Gospel-centered discipleship focuses on internal change, which is why you’ll probably hesitate to use it. We naturally default to an outside-in view of spiritual growth. I think we do this because external things are easier to measure and quantify and track. So we give the impression that discipleship means DOING more. Disciples need to be sharing the gospel, or leading a small group, or serving in ministry, or praying for the city, or making better use of their time, or whatever. These things are all good, assuming they’re driven from the right heart. But very often they’re not. The problem isn’t that your disciples fail to do these things. The problem is that they don’t really want to. You can tweak external behavior all day, but to change heart-level desires, you need the gospel! The gospel fuels change from the inside out. It addresses beliefs and desires, not just actions. A truly deep and biblical belief in the gospel will always result in character change. If change isn’t happening, you can be sure that there’s a heart problem.
This isn’t biblical rocket science; it’s simply the principle Jesus himself used. Good trees bear good fruit. When the people asked him how they could do the works of God, he answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).
But your disciples are good at faking it, so they are convinced that the external solutions are what they need. They think they believe the gospel. In fact, they’ll probably argue with you if you tell them they really don’t. But just disciple a transsexual or two, and you’ll understand that it always comes back to belief.
See, I know that Ryan needs to change his lifestyle. It’s not glorifying to God. And every Christian he’s ever met has taken the lifestyle-change approach to discipleship. They’ve pushed him to repent and change his external behavior. But why should he? He doesn’t want to. Until he wants not to be a transsexual, nothing else matters! In the same way, until your disciples want to read the Bible or pray or reach out to others, nothing else matters.
How do you make someone want to change at this deep level? I don’t really know, but I’m good at trying lots of stuff. So that’s what I did with Ryan. That first meeting had built some trust between us. He trusted that I wasn’t going to hate him or judge him, and I trusted that he wasn’t going to hit on me or tell me I was sexy or something. I began to think and pray about what to do next.
The following week, another student handed me a CD of a lecture she’d heard on homosexuality. The speaker was a former homosexual activist who had been radically transformed by Christ. I listened to it, and I thought, Maybe this is it! Mike, the guy on the CD, was so refreshingly real. He talked about how much he hated Christians during his gay-activist days, and how it took a strong community of loyal friends to really draw him to Jesus. I knew Ryan hated Christians, so I thought he might relate well to what Mike said. I gave the CD to Amy the bubbly Jesus-girl and asked her to pass it along to him—not to try and change his behavior, but to see if it might surface some deeper desires in his soul.
A few days later, Amy called. “Ryan wants to meet with you as soon as possible. He’s listened to the CD three times and he has all sorts of questions.”
So, after putting my kids to bed that night, I rolled over to Starbucks. The three of us sat down at one of the incredibly small and useless tables, the one right in the middle of everything. I was extremely self-conscious. We were going to be using the words Jesus and transsexuality a lot, and that meant every other customer would be trying to eavesdrop on our conversation.