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 essay, 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.

The obvious problem you’re probably noticing is that Ryan is not yet a Christian. So how could I be “discipling” him? Well, 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 essay 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 bubble. We had this student in our college ministry named Amy. She was the most Jesus-loving, extroverted, bubbly person I’d ever met. And you couldn’t say no to her, because she would say things like, “Jesus told me to talk to this person!” 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. 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 dressed 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. I feigned utter confidence in Amy’s presence and assured her I’d love to meet with Ryan. Then I went home and freaked out a little bit.

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. My strong personality comes across as harsh and intimidating—to Christians! So to those who have been wounded by the church, I must seem like Genghis Khan. My prayers that morning were brutally honest and not very creative to boot. They were something like “Dear Jesus” followed by some expletives and mumbling.

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, 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, 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 pastor. I felt like a lot was riding on this meeting.

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 someone’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. Only then can you encourage him to 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 late 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.

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