Transformational Discipleship

by Ben Gosden

My great spiritual confession is that I’ve been raised in the church, called by God into ministry serving the church, and I’ve spent most of my life missing the mark of true inward change. It was only about 18 months ago when I came to terms with my being an alcoholic and I engaged in the deep work of the 12 Steps that I met God on a deep, transformational level. Mine is a story where I could pass a Christian test and speak a Christian language, but I lacked the marks of transformation in my own life because I lived as though everything actually depended on me and not God.

I grew up in the church in the 1990s, so I’ve seen the best (and worst) of the last 30+ years of programs local churches employ to enhance their discipleship ministries. Discipleship programs are great, but they by and large deal with change at the surface level. We’re taught to read the Bible more, pray more, go to church, give, serve, and engage in spiritual activities that reflect these practices. I’m a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, so I’m all for engaging in these spiritual means of grace. But to what end? Do our discipleship programs and plans lead to real transformational change or do they just teach us how to play the part of being a Christian.

It's only been over the last year and a half in my recovery journey that I am learning now how discipleship, in its truest sense, is an invitation to a journey that promises to change us from the inside out. Jesus asked the early disciples to leave their jobs and their families and follow him. History tells us that following Jesus led many of them to places they never would have imagined for the sake of Christ, even death for his sake. By design, discipleship is a costly journey that requires one to sacrifice and be continually changed as a result.

And yet too often we frame this journey of discipleship as a simple formula of doing a few spiritual things and agreeing with some doctrines and stances, only to live as though everything else in our lives can stay the same. Where does the transformational change enter our lives?

What does transformational discipleship look like? There are 3 places we can start that promise to change our lives as we dare to follow Jesus.

Discipleship starts as an inward journey

If recovery has taught me anything, it’s taught me that change begins within. Before we can jump to loving and serving others, we must deal with ourselves in honest ways. In recovery we start by confessing that we are powerless over people, places, and things. This powerlessness opens us to the power of change that comes only from God. And, by grace, we can make a decision to seek God’s ultimate direction for our lives as we give ourselves to God’s love and care.

From there we tell the truth about our sin. Are we prideful? Resentful? Selfish? Full of fear? Controlling? Sin is like that box of unknown stuff in our garage. As long as we leave the lights turned off in the garage and ignore the box, then we don’t have to deal with it. The only problem is things left ignored have a way of rotting, going bad, and eventually smelling. The only way to deal with that stinky box of God knows what is to turn on the lights in the garage, open the box, and deal with sorting through it. The same is true for the sin in our lives. And the gift we have as we take this crucial inward journey is that we never journey alone — God is with us giving us power to keep going. And we have the gift of friends as we make ourselves accountable to others.

The goal of discipleship is becoming love, not being right

The worst kept secret about Christianity is that too often we teach one another it’s more important to be right than it is to truly love. It’s not that things like doctrine and beliefs don’t matter. But if those things do not form us, reshape us even, into people love, then what good are they? A faith built on being right is also a faith where I am at the center of it all in the end. But a faith that dares to reshape us into the image of Christ’s love puts Christ at the center. Or, as my grandmother might remind me, I can be right about all things and be totally wrong if I’m a jerk about it.

Becoming loves calls us to give up power, not try to gain more of it

The 12 Steps begins with an admission that we are powerless and ultimately broken and that it is God alone who can heal us (Steps 1 and 2). From there we have the choice to give our life and will over to the love and care of God or hold onto it as we seek to be in charge of all things (Step 3). One of the hardest lessons in leadership recovery has taught me is that my ultimate power comes from God, not my own talent or merits.

In my next article, I will share more about what faith looks like for me now, in light of my recovery, as my life shifts toward a greater reliance on the power of God to save me one day at a time. I can confess that too much of my life before recovery was spent on things other than prayer and relying on God. But not so much these days. I’ve learned the hard way where relying on yourself will eventually lead — for me it was the bottom of a bottle and a life full of stress burning me out from the calling God made me to live into. It’s changed the way I try to live, lead, and love — amazing grace, indeed.