Diagnosing the Discipleship Disease

Excerpted From
Deep Discipleshp
By J.T. English

The local church has a discipleship disease. And without the proper diagnosis and treatment plan, we will do more harm than good.

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 importantly a lack of seriousness among our people about what it really means to be a follower of Christ. From an examination of these symptoms, we’ve come to think our disease is that the church has become increasingly irrelevant and requires too much from people who want to get involved. We see that we are losing market share in the world of ideas and in the rhythms of people’s everyday lives.

Many seem to think our disease is that we’ve gotten too deep.

In order to treat this disease, we have sought to develop ministry strategies that require less of people, not more, strategies that focus on keeping disciples in the church rather than growing disciples in the church, and that view the pastor more as a marketer than a minister. We are on our heels and we just want the bleeding to stop, so we have lowered the bar, and we have settled for a lowest common denominator discipleship.

Unfortunately, I believe many of us have misdiagnosed the disease and are mistreating the church.

Our ministry disease is not that the evangelical church is too deep, but that it is far too shallow. The symptoms of people and students leaving the church, or the lack of maturing disciples, or decreased attendance are symptoms that should tell us not that we are too deep, but that we are too trivial.

People are leaving not because we have given them too much, but because we have given them far too little. They are leaving the church because we have not given them anything to stay for. We are treating the symptoms of the wrong disease. Deep discipleship is about giving people more Bible, not less, more theology, not less, more spiritual disciplines, not less, more gospel, not less, more Christ, not less.

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.

Put simply, we have settled for a shallow approach to discipleship, believing that breadth will lead to depth. We have adopted philosophies of ministry that focus on growing crowds instead of growing Christians. We have asked our pastors to be marketers, not ministers of the gospel. In the church we focus on keeping people, but if they want to grow, they have to go outside the church. We think about how to keep people, rather than how to form people. I believe that it is time for the church to ask some serious questions about our shared disease, and how we can begin to create depth that might lead to breadth. Perhaps the church should start thinking about what it means to go deeper with fewer, instead of going wider with the many. What if our cultural moment is inviting the church to embody the depth and substance of the Christian faith, not a shallow spirituality that appeals to the masses?

Not only that, but what if we could think through a philosophy of ministry that helped people grow and mature into deep and holistic disciples? What if we could develop and implement a philosophy of ministry that helped us not only appeal to the lowest common denominator, but created a dissatisfaction with people saying there? What if we ask better questions about our philosophy of ministry that eventually led to the growth and flourishing of mature and holistic disciples in the context of the local church?

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Excerpted from Deep Discipleship by J.T. English. Copyright 2020 by J.T. English. B&H Publishing. Used by permission.

J.T. English
J.T. English

J.T. English currently serves as the lead pastor of Storyline Fellowship in Arvada, Colorado. Previously, J.T. served as a pastor at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, where he founded and directed The Village Church Institute, which is committed to theological education in the local church. He is also the author of Deep Discipleship (B&H Books).