If you are anything like me, you struggle with Jesus’ command to his disciples to “put God’s kingdom first.” I struggle with this because I tend to put my own needs first: to satisfy my own desires and interests before thinking about those of others, let alone God’s. I tend to put others’ needs before mine only occasionally, and not always like I really should.
But this is not the way of the kingdom.
Christians do not go their own way. Instead, they are defined by who they serve and, as such, seek to align their desires and interests according to their master’s desires and interests. God wants people who are totally committed to him. God wants people who worship him “in spirit and truth.” God wants people who serve him day and night, seven days a week, four seasons a year. In fact, we have a term for this deep level of commitment and loyalty: it’s called discipleship, and it’s quite challenging.
Over the past few years, pastors and Christian leaders have begun to rethink the importance of discipleship in the lives of North American churches. Although many churches will continue to obsess about attendance numbers and making their budgets, it’s encouraging to see that some are becoming less focused on things like church membership and more focused on making disciples.
Given the importance of this discussion in North American churches, I have recently co-written a book on discipleship entitled Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus. I wrote this book for two main reasons. First, although it is often said, it bears being repeated again: Jesus has entrusted the church with one primary task – to make disciples, not just believers or mere church members. Jesus’ last words, according to the Gospel of Matthew, were not breathed with the intention of his followers sounding good, paying bills, or looking professional; they were breathed to give life to a perpetual generation of Spirit-led, God-loving Jesus-followers (Matthew 28:19). The second reason why I wrote this book is because I have discerned that, despite the growing number of sermons, radio broadcasts, and books that discuss the topic of discipleship, too few spell out the specific costs of discipleship from the perspective of it being a very challenging and demanding enterprise each and every day. In running the risk of oversimplification, it’s far too easy to look upon discipleship like a Disneyworld roller coaster: sure, there are some downs along the way, but the journey is mostly for personal fulfillment and the costs of going on a ride are fairly minimal.
I agree that there are enjoyable moments on the road to following Jesus, but I think we do a serious disservice to Christians when we paint a picture of discipleship as a joy ride that takes us to our dream job, a bigger house, and a hassle-free existence.
Without denying the jobs and homes many Christians have (and love) and the stress-free lives we enjoy in relation to history and the rest of the world, following Jesus is hard, difficult, and challenging for the very simple reason that the eclipse of God’s kingdom on earth has yet to take place. And to state the obvious in our technology- and comfort-driven society, God is not a vending machine who mechanically and impersonally distributes riches to Christians like a game-show host. On the contrary, if you ask God for patience, you will most likely not be zapped with an abstract attribute; rather, you will be put in challenging circumstances where you will have to demonstrate patience as you rely upon God’s Spirit.
All of this is to say: Discipleship is a hazardous enterprise, and it is a topic that we need to think about with more seriousness and with more biblical and practical depth. If you would like to explore this kind of discipleship for yourself and for your church, I encourage you to read Hazardous and to think anew about what it means to follow Jesus in a culture that constantly competes with relevancy, independence, wealth, busyness, and comfort.
Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical Seminary, where he directs the LEAD MDiv program and co-directs the DMin program. He and his wife Barb are members at Deep Run East Mennonite Church. His most recent book is entitled Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus.