This review was published in the August 2015 volume of the Journal of Global Christianity.
Jerry Trousdale has a story to tell. As a missionary among African Muslims and director of an evangelical mission organization, he believes he has discovered the secret to Muslim evangelism.
As a Christian, this is not a book you want to dislike. Stories of true revival, conversion, and the transformation of communities are what one hopes for. Why would I not want these to be true? This is also the kind of book the academic community tends not to read. In my limited experience it is because either they feel they are above a book like this (tragically) or do not understand the type of influence they can have in churches and among missions practitioners (more likely).
The author starts by stating that there is a way of doing evangelism that everyone has missed. Trousdale believes he has discovered biblical principles and values that have been hidden in plain sight in the pages of the Bible. He commits the first few chapters of his book to explaining the principles and giving illustrative narratives of Christians living out these principles with great success.
Trousdale offers what he calls Jesus’ counterintuitive disciple-making strategies (Chapter 2).
Go slow at first in order to go fast later.
Focus on a few to win many.
Engage an entire family or group, not just an individual
Share only when and where people are ready to hear.
Start with creation, not with Christ.
It’s about discovering and obeying, not teaching and knowledge.
Disciple people to conversion, not vice versa.
The new way of doing ministry should include the following (Chapter 12):
Make intercessory prayer the highest priority.
Make disciples who make disciples.
Invest time in the right person.
Don’t tell people what to believe or do.
Never settle for revealing just one dimension of Jesus’ life.
Never substitute knowledge about God for an obedience-based relationship with God.
Understand that Jesus does impossible things through the most ordinary people.
All of these are wonderful suggestions. But are they new? What book on prayer does not make prayer the highest priority? Who does not mentor someone so they can be a mentor? Who does not think through whom to disciple?
None of the principles listed above are bad and they seem wise. Starting with creation makes sense for someone with no background in Christian faith. Focusing on a few disciples sounds good. But – are these Jesus’ strategies? Are these the only ones?
There are many problems with this kind of “Jesus only” or Jesus model hermeneutic. It elevates Jesus’ words above the rest of the Bible. As an evangelical that is a problem, since all Scripture is inspired by God. The real question is: Should we take a “Gospels-centered” approach to ministry and our reading of the Bible?
“There are many problems with this kind of “Jesus only” or Jesus model hermeneutic. It elevates Jesus’ words above the rest of the Bible. As an evangelical that is a problem, since all Scripture is inspired by God. The real question is: Should we take a “Gospels-centered” approach to ministry and our reading of the Bible?”
The Crux of the Issue – Hermeneutics
If we take away all the stories Trousdale tells we can boil down a significant critique to one question – how should we read the Bible? This, of course, is a complex question but from my theological vantage point, Trousdale’s entire system could be misleading.
A “Gospels-centered” approach to reading the Bible takes its cue from classic liberalism and can turn Jesus into merely a moral teacher. The cross becomes part of the message to obey instead of the message that redeems dead sinners. It’s not that Trousdale is liberal, but that he mimics the methodology. Let me just raise one issue: Should we take all of Jesus’ commands as commands for his disciples today? I have no desire to diminish the words of our Lord, but also want to understand them in the context of the story line of Scripture and read them knowing that the Holy Spirit was at work in different authors after the last chapters of the gospels were written. While Trousdale spends a significant amount of time talking about Mathew 10 and Luke 10, he does not include commands found in Matthew 10 such as:
Don’t accept any valuable metals (10:9).
Don’t even take along a bag, two coats, sandals or a staff (10:10).
Inquire who is worthy in a town and stay there (10:11).
Greet the house (10:12).
Bless a worthy house, but take back the blessing from an unworthy one (10:13).
Shake off the dust of your feet if you are not received (10:14).
Surely this alone shows the flaw in this hermeneutic.
This leads to a second issue: the role of the Holy Spirit and the role of teachers in the disciple-making process. Trousdale is rightly concerned that missionaries not lord it over new believers. He wants new believers and church leaders to be able to handle the Word of God well. However, his way of addressing the issue is unhelpful. His desire is for everyone to understand the Bible through personal study and discovery. There is very little role, if any, for a teacher to help infant believers understand what they are reading. To say that the Holy Spirit will just guide each person has been proven over and over again in church history to lead to the Bible meaning whatever an individual wants.
As stated above, Trousdale gets all of his insight from the Gospels and with that comes some interesting conclusions. One is that Trousdale encourages the reader to teach people God’s commands so that they can follow them and have their life changed and then be open to the message of Christianity (p. 44). This would seem to be the exact opposite of how the Christian life and evangelistic strategy is thought of in Scripture. Even within the Gospels, can you imagine Jesus going to the Pharisees, who were obedient to the law, taking this route? Peter and others in Acts never preached obedience first. Paul preached to bring about the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5). Should we teach obedience to Christ in order to have people place their faith in Christ? Paul in Athens (Acts 17) and Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10) do not seem to fit Trousdale’s model. Truthfully, the approach of the early church does not appear to have a place in Trousdale’s thinking at all.
Obedience-based discipleship is the exact opposite of what I would call affection-based disciple- ship. Commands are not enough. The declarations and promises of God in Scripture are used by the Spirit to reorient the heart and mind to real faith, which then fuels obedience. It is gospel-centered, not Gospels-centered ministry that yields sanctification and biblical discipleship (see 2 Cor. 3:18.) Obedience-first discipleship is not biblical.
What is a Church?
This type of book also calls to mind many research questions, but even more so the question of how one defines a church. I will only address one statement: "Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims are Falling in Love with Jesus."
What could this possibly mean? Is Trousdale saying that through the principles in this book, there have been over 100,000 confirmed converts to Christianity from Islam? One leader from Frontiers wrote in a private correspondence that at the time of publication, none of the reported movements happened within places where Frontiers is working. So where is this happening? The numbers given by Trousdale are astounding (pg. 15):
More than 6,000 new churches have been planted among Muslims in 18 different countries.
Hundreds of former sheikhs and imams, now Jesus followers, are boldly leading great movements of Muslims out of Islam.
Forty-five different “unreached” Muslim people groups, who a few years ago had no access to God’s Word, now have over 3,000 new churches among them.
There are problems with statistics like these. Primarily, the author never tells us what he believes a church is, beyond a group of people getting together to read the Bible. That is a flaw. I have seen ministries in India state that they have planted thousands of churches, but when I visited those churches I found 3-4 Hindu women who also “follow” Jesus as one of their gods who meet together twice a year to worship him. I understand the fluid reality of having only newly converted believers in an area, but at some point there should be a critical mass that starts paying attention to the Pastoral Epistles and the rest of the Bible.
Where is the Bible?
While Trousdale spends some time in Jesus’ ministry, his primary hermeneutical foundation is stories of supposed Muslim encounters with Jesus. It is not that stories are bad, but as someone who wants to show that what he is doing is found in Scripture, he would have served himself and the reader much better by leading with Scripture.
Where is the Gospel?
Trousdale does describe people becoming believers, but it is never stated that they heard a message and believed. Rather, they heard a story. Trousdale does speak of “the message of Christ” in multiple places. What was the message that led to faith? It is not that Trousdale denies the gospel as a generous reader could find parts of it scattered throughout the book; one just wonders why this is not central.
Words are Important
Trousdale makes a conscious decision that the reader may not catch as he writes: Believers from non-Muslim background are called Christians; believers from Islamic backgrounds are called Christ-followers. There are two times (which might be a slip by the author) where he labels believers from a Muslim background as Christians (pg. 25). By doing this, Trousdale is revealing what he believes about the nature of conversion, which is line with the Insider Movement and popular in some evangelical circles. There are many in the Muslim world that would drop the word Christian because of the offense some might take. The motives are good, but we must be careful as to how far one wants to go with this type of thinking.
I can walk away from this book thankful for the call to pray and read the Bible. I can be appreciative that there is a good chance that some of these stories are true. But, I cannot commend this book. If you read it, think about how one should read the Bible and whether stories of supposed conversions should drive how you read it and methods of evangelism and discipleship. Surely the sixty-two other books in the Bible should play a role in how we do discipleship and evangelism.