J. T. English was a pastor at Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, but recently took the lead pastor position at Storyline Fellowship in Arvada, Colorado. While at Village he began to recognize that, like the majority of churches today, his church over the last several decades had chosen community over learning (pp. 77-78, 81, 83-85). As a result, the evangelical church is largely biblical illiterate and not making mature disciples. This has been a trend recognized by many critics of the modern consumer church (such as David Wells) and even admitted by leaders in the new paradigm church (e.g. Willow Creek). It is therefore refreshing to find someone who was once instrumental in the hollowing out of the church to not only recognize the mistake but to seek to correct it. English is not opposed to community, most often expressed in small groups, but he has seen that small groups are not a good environment for learning. Rather than attempting to go wider using methods that draw large numbers of unbelievers and nominal Christians, the church should go deeper, focusing on those desiring a well-informed walk with Christ (p. 9). The bar of discipleship needs to be raised to develop deep disciples, instead of being lowered to grow attendance (pp. 133, 200).
In order to create deep discipleship, believers need to be given more Bible, theology, and training in spiritual disciplines (p. 8). These three elements are fleshed out throughout the book, as church leaders are encouraged to analyze and determine what ministries are of value in learning and growing disciples (pp. 78-81). Each program should be evaluated as to its effectiveness. In the process, some ministries will be eliminated, some enhanced, and others added.
English suggests three types of classes: core, a one-year Training Program and a one-year residence program (p. 89). These are taught on a sliding scale from classes for everyone to disciple-makers to leaders (pp. 143-144). At Village, the response to these offerings was impressive. But the reported statistics of 2,000 in core studies, 250 in the training program and 20 in the residential program (p. 91) only translates to 13%, 1.7% and .13% respectively, based on an attendance of 15,000 at Village and its branches. Obviously not everyone is on board. However, this gives hope to small churches, which on a percentage basis most likely will make more disciples using this approach. Indeed, English believes that churches of all sizes would benefit from following his paradigm, although from his examples I am not sure he understands the dynamics and limitations of a small church (pp. 187-194).
This reviewer very much appreciated the author’s emphasis on the local church. English believes that only the local church can fully disciple believers and that it should not be necessary to outsource its discipleship to parachurch organizations or seminaries in order to develop deep followers of Christ or leaders in the church. The local church is capable of doing these things better than any other agency (pp. 46-52).
It is encouraging to find some leaders within large evangelical churches waking up to the realization that the consumer church, which has been the rage for almost 50 years, has actually undermined the mission of the church, birthed a couple of generations of believers who don’t know the Bible or basic theology, and greatly damaged the cause of Christ. Hopefully, Deep Discipleship represents the turning for many other pastors and church back to solid engagement with Scripture and theology.
by J. T. English (Nashville: BH Publishing, 2020), 313 pp + vii, hard $22.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel