The False Promise of Discipleship

Very simply, the false promise of discipleship is the premise that discipleship is about you and I getting closer and closer to Jesus.

Sounds like one of those paradoxical statements Jesus is known for, right? “The first shall be last and the last first.” “He who finds his life will lose it.” Isn’t being close to Jesus a great thing? Of course it is. But here’s the rub. A close relationship with Jesus is not the goal of discipleship. Most people, quite simply, have been trained to think that discipleship is “for me”:

  • It’s about me growing closer to Jesus.
  • It’s about me becoming a better person, a better Christian.
  • It’s about me feeling like I know God more.

All of these things are good. But this self-focused discipleship is exactly what has to shift. This myopic view is why maturity—at least, the type that Jesus seems to have in mind—never happens. Whatever the paradigm for discipleship, if it’s primarily about you and it’s primarily asking the question, “How am I doing?” it’s doomed to fall back to earth. We’re left staring up at the heavens, knowing that surely there is soaring yet to be done but not quite sure how to get there above the clouds.

The soaring life that Jesus invites us into is, quite simply, a life lived for others. Contrary to what we’ve been taught or may have taught (or are currently teaching), discipleship is always, unceasingly about “the other.” As God Himself said to His people in Isaiah 58 (paraphrasing): “If you’ll focus on others, if you’ll focus on rebuilding the broken places for others, if you’ll focus on bringing light into the darkness, for others, then your salvation will break forth like the dawn!”

Wasn’t this Jesus’ constant work? To provoke His disciples into loving and serving others, since He Himself came “not to be served, but to serve?” Before Jesus fed the 5,000, he turned to His disciples and said, “You give the people something to eat.” He constantly challenged His disciples to love, serve, feed, and proclaim life to others. He said that the whole law and prophets—the whole story of God!—is about loving God with everything you have “and your neighbor as yourself.”

Don’t miss this: Reorienting your life to loving, knowing, and serving others is both the heart of true discipleship, and the endpoint of discipleship.

Yet, sadly, the church has not often adopted Jesus’ ways and means—teaching His disciples to orient their life and energy around serving others. When it has, it feels more like an activity we’re supposed to fit into crowded schedules rather than a lifestyle of adventure, teeming with possibilities, where the Kingdom of God could burst forth at any moment. Sadly, we have often preferred to put on banquets, hoping people will like us, or outreach events, hoping that they will be curious about us. Good intentions, no doubt. But events and programs are simply not the path that leads to cultivating a vibrant church built on a movement of disciple-making disciples.

Through the course of this short, digestible book, we’ll discuss specific steps toward a Jesus-centered, others-focused discipleship. But first, we need to explore why discipleship as it now stands—generally built on the question, “How am I doing?”— is so prevalent, and why true, Jesus-centered discipleship is often so elusive.

As with the call to the carpenter and the engineer, maybe we first need to put on our hard hats and take a good look at the foundations we’re building on for life.


This is an excerpt from the free eBook written Bill Hull and Brandon Cook of The Bonhoeffer Project. You can download the full eBook on their homepage here.

Bill Hull is a Co-Founder of The Bonhoeffer Project. Bill’s passion is to help the church return to its disciple making roots and he considers himself a discipleship evangelist. This God-given desire has manifested itself in 20 of pastoring and the authorship of many books. Two of his more important books, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker, and The Disciple Making Pastor, have both celebrated 20 years in print. Add his third in the popular trilogy, The Disciple Making Church, and you have a new paradigm for disciple making.

Brandon Cook is the lead pastor at Long Beach Christian Fellowship and a co-founder of The Bonhoeffer Project. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he studied at Wheaton College (IL), Jerusalem University College, Brandeis University, and The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He worked as a professional storyteller before joining a transformational training organization and moving to SoCal in 2006, becoming a pastor three years later. Over the course of five years of pastoring, he became convinced that his work—and the work of the church—is to become fully committed to discipleship and making disciple-makers. The Bonhoeffer Project is for him a quest to live into the question “How are people transformed to live and love like Jesus?”

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