Book review: ‘The Gospel Next Door’
Seeking the peace of the city in Houston, Texas, is no small task for a minister with a heart big enough to reach out to everyone in his urban community. But Pastor Marty Troyer of Houston Mennonite Church, in The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are, does well to present a large vision for urban missions that can apply to any city.
Troyer dispenses quickly with the traditional notion of missions as something that happens far away from a supporting church. Instead, God “sends all people to the places they already live to restore all things.” His writing, consequently, integrates discipleship and personal transformation with holistic outreach to people who are within our reach. This is ultimately a deep expression of how we “worship the God of mission and justice.”
Drawing attention to the “widening integrity gap” between the way things are and the way God intended things to be, Troyer nudges his readers to move into the gaps where God is moving to restore things. In a playful paraphrase, he rewrites the entire Apostles’ Creed, including the line, “I believe the Spirit is closing those gaps through a reborn church that for too long neglected the common good.”
One could say that Troyer equally cares for streets as he does for souls. His book is sprinkled with stories of urban ministries that reflect the verve and compassion that fits with a gospel that is not merely soulish or social. To counter Houston’s reputation for being a sex-trafficking hub, a woman starts a coffeehouse as a new hub for gatherings that address this pervasive issue. One church combats sex slavery through the twin work of local and global partnerships as a way to stay grounded.
I like the way Troyer presents Jesus as “a genius detective of the human predicament.” Keen insight can often lead to deeper compassion. One Houston man heard the stories of five migrant neighbors and then shared a meal with them. Not only did his view of these men drastically change, he also came to see himself anew. “I think I am a racist,” he admitted.
Examples of taking the gospel to the streets include fighting the death penalty, fair-trade purchasing, forming solidarity links with atomic-bomb victims in Nagasaki and collaborations with the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as liberation theologies once encouraged people to “read the Bible from below,” today’s persistent racism may be calling us to once again engage the Bible through the eyes of the marginalized.
Troyer shows that true mission cannot be separated from a discipleship community. It’s all about sustainability. You cannot sustain authentic mission without a vibrant disciple-making community that grows while reaching out. Churches in the past may have relied too much on education. Troyer, by contrast, says that becoming a disciple is more about formation than information.
Laying this foundation, though, the book lacks substance in the area of how a church’s corporate inward journey can blend with its corporate outward journey. Examples of peace- and justice-making abound, but readers may be left asking, “Is there anything that makes these activities distinctly Christian? To what extent are they expressive of a people who are being formed into the image of Christ?”
Even so, Troyer gets it right by emphasizing how disciples grow by practicing what they are meant to do. He espouses the “faithwalking” program that helps Christians work through a cycle of true missional engagement: liberation, learning and living. This framework values the virtue of vulnerability, which creates solidarity between the server and those served.
The Fifth Street missional community in Houston’s southeast district is a strong example of what can be done to address problems within a specific neighborhood. By working side-by-side with neighbors and children, Fifth Street members have discovered the simple lesson that “when people get out of their churches and into their neighborhoods, it gives their neighbors hope.” That is where gospel light can really shine.
Altogether, Troyer invites his readers to consider how a theology of place, combined with a gospel-formed culture and risk-taking love, can lay the groundwork for healing urban brokenness. Here is a simple way to sum it up: If we pray “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” perhaps we should be part of the realization of that prayer.
Ted Lewis is a restorative justice trainer, mediator and consultant in Duluth, Minn.
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