I’m privileged to serve a church that prizes discipleship. At least, that’s what our website says. In attempt to summarize our mission statement in a memorable, pithy fashion, we use three words: Truth, Life, Mission. The second word refers to discipleship. Like most churches, we want to see people following Christ in their daily lives, growing, maturing in grace. We preach the truth of God in Christ first and discipleship follows.

But are we really making disciples? Do we really prize genuine discipleship or are we merely assuming discipleship just takes place? J. T. English’s new book, Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus (B&H) argues that many churches are falling short in making disciples. It’s easy to leverage popular media, flashy videos, fun events, and folksy “theology” to draw a crowd, but making disciples takes a commitment to faithfulness in preaching, teaching, and living God’s Word that so many churches are missing, writes English, who serves as lead pastor of Storyline Fellowship in Arvada, Colorado.

English, who holds a PhD in systematic theology from Southern Seminary, builds the book around what he argues are three indispensable elements of true discipleship:

  1. Learning to participate in the biblical story—the Bible.
  2. Growing in our confession of who God is and who we are—theology.
  3. Regularly participating in private and corporate intentional action—spiritual disciplines.

Southern Equip interviewed J. T. about the new work. We discussed the book’s aim, its intended audience, sanctification within the local church, and much more.

Do you think most churches today have the mentality that a major part of their mission is to make mature disciples of Jesus Christ? How does your new book seek to cast such a fundamental, but crucial, vision for local churches?

We have a discipleship disease in the local church. We have adopted a philosophy of ministry that sees discipleship inside the local church as optional, not necessary. A lot of Christian discipleship is aimless because a lot of Christian discipleship is churchless. The Bible is clear that the primary place the Lord intends to make disciples is within the context of the local church. Yet, it is the experience of so many Christians that local churches have actually forfeited their responsibility of discipleship and delegated the task to organizations outside the local church.

I was recently teaching at a conference to a room full of church leaders. I asked them to raise their hand if the majority of their formation happened outside of the church. Over 80 percent of the participants raised their hand to indicate that their most significant Christian formation has happened outside the context of the local church. These are men and women who are committed to the ministry of the gospel and to the local church, yet most of their most significant formation happened outside the church. They expressed a desire to be formed in the local church but in order to be formed and shaped they had to pursue outside opportunities for development.

Bible colleges, seminaries, Bible studies, campus ministries, missions organizations and other non-profits have stepped in to fill the gap that local churches have left. Praise God for these organizations, but they will never be able, nor do they want to, replace the local church.

What if local churches were to retrieve the calling that the Lord has given them? What if local churches began to see themselves as essential in the deep and holistic formation of their people? Deep Discipleship seeks to diagnose and treat this discipleship disease. It seeks to help ministry leaders adopt a philosophy of ministry that will make deep and holistic disciples in the context of the local church.

What do you see lacking in the discipleship ministry of many churches today? Why do so many churches seem to miss out on something so basic to the Christian life?

One of my greatest hopes for local churches is that they would develop a philosophy of ministry that corresponds to the nature and character of God. Discipleship matters because God is who he says he is. I think that many local churches have adopted philosophies of ministries that do not correspond to who God says he is.

The prophet Habakkuk tells us that one day, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” (Hab. 2:14). I love that imagery because it reminds us that God is an inexhaustible well of perfection, beauty, and glory, and that one day the entire earth will be filled with his presence.

Churches that are committed to deep discipleship are the kinds of churches who say that they want in on that now. The local church should be the place where we are not content on waiting to know God deeply, but we want to begin to know him deeply now. Deep discipleship is radically committed to a God-centered, a Christ-centered, vision of all things. If God is who he says he is, then there is nothing more valuable than deep discipleship.

Everyone is a disciple of something, but only the triune God is the one who 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 would be reminded of who God is. He is more beautiful than we can ever imagine. Discipleship should be deep because God is inexhaustible. He invites his church into rich and deep fellowship because His goodness is indeed bottomless, and you can never exhaust the bottomless beauty of God.

How important is learning theology in the sanctification and maturing process of believers? Is that something you’re hoping to help churches and church members see more clearly?

Unfortunately, a crack has developed between the local church and the academy. Too many Christians believe that theology is for the academy and worship is for the local church. Deep Discipleship seeks to bridge this gap by showing that all theology leads to worship and all worship leads to theology. As we grow in our knowledge of God we grow in our worship of God. As we worship God we cannot help but want to know more of God. Theology, then, becomes the very fuel of worship and sanctification in the Christian life.

In the book you discuss how Christians grow and go. Summarize what you mean and talk a little about that process.

I know that some churches have a concern that if they focus too intently on discipleship, they may not be as focused on mission. I’ve heard one pastor say that a church that focuses on discipleship feasts on the Bible, but fasts from mission. This couldn’t be further from the truth and is an example of an unhealthy either or mentality.

Too many ministry leaders believe that their church will either we will be a church that focuses on discipleship or they will be a church that focuses on mission. It’s certainly possible that some churches who focus on discipleship neglect mission, but to do so reveals that their “discipleship” focus isn’t truly a focus on discipleship at all. Discipleship is about being a learner of Jesus, and the mission of Jesus was to seek and save the lost. He commanded us to take the gospel to all peoples. If our discipleship doesn’t lead to mission, it’s not disciples of Jesus we’re producing. A deep discipleship church, therefore, is also a missional church.

Put differently, the church is called to both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We do not get to pick either or. The picture that the Gospels are giving us is that Great Commandment Christians are called to replicate themselves in the Great Commission.
The Great Commission will be fulfilled by Great Commandment Christians.

To be a Great Commandment Christian is to love God with your whole self and to love your neighbor. The Great Commission is to create Great Commandment Christians. The Great Commandment invites us to participate in the Great Commission and the Great Commission invites us to participate in the Great Commandment. If we abandon the Great Commandment we will undermine the Great Commission.

Who should read this book?

I wrote this book for two audiences. First, I wrote this book for ministry leaders. Any man or woman who is leading the context, pastors, elders, discipleship leaders, or women’s ministry directors in the context of the local church can benefit from reading Deep Discipleship. Ideally, ministry leaders would read Deep Discipleship with their ministry teams because every chapter concludes with discussion questions for ministry leaders to work through with their teams.

Second, I also think any Christian who wants to think deeply about how to make disciples in the local church will benefit from this book. Deep Discipleship is not just for ministry leaders, but for all disciples.