It is somewhat ironic that Deep Discipleship released in 2020 during a global pandemic of the coronavirus disease. As we’re all aware, this past year resulted in lockdowns, cancellations, and zoom meetings; all of which birthed renewed desires for the local community that gathers around the Word. This past year reminded us how critical the gathered new covenant community is to one’s being conformed to the image of Christ. Thus, as this year pushed us into separation, J. T. English’s Deep Discipleship was released.
English calls his readers to see the discipleship disease that is prevailing within the church and the importance of diagnosing it correctly. Importantly, the disease persists because we’ve gotten too deep and have treated it by requiring less of our people. By contrast, self-centered discipleship and spiritual apathy are the actual diseases. The treatment? More Christ, Bible, theology, and spiritual disciplines. English says: “Our ministry aim is to ask God to bring us into his inexhaustible presence, bottomless beauty, and infinite glory. Fellowship with the Triune God is where we are going, and fellowship with the Triune God is how we are going to get there.” (p. 18) Reality must be reoriented such that true knowledge is apprehended through self-denial. That is, knowledge of God and all things in relation to God. Deep discipleship matters because of the inexhaustible richness of God.
This God-centered vision for deep discipleship fleshes itself out in five areas; space, scope, sequence, send, and strategy. These form the structure of the book going forward.
The first area, space, addresses where discipleship happens in the church. According to English, many church have a community-oriented discipleship philosophy or a learning-oriented discipleship philosophy. While we cannot be disciples outside of the community of Christ, we can be in a community that is not teaching us to be disciples of Christ. To strive toward both a community and learning oriented discipleship philosophy, English provides a discipleship space inventory and a sample description of an active learning space. Deep discipleship is holistic, placing a high value on both community and learning.
The second area, scope, addresses what disciples need. What are the absolute necessities? “A healthy disciple must be growing in the understanding of God’s Word, founded on distinctively Christian beliefs and practicing spiritual disciplines.” (p. 105) These three are necessities (Bible, beliefs, and spiritual habits) for fellowship and communion with the triune God in the local church.
The third area, sequence, addresses how disciples grow in knowledge of the triune God. English gives a few examples of trinitarian picture of salvation from the New Testament and maturing in it (1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Peter 1:2; Phil. 3:11-16). English presents three tiers of discipleship growth: discipleship for everyone, discipleship for disciple-making disciples, and discipleship for disciple-making movement disciples. While leaders will need to address the varying levels of maturity, the subject and object of Christian discipleship is the same as the subject and object of Holy Scripture: the triune God.
The fourth area, sending, addresses where disciples go. Christian maturity naturally results in multiplying other mature disciples. Thus, a church that is training mature disciples is also sending mature disciples to replicate more mature disciples. Maturation in Bible, beliefs, and habits do not hinder mission, “deep discipleship and mission, training and sending, are meant to work together and complement one another. Deep discipleship is the fuel for the mission.” (p. 181)
The final area, strategy, addresses how to adopt and incorporate this holistic discipleship in a sustainable manner. English argues that “deep discipleship” can be implemented in any ecclesial context through the principles of structure, predictability, accountability, accessibility, community, and excellence. Operating with structured rhythms and accessible content aides the disciple’s commitment to learning in community to the glory of God.
Deep Discipleship is a book on Christian discipleship that has been missing for some time now. Particularly because the project is 1) principally and eschatologically oriented unto the Triune God, and 2) asking completely different questions: Where does discipleship happen in the church? What do they need? How do disciples grow? Where do disciples go?
The importance of this book is its emphasis on reorienting disciples to true reality: God and all things in relation to God. Deep Discipleship “is about a redirection of our loves to the One who is lovely.” (p.20) In effect, the book is an excursus on Psalm 119. God, who is life, gives life through his Word, Ways, and Promises. This is how Christian disciples are made and mature: apprehension and fellowship with the Triune God.