Dr. Arnold interviews JT English, Pastor of Storyline Church in Arvada, CO, on retrieving a biblical vision for discipleship in the context of the local church and how teaching people the story of the Bible is essential for producing mature believers in Christ.
Conversation topics include:
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary, helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary
Brian Arnold (00:17):
Just before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he gave his disciples one final command. And we find that in Matthew chapter 28, starting in verse 18. Jesus said this, "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I've commanded you. And behold, I am with you always to the end of the age." Jesus tells his disciples to go out and make more disciples. And I think the church has done a pretty good job historically of evangelizing and bringing people into the faith, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. But oftentimes the church has not been as faithful in the second part of Jesus's command, which is to teach them to observe all that I have commanded you, which gets at the heart of discipleship. So today we're going to be talking with Dr. J.T. English on the topic of discipleship. Dr. English is the pastor of Storyline Fellowship in Colorado. Before that, he served as pastor at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, where he founded and directed The Village Church Institute, where he helped disciple Christians in their faith. Dr. English, welcome to the show.
J.T. English (01:30):
I am so glad to be here. Thanks so much for having me. It's an honor.
Brian Arnold (01:34):
Well, our big idea for today, our big question is, how can the church make disciples? And this is obviously something you're very passionate about. You wrote a recent book that came out called Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus. So tell us kind of your own journey to this idea of discipleship, and why you're so passionate about it.
J.T. English (01:54):
Yeah. Thanks so much. So much of what you end up being passionate about in life and ministry really comes from your own story. And so part of my passion here really just comes from what the Lord has done in my own life. I grew up—and why I'm so thankful to be a pastor here in Colorado again—is I grew up about 10 minutes away from where I now pastor, but I did not I grow up a Christian. I grew up in kind of a post-Christian, secular environment—wonderful parents, loving home, but didn't really grow up knowing the Lord. I came to know the Lord through Campus Crusade for Christ in college, at Colorado State University here, just a few miles away. And the Lord just set my heart aflame for Jesus, and for the gospel, and for evangelization. So for the next three or four years, I got really involved in ministries, but found it hard to be discipled in the context of my own local church. So much of my growth and learning was happening outside the context of the church. And so I actually went to my pastor one day and said, I would like to grow in my knowledge of Jesus and what it means to follow him. And he said, that is fantastic. If you want to grow in your faith, you need to go to seminary. Now, hear me clearly, I had a wonderful experience in seminary. I have students who have gone to great seminaries and I want to send as many of our people here in students to seminary,
Brian Arnold (03:07):
To Phoenix Seminary.
J.T. English (03:09):
Exactly. Where we're at, it's almost one of the closest ones. So let's work on a discount rate for our Storyline students.
Brian Arnold (03:17):
J.T. English (03:17):
But the reality was like, I mean, I spent about 10 years in the Academy and loved it. I would walk out of my classes, thinking to myself, why can I not get access to this rich knowledge of God in my own church, or in churches? And why does the church often think about this deep discipleship as something that is dead and archaic and not relevant for today's Christians? And so, too many times I would leave class, just thinking to myself, why can we not give this to people from the pulpit, or to people in Bible studies and classes in the context of the church? So ultimately my passion grew out of this idea that I had to leave my local church in order to lead in the local church. And so I wanted to create environments for people who didn't have that option, or didn't think...seminary is not an option for everybody. So how do we create holistic disciples who were abiding in Jesus right here in the context of local churches?
Brian Arnold (04:12):
Absolutely. And I—from my own story—when I was a senior in high school and started really following the Lord passionately, a couple of older men in the church took me under their wing and started taking me out to eat every week and began to disciple me. I had no idea how rare that was. And then when I went off to college and got involved in Campus Crusade, I also was getting that discipleship and evangelism and it was really exciting. And then the churches that I was at in college weren't doing that. And so I had a very similar experience to that. My guess is a lot of people who are listening also would say that they've not experienced discipleship in the local church. So I think you've done a really great service for the church. Not only in your experience of building this kind of program at The Village Church, but also in providing this book. So you kind of lay out multiple questions through the book, which help us get a better handle on how we can go about discipleship. And one of the first ones is—where does discipleship happen?
J.T. English (05:05):
Yeah, so the book is really kind of geared around trying to ask better questions, because the last thing I want readers, or even listeners to this podcast, to think is that there's some kind of silver bullet. If you just did this, then you could make these disciples in the church. So really the book is geared around, how do we ask better questions? And often we ask the question, "where can we make disciples?" Instead of the better question, "where should we make disciples?" And over the last 20 or 30 years, most kind of conservative, evangelical, Jesus-loving, and Bible-teaching churches have said that discipleship primarily happens in the context of community. But we've forgotten that community is not synonymous with discipleship. And this is what you were just highlighting in the passage of Jesus giving his disciples the Great Commission. That yes, we should go to the nations and be in and among them and baptizing them,
J.T. English (05:52):
But we also must teach them. And over the last 20 or 30 years, what we've seen is that most churches have abandoned an understanding that discipleship is fundamentally about learning the way of Jesus. To be a disciple is to be a learner. And so, part of what I advocate for in the book is to see learning environments re-established and retrieved back into the context of local churches. And those environments don't necessarily need to be environments where you're learning Greek and Hebrew, because most of the disciples of Jesus are so far away from needing to know perhaps the technical things that seminaries are solely equipped to teach us, but just basics, like how do I read the Bible? Who is God? What does it mean that God is Trinity? What are God's attributes? What has Jesus done for me? Just the basics of the faith.
J.T. English (06:37):
What do we...how do we...I mean, I don't want to overstate the case, but often when we say that discipleship is solely community groups or home groups or small groups, and hear this as gently as I mean it—with the pastoral tone I intend it—but most studies have come out and said that Christians don't know their Bibles. So if we're just putting more Christians around other Christians who don't know their Bibles, we're just pooling ignorance.
Brian Arnold (06:58):
J.T. English (07:00):
And that was true for me too, right? And so what does it look like for us to have community, which is indispensable to discipleship, but also communities that are learning together, which is also indispensable for discipleship.
Brian Arnold (07:12):
And just to be clear what you're not saying where discipleship should happen, is that parachurch ministry should abandoned discipleship. But it's just that the church can't be derelict in their call from the Lord Jesus Christ to make disciples.
J.T. English (07:24):
That's exactly right. I actually think your job at Phoenix Seminary gets a lot easier when healthy local churches are sending you students that are a little bit further down the line. And then you're able to...to not have to do the basics of discipleship, but you're actually able to teach students who are already walking deeply with Jesus. Who understand the storyline of Scripture, who understand the basics of their Christian faith, and you're not having to catechize them from day one. That's already happened in the church.
Brian Arnold (07:50):
That's right. I remember Danny Akin, who's the president of Southeastern Seminary, one time saying how students have shifted even in his career in theological education. Where they used to come and they would know the 10 commandments, they knew the order of the books of the Bible, they understood the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. And now they're coming, and you've got to basically start at the very beginning. And you can't assume any kind of knowledge anymore. Which does something to the seminary education as well, that you have to provide things that the local church should have been giving to these students all along.
J.T. English (08:23):
That's exactly right. We've been derelict, as you've said, and we've delegated our primary responsibility to disciple. The primary context for discipleship is not Campus Crusade, and it's not seminary or Bible college. Those organizations exist to take disciples further into the very specifics of their discipleship journey, but the church can't delegate our responsibility anymore.
Brian Arnold (08:45):
Absolutely. And understanding our own kind of unique roles. So my role as a seminary president is to train people very specifically for vocational ministry, so that they can equip the other saints for the work of the ministry to make disciples in their own churches. I tell our staff all the time to remind themselves—we are not the local church. Jesus died for his bride, which is the church. That's his mission for the world. It's his discipleship program for the world. And we need to remember our place in that is not primarily even the discipleship of people, but it's training people who will go into churches to make disciples.
J.T. English (09:21):
Amen. That's exactly right.
Brian Arnold (09:23):
So discipleship happens within the space of a church and in the local church context. So what do these disciples need?
J.T. English (09:31):
Yeah, that's again...you're asking the right question...it's...again, we need to reframe the questions that most churches ask, because it's kind of a—again, hear this with the pastoral heart that I intend it—but most churches instinctively, because of a market-driven, consumeristic society, ask the question, "what do disciples want?" We think we're offering some kind of a product, or something to be consumed. But as pastors and ministers, rather than asking the question, "what do disciples want?" we're responsible to ask the question, "what do they need?" Just like me, as a dad. I've got a five-year-old and a three-year-old little girl, and we're still chowing down on Halloween candy from several weeks ago. And if they came to me every single night, right before dinner and said, "dad, we want candy." And if I let my nutritional understanding of what my kids need just be driven by what they wanted,
J.T. English (10:18):
we just would have been eating paydays over the last eight weeks. But as a dad, my responsibility is certainly to give them what they want from time to time, but to ultimately give them what they need, the nutrients of what it means to be a healthy person. And the same thing is true here in the context of the church. We need to ask the question, "what do disciples need?" Like, what are the indispensable elements of knowing and loving Jesus, and being able to walk with him? And we've simplified...in the book I argue and advocate that those things should be simplified, and anything outside this—you know, just the basics of a scope of discipleship—should be eliminated from church offering. So a disciple needs to know the Christian story. They need to know how to read their Bibles, be intimately familiar with our own sacred text.
J.T. English (10:58):
If we don't know the Bible and we don't have disciples who know the Bible, it's impossible to participate in the storyline of the Bible. I also argue that we need to know the basics of the Christian faith. Not that we all need to be systematic theologians, but we should all know who God is, who we are, as both image bearers and sinners. What Jesus has done for us, what our eternal hope is in the resurrection of the dead, so that we can encourage people to stand upon their faith in the darkest nights of the soul. One of my colleagues at The Village Church used to say it this way—he would say, "we shout truth in the light, so that we can stand on it in the darkness." And that's what doctrine does for us. You know, I had a friend recently lose their child at 37 weeks pregnant.
J.T. English (11:43):
She was pregnant for 37 weeks, and she had been in several of our learning environments at The Village Church. And she said, "J.T., I don't know what I'd be clinging to in the dark night of the soul now, if I didn't understand God's attributes, or if I didn't understand the hope of resurrection of the dead." So doctrine, far from being distant and cold for people, it's the very thing that we need in order to live in the world, the broken world that we live in. And then also spiritual habits, just formative habits like prayer, meditation, evangelism, fasting, things that shape and form us into the image of Jesus. But if you think about those three things: the story of the Bible, Christian theology, and Christian formation, so much of what we're doing inside the context of the church is outside the bounds of those kind of three buckets, if you will. We don't really have a scope. In the book, I call it a Frankenstein philosophy of ministry. If you're a groups pastor, discipleship pastor, or senior pastor, you typically inherit what the church has done over the last 20 years. And you've got lots of golden calves that you can't kill off, right?
Brian Arnold (12:40):
J.T. English (12:41):
But the reality is, how do we eliminate those things that are nice, and keep, or perhaps retrieve, the things that are necessary?
Brian Arnold (12:51):
That's really helpful. To think in those three kind of categories, of kind of forming a whole disciple to know. But like you said, for the dark seasons of the soul, when life's hard, it's doctrine that's got to serve as the rock. Because doctrine tells us who God is, and how we can trust him and lean on him. One of the things you mentioned at the very beginning of that was talking about consumerism. I can imagine some people listening today who don't see themselves as wanting a consumeristic approach to church, and yet maybe they're doing that. What are some things that you've seen in your ministry experience, where you can tell, okay, these people are kind of geared more towards a consumeristic approach to church?
J.T. English (13:30):
And sometimes we view consumerism as an inherently bad thing in the church. And I don't mean it that way. It's okay to consume things. I'm a capitalist and we should...I'm glad to live in a capitalistic society. However, the church doesn't operate solely with a capitalistic understanding of goods and services and people to consume those things. And so...but the key here would be...an example that I've just experienced in the last few weeks, I've had somebody at my own church come up to me and express their own ignorance of the Bible. And they did it with...kind of through lament, and I wish I knew my Bible better, I don't know how to read my Bible, I wish I could do...you know, and they kind of talked to me for 15, 20 minutes or so of—I don't know how to know my Bible.
J.T. English (14:09):
And so it's one of those...it's, I mean, for lots of people who are listening, they might have remembered what that felt like. Like I remember when I went to my first Bible study with Cru—this is before I was a Christian—the Bible study leader said to me, "open to Jonah." And I had no idea where Jonah was. I was thumbing through my Bible, I felt foolish, I felt like the people next to me were going to think I didn't belong. The leader next to me had to open it up for me, because if you go to the table of contents, you out yourself. But we need to remember, as pastors and ministers, that's where most people are. Like, they're kind of trying to fake their way through. So this guy is kind of telling me, "I'm tired of faking my way through—
J.T. English (14:50):
I've been I've in a church for 20 years." And so I tell him, "you know what we have, we have men's Bible study. You should come to this men's Bible study." And he actually says, "you know what I actually think I really need—a stewardship class. Do you guys have any stewardship classes?" And here's the thing—you just teach a lot about stewardship, but, I would far, far, far, far, far rather have somebody who can read their Bible than somebody who's gone through Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. Because if I have somebody who can read their Bible, they can read what Jesus says about money and interpret it correctly. And if we eventually have a Financial Peace University class—fine. But most churches will prioritize those secondary or third tier issues, like Financial Peace University or parenting, or, you know, all these other things that, again, I think are nice. Like they're fine to have, but they aren't necessary. If we're making disciples who are good financial stewards, but are unfamiliar with their sacred text, we're doing a great disservice to our Lord.
Brian Arnold (15:44):
That is an important word for the church today, I think, J.T. Because people are looking for all those kinds of ancillary classes and missing the entire meat of Scripture, which should serve as the foundation for stewardship, and parenting, and marriage, and all these other aspects of the Christian life. I think that's critical.
J.T. English (16:02):
One of the ways I talk about it in the book is—and again, hear this—these things don't need to be in competition with each other, but can help complement one another. But you know, one of the crazes today, at least in the evangelical circles I'm in, is the Enneagram. And some listeners might be familiar with the Enneagram, some might not. It's basically a kind of a way to understand yourself and personality, and you know as Calvin says at the opening of his Institutes, it's important to have a knowledge of self. So I'm not against these things at all. However, if we're familiar with what Enneagram number we are, and we're more familiar with our Enneagram number and our friend's Enneagram number and our spouse's Enneagram number, but we're not familiar with the attributes of God, then again—we're mis-prioritizing the elements of discipleship. So again, doctrine—who God is—far surpasses whether you're an Enneagram one, seven or nine,
Brian Arnold (16:51):
And I'm a three wing four, if that matters.
J.T. English (16:55):
I'm a one wing nine. So I'm pretty passionate about this.
Brian Arnold (16:59):
Yeah, absolutely. That's great. And even thinking today, and I know I'm not unique to say this, but how many more Christians are discipled by a 24 hour news cycle, more than they are from scripture?
J.T. English (17:09):
Oh man. You know, I think that's one of the things that I didn't touch in the book quite as much had I written this book in 20...you know, I wrote this book in 2019, released this year. Had I written this book, given the political news cycle we've been inundated with in the last nine months, it would have been something I probably would have addressed more. Because I mean, as a pastor now, I get one, two, maybe three hours a week with people, and they get three hours each night with their favorite news anchor.
Brian Arnold (17:33):
J.T. English (17:33):
And it's hard to form people with the story of what God is doing in the world, when they're being formed by other false narratives—regardless of what news channel they're watching.
Brian Arnold (17:44):
Yeah, so you're competing. And you don't even have as much time in which to compete for their minds.
J.T. English (17:47):
I don't have the time, I don't have the technology, I don't have the access right in their living room, the same way that a news anchor does. So it's a real challenge for churches to really form people with a story of Scripture.
Brian Arnold (17:58):
That's so helpful. So we've talked about the disciples. Discipleship happens in the church, what they need, those three kind of pillars you laid out, but how do disciples actually grow?
J.T. English (18:09):
And this is—again, what's funny is these questions are not unique to me. I'm really just trying to retrieve something I think the church has been doing for for 1600-1700 years. We've just recently forgot. But we ask the question, "how do we keep people?" Like one of those kind of consumeristic...what do we need to offer in order to keep people coming to our church, keep people in our doors, keep people engaged and involved? But we very rarely ask the question, "how do people grow?" And those two questions are fundamentally different, because if you're only asking the question, "how do we keep people?" What you're going to notice over time is that you're lowering the bar for what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. All you're going to do is come to church once a month or twice a month.
J.T. English (18:48):
I mean the most committed Christians right now, surveys tell us, come twice a month, which means 26 times a year. But what would it look like if we set out—I'm not just interested in keeping people at my church, I'm interested in growing the people at my church? If we were raising the bar of discipleship? I want you involved in Bible study. I want you involved in short-term missions trips. I want you involved in serving back in the kid's ministry. And calling these things essential for discipleship. Again, not just giving people hoops to jump through. I don't just want to have a high view of discipleship that creates obstacles for people, but a high view of discipleship that creates growth for people. If you're talking about fitness and running or weightlifting, we would...what we wouldn't want to do is if somebody has never run before, say, "you need to go run a marathon today." But we would create a couch to 5k program, and then maybe a 5k to 10k program, then a 10k to a half marathon.
J.T. English (19:39):
And so churches need to be thinking about how do these various environments that we have—whether it's a home group, or a Bible study, or some kind of an institute, or a training program—relate to each other, so that we have various accessibility points for people who are at different steps in their journey. So that they can continue to grow the way muscles grow, the way minds grow, the way our ability to...for our hearts to grow. They grow by stimulation, by dissonance, by being forced to do things that are a little bit harder than we think we can do. But if the church is adopting a model that says, we want to keep as many people as possible, all we're going to do is keep lowering the bar for people. And nobody's going to grow. So what would it look like for us to say no, my job as your pastor, our job as your ministry staff, is to introduce dissonance in your discipleship, not just satisfaction. So that you'll start building discipleship muscles and discipleship instincts that encourage growth over 10, 20, 30, and 40 years.
Brian Arnold (20:39):
And a lot of what you're saying just comes down to intentionality. You have to have the goal of discipleship and say, how does everything in our church gear towards growing people in their faith, presenting them mature in Christ.
J.T. English (20:50):
That's right. We're actually preaching...I'm preaching through Colossians right now at Storyline. I've just been convicted of this all over again. And what's ironic is we typically do—churches that I'm aware of—typically do a pretty good job of this kind of nursery through sixth or seventh or eighth grade, maybe. But as soon as kids hit adolescence and high school and college, and even into adulthood, we just are okay with stagnation. We're just happy if they're there. We want to see a first grader grow. So we'll have curriculum for them. We'll teach them the Bible. But really once kids, I've noticed, get to about six, seventh grade, the church has such a fear of losing people, that it will lower the bars, just so that we can keep them. But what I've found over and over and over again is we tell the church—we expect something of you, we're calling you to something greater. We're calling you to a story that's far bigger than yourself, and here's the bar for that. Man. People are eager to meet it, because they receive that in other parts of the world, they receive that in their jobs or their relationships. And so it's time for the church to raise a high bar, because it's worth it. Because God is worth it. And knowing Jesus is worth it.
Brian Arnold (21:59):
Amen. Very well said. So finally, the last question that you pose is—where do disciples go?
J.T. English (22:07):
Yeah. Again, I'm going to go back to that kind of mantra. It's all about asking better questions. Lots of churches ask the simple question of "where do some disciples go?" And I think the better question is "where do all disciples go?" I want to train everybody we send, but I also want to send everybody that we train. There's no person at Storyline Fellowship that I don't want seeing themselves as a missionary in the context that God has placed them, whether that's a mom at home with her kids, or a working mom in the office, or a missionary that we're going to send to the field, or a church planter that we're going to send to San Jose. Every single believer at Storyline Fellowship needs to view themselves as somebody who is a sent one, somebody who's sent on mission with Jesus. And so in all of these environments that we're creating—Bible studies and institutes and training programs and home groups—the goal, isn't just "how do we send a few people from these environments?" but "how do we commission and send everybody from these environments?"
J.T. English (23:03):
So for example, at The Village Church, we created a 36-week training program, which was kind of a seminary-lite, and it was Bavinck and Edwards and Luther and Calvin and Augustine and Athanasius, and the whole story of Scripture, and Scripture memory. I mean, it was pretty intense. You might call it kind of like a Navy SEALs-type discipleship. And that first year we had 459 applicants, after I was expecting like 10. Again, that just proves people want this stuff. We had over a thousand graduates over five years. And what we told them at the end of the training program is "you are now the most theologically equipped people at our church of about five or 6,000 people. And your responsibility is not just to know God, but to help others know God better. And so, what are you learning and who are you teaching it to?"
J.T. English (23:49):
And we would tell them, "you don't ever graduate from discipleship, but rather you're commissioned to go make more disciples." And what I've learned, Brian, is you and I have a very similar kind of background in terms of how the world has shaped us, and informed us, even our degrees in the Academy. And what I've learned is—I didn't really learn things, until I was forced to teach those things, right? So I don't want to be the only teacher at Storyline preaching on Sunday mornings, and everybody else just being an audience. I want every single person in the congregation to see themselves as a participant in what I'm doing up on the stage, not so that they can watch me and be entertained by me, but rather so that they can be sent out on Sunday morning after the service and go make disciples wherever God has called them. Saying the same things I'm saying, because I'm just trying to say the Bible in ways that are helpful for us in Arvada. So I want the mom of five to be able to leave that service and not just say, "wow, J.T. is a great teacher!" But I want to tell her, you now have the responsibility to go make disciples of your kids, or of your neighbors, or at the places where God has called you.
Brian Arnold (24:55):
J.T., this has been such a great discussion thinking about discipleship. I love what you're doing with it, in your local church, through this book. I was watching from afar as you were doing it at The Village Church. And it's inspirational. And as more pastors take up this charge, I think it's going to be only for the benefit of the church. And it's a great reminder that discipleship is not optional for the church. Jesus commanded that we make disciples. It takes intentionality and thinking back through what God did with 12 disciples, 2000 years ago, and what he can do now through the church. So J.T., thank you again.
J.T. English (25:30):
Amen. Thanks, brother. So grateful for how you guys are serving the church there in Phoenix, and eager to partner in any way that we can.
Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.