being people who love God and neighbor. (86)
English suggested that most churches have adopted an either-or approach to discipleship: either they emphasize community, but not learning, or the opposite. Churches that want to grow healthy, deep disciples will need both: “A culture of deep discipleship is birthed in a local church that has spaces where learning is the highest stated value and spaces where community is the highest stated value” (86). So, what’s a church to do if they feel that they’ve leaned too far toward one approach or the other? Start from scratch? Follow a prescriptive plan that would work in a large church context like English’s, but not a smaller church like ours?
Thankfully, no. Instead, English provides helpful questions throughout the book to help pastors and ministry leaders evaluate what programs are and aren’t cultivating deep disciples in their church. He doesn’t advocate for a sudden, disorienting overhaul of a church’s programs, but a gradual, purposeful shift of focus toward a balance between community-oriented and learning-oriented spaces. After answering the questions of the “why” and “where” of deep discipleship, he helps the reader consider questions of space, scope, sequence, sending, and strategy to cultivate it. He also includes helpful examples from small and large congregations that demonstrate how deep discipleship philosophies can be adapted to different church contexts.
Overall, I would say that Deep Discipleship would be most helpful for members of church leadership to read. Still, the writing is clear and concise enough for anyone with an interest in the topic to pick up. If you are interested in learning more about how local churches can cultivate deep disciples, I highly recommend it.