My friend Ryan is a transsexual. He used to hate God, but now he’s at least lukewarm toward the idea of trusting Jesus. In this article, I want to share a few insights into how I’ve discipled Ryan. That way, if you ever disciple a transsexual, you’ll have some idea of where to begin.
Listen to Their Story
The obvious problem you’re probably noticing is that Ryan is not a Christian. At first it was a challenge to disciple someone who hadn’t even trusted in Jesus yet! But the more I did it, the easier it became. You see, evangelism and discipleship are fundamentally the same thing: pointing people toward Jesus as their all-satisfying treasure. So don’t get all worried thinking that this article doesn’t apply to you. It does. Even if you’re discipling Christians instead of unbelieving transsexuals.
The reason I met Ryan was because I didn’t ask enough questions. Had I been more careful on the front end, I could have avoided the whole situation and stayed inside my conservative evangelical Christian bubble. We have this student in our college community named Amy. She is the most Jesus-loving, extraverted, bubbly person I’ve ever met. And she’s extremely hard to say no to, because she says things like, “Jesus told me to talk to this person!” Or, “The Lord is totally working in your life!” Things that make you think Jesus must have ridden in the car with her on the way over. Amy grabbed me one week before our Wednesday night prayer meeting to ask if I’d meet with a friend of hers from school – a homosexual who was not yet a believer in Christ, but had been asking lots of questions about faith. I didn’t really want to. But she was so enthusiastic, so happy in Jesus, so convicting with her “you’re a pastor and this is your job” tone of voice. So I agreed.
Then, after I’d said yes, she proceeded to tell me the rest of the story: Ryan was an outcast at school because he dresses up as a woman once a week. He’d scheduled a sex-change operation for next spring. He was “married” to a lesbian woman as a mere formality, to allow them to pursue their homosexual lifestyles discreetly. His parents had disowned him and he hadn’t set foot in a church since childhood. Oh, and he wanted to meet as soon as possible. I feigned utter confidence in Amy’s presence and assured her I’d love to meet with Ryan. Then I went home and peed my pants.
The next morning, I hit my knees and began to pray out of my own dire inadequacy. I have never had much success in reaching out to homosexuals. I mean, I come across as harsh and intimidating – to Christians! So to those who have been wounded by the church, I must be Genghis Khan. My prayers that morning were brutally honest and not very creative to boot. They were something like “Oh, Jesus” followed by some expletives and mumbling. You might think that’s irreverent, but I think it’s just real.
That night I met Amy and Ryan at a coffee shop. And in those first few minutes, God did a profound work in my life. I guess I was expecting Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress or something. What I found was a human being named Ryan, created in the image of God, with the same wounds and soul-scars and questions as you and me and everyone else. Don’t get me wrong: there was great discomfort on both sides of the table. It was worse than a first date. Ryan was shifty and uneasy. I could tell he was testing me out to see if he could trust me. And I felt awkward as well, afraid that at any moment he would discover that I was Genghis Khan and would stand up and yell obscenities at me and make a big scene. Part of my fear was self-interest, but part of it was an honest concern for the kingdom of God. I was sitting across from a guy who had been deeply wounded by Christians. He had finally found one bubbly Jesus-girl whom he could trust. Now he was risking interaction with a real, live minister one more time. I felt that if I didn’t win his trust, this might be the last time he thought about Jesus. But if I could just show in some way how much God cared about him, maybe he’d hate God a little less. And that would be big.
My goal as I tell Ryan’s story is to convince you that discipleship must be centered on the gospel. In order to see true heart-transformation in a disciple’s life, you have to get him to delight in Jesus more than money or love or ambition or control or self-interest. The only way to do that is to constantly remind him of his deep brokenness and sinfulness – the “bad news” of the gospel – so that he despairs of his own efforts, and then to constantly rejoice in the powerful grace of God through the cross – the “good news” of the gospel – so that he deeply feels and believes God’s radical love for him. Jack Miller, a now-deceased missionary and seminary professor, used to summarize the gospel with these two phrases: “Cheer up: you’re worse than you think. But cheer up: God’s grace is greater than you ever dreamed.” The same gospel that saves sinners also sanctifies the saints. The gospel doesn’t just make you right with God; it frees you to delight in God.
“Cheer up: you’re worse than you think. But cheer up: God’s grace is greater than you ever dreamed.”
Tell Them Your Sin
The trouble is that we don’t really believe that the gospel matters for Christians. Most of us only think of the gospel in the context of evangelism. We view the gospel as the ABC’s of Christianity, the starting point, the thing nonbelievers need to hear, the door you walk through to get “in.” Once you’re in, of course, then you move beyond the gospel to biblical principles and quiet times and religious books and worship CD’s.
Ryan was pretty sure that we were “in” and he was “out.” He knew that in the eyes of the average Christian, he was a really bad guy – a transsexual, for God’s sake! A pastor had told him once that he was on an express train to hell because of his lifestyle. (I wondered if that pastor would say the same thing to a perpetual gossip or a legalist or someone who eats too much.) So Ryan consistently steered the conversation toward his lifestyle – the thing that seemed to keep him “out” in the eyes of most Christians. He had been to the gay church in town, and they told him that his lifestyle didn’t matter. On the surface, he was fishing for me to say something similar: “It’s okay to be transsexual – you can still follow Jesus.” But underneath, I sensed a much more powerful question in play: “Am I more broken, more sinful, more hopeless than you?”
So I moved the conversation away from Ryan’s lifestyle and toward the common brokenness and rebellion of all of humanity. I told him the real issue wasn’t his gender confusion. It was his sin. He wanted to hear that he was worse than the guy next door. I told him that he wasn’t. I took out my Bible and made him read out loud some of the famous verses about sin. I focused on the fact that all have sinned, that all have turned away from God, that everyone needs to be reconciled to their Creator. Our external sins may be different, but our hearts are all the same. Then I took it a step further: I told him about my own sin.
“Ryan, do you want to know about me? I am a control freak. I like to have everything under my power. I like to put myself in the place of God and manage the outcomes. I am rude and harsh toward my wife and kids. I am judgmental when people don’t live up to my standards. I fail to love people the way Jesus does. I love people on my terms, the way I think they deserve to be loved, based on my criteria. I am uncaring and critical and resentful toward those who don’t see things my way. I bow down and sell my soul every day to the idol of Control. Ryan, I am a sinner, and Jesus is my only hope.”
Suddenly, Ryan began to soften. The conversation turned a corner. He fell to his knees and, through his tears, trusted in Jesus right there in the middle of the coffee shop. (Actually, he didn’t. But that’s the ending you were hoping for, isn’t it? Stop it already!) The conversation did turn a corner, because Ryan finally began to realize that his lifestyle was a secondary issue. Here I was, a happily married minister, telling him that my heart was as dirty and sinful and broken as his. The only difference was that I was trusting in Jesus to make me right with God and transform my heart, and he wasn’t.
We are good at telling non-Christians they need Jesus. No thinking follower of Christ would look at Ryan and say, “Change your lifestyle first, and then we can work on your heart.” We know that deep inner change must come first; “make the tree good, and its fruit [will be] good” (Matthew 12:33). So ask yourself: why don’t you apply the same truth when it comes to discipleship?
The gospel is not the ABC’s of Christianity; it is the A to Z of Christianity. When we forget the gospel, we cheat our disciples. We give the impression that being a follower of Jesus means becoming less broken, less sinful, less hopeless. So we create a caste-system-Christianity: there are the really broken people (unbelievers), the pretty broken people (young believers), and the people who have learned to pretend they’re not broken (mature believers).
Not only is this blatantly unbiblical, it is contrary to common sense. Jesus said that those who are forgiven much will love much (Luke 7:47). The mature Christians are not those who are less broken, but those who realize the depth of their brokenness and are clinging all the more tightly to Jesus.
To test this truth, just ask yourself how my conversation with Ryan would have differed if I had said, “Yeah, you’re really messed up. But the good news is, if you trust in Jesus, you can be as good as me.” You might be smart enough (or politically correct enough) not to say this to a transsexual. But unless your discipleship efforts are rooted in the gospel, it’s exactly what you’re saying to the people you’re leading.
Bob Thune (@BobThune) is the lead pastor of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, Nebraska. Bob is also the co-author of The Gospel-Centered Life, a gospel-driven small-group curriculum that has sold over 50,000 copies and helped Christians all over the world understand the centrality of the gospel in all of life. Read more at www.BobThune.com
Read more on making the gospel the gospel known in Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan Dodson.