by Andrew Cross
It was the beginning of January 2021, and I couldn’t sleep. I picked up J.T. English’s book Deep Discipleship, and I couldn’t put it down.
I was pastor of a ministry devoted to equipping single adults in their 20s and 30s with the gospel. At that time, our church was looking to bring our Sunday morning small groups back on campus in the midst of the pandemic, so naturally, I was in a pensive state of mind. Maybe you’ve asked some of the same questions I was asking — Why do we do what we do? What is the goal? How do we know if we’re accomplishing it?
Prior to the pandemic, I noticed the church’s inclination to prioritize relationships over discipleship. A study from Lifeway Research confirmed many of my suspicions. While 78% of churchgoers say they’ve developed significant relationships with people at church, only 48% say they intentionally spend time with other believers to help them grow in their faith. It seems there has been a trend for churchgoers to meet together but not grow together spiritually. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?
Asking the Right Questions
In his book, English suggests we’ve been asking the wrong questions about the people in our churches. We’ve been asking “What do disciples want?” instead of “What do disciples need?” and “How do we maintain disciples in the local church?” instead of “How do we grow disciples in the local church?” These questions are reflective of a discipleship disease infecting our churches, and the answer isn’t to lower the bar for churchgoers but to raise it. After one year of implementing this philosophy and practice in ministry, I see evidence that English is right.
According to English, the goal of deep discipleship is “the knowledge of the LORD’s glory” (Hab. 2:14, CSB). English focuses on four distinctives for deep discipleship — where people meet, who they are, why they meet and how God is present. These distinctives helped me map out how to bring our groups back on campus, what that was going to entail and what we hoped to achieve as we joined God in His mission of making disciples.
The spaces for discipleship in churches matter. English writes, “We had a lot of environments that had the highest stated purpose of community and almost no environments where the highest stated value was learning.” As I evaluated my ministry, I found that we were also missing some intentionality in our educational spaces. In my desire to reach young adults, I was prioritizing community, something that Gen Z and Millennials are hungry for, at the cost of serious learning. If I wanted to make deep disciples, I needed to have spaces where learning was the highest stated value, and I didn’t have to forsake community to do that.
Creating Discipleship Spaces
I learned that our young adults would likely enjoy relationships around the shared experience of being discipled. Or as English puts it, “Community is indispensable to discipleship, but community is not discipleship.” That’s where we’ve gone astray. As pastors and church leaders, we assumed our duty was simply to get our people together and then discipleship would automatically happen. That may be why 65% of pastors are satisfied with the state of discipleship in their churches, even though 44% aren’t regularly evaluating discipleship progress to inform that opinion. Pastors feel good about all the groups and meetings the church hosts, but aren’t concerned with actually producing spiritual formation.
In our groups, I was relying on a community-driven space to accomplish what only learning spaces can, so I made changes. The purpose of our groups was now to learn as a spiritual family. To work toward that end, I implemented an active learning pattern I learned from Deep Discipleship. We start our time with pre-class work, usually an article to read or a quote to ponder related to our Bible lesson. Then we discuss that content in micro-groups at tables. After that, the Bible teacher transitions to a teacher-student dialogue, taking an expositional look at a book of the Bible. Finally, there’s a time of contemplation where the participants are urged to apply the text and share what they learned with someone later that week.
It wasn’t a magic formula, and it wasn’t a drastic change. It was just an intentional one. We have seen it bear fruit over the last year in our ministry. Our young adults know the pattern. They read the article, they discuss it, they engage with the teacher and the Bible and they apply what they learn — all while enjoying biblical community and strong relationships. I have been encouraged to see our people not just meeting together but being challenged to grow in the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. And in that, they are being formed into whole disciples of Jesus Christ.
One year later, we are experiencing healthier community in our ministry than ever before. As we’ve raised the bar, young adults have taken discipleship more seriously. The young adults in our city who want spiritual formation and biblical community know they can find it in our ministry, specifically in our groups. That’s where they can experience deep discipleship.
— Andrew is married to his wife, Anna and pastors the young adults of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. He received his Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article was shared with permission and was originally published at research.lifeway.com/2022/02/25/community-is-not-discipleship.