MARTY TROYER. The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are.Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2016. Pp. 206. $15.99 (U.S.)
Marty Troyer is the pastor of Houston Mennonite Church, a dynamic congregation in the heart of one of America’s largest cities. He has written this book in an effort to illustrate how individual Christians and whole congregations can go from articulating the gospel as if it were a set of abstract ideas to embodying the gospel as concrete good news for their own particular communities. The book is broken into four sections. Each section focuses on one aspect of the gospel, broadly defined, and culminates with a chapter in which Troyer outlines a specific practice designed to help Christians make the gospel a living and concrete reality in their particular contexts.
Section one defines the gospel and outlines practices of spiritual imagination. If we are to make the gospel tangible within our communities, Troyer argues, we must first be able to grasp, through a sanctified imagination, what God’s redemption would specifically look like for the specific people around us. Section two focuses on Jesus’ centrality to the gospel and on practices for forming a disciple-making culture in our churches that reproduces Jesus’ character in Christians for the sake of the world. Section three explores God’s quest to restore shalom to the world and connects that to the church’s pursuit of the common good. This section recommends the practice of reading scripture with marginalized and oppressed people (the Black Lives Matter movement is offered as an example of one such desirable conversation partner). Section four, finally, focuses on restorative (as opposed to retributive) justice as an expression of the gospel and on the practice of worship. When we worship God, if we understand his passion for justice, we will be shaped to love and pursue justice ourselves.
This outline makes the book sound tidier and more neatly organized than it is. If one is looking for a carefully structured theological argument about contextualizing the gospel, this book will likely disappoint. The book seems to wander at times as the author meanders through stories and reflections loosely tied to his central theme. And there is a fair amount of ambiguity in the discussion of that central theme itself: the gospel is variously defined as a “holistic experience” (34), as possessing a unique culture (35), as being the lens through which God looks at us (71), as being God himself (84), as being our teacher (107), as being “the cultural vision of life” held by the church (125), and as being God’s love for the world (197) among a variety of descriptions and definitions. The word “gospel” becomes a bit of a cypher in this book for lots of different good and godly things.
These shortcomings, which at various times annoyed this reader, are made up for in multiple ways. First, the book is winsome in tone. The reader—or at least this reader—receives a sense of the author’s genuine passion concerning the church’s call to proclaim the gospel in deed as well as in word. This passion is infectious and well worth passing on. I am glad Troyer shares it here.
Second, while the book does not offer a coherent theological argumentfor its central premise (that premise, in my own words: the gospel must be contextually embodied in the praxis of individual congregations in ways that address their local communities’ history and current circumstances), he does offer truly powerful and inspiring stories that illustrate this premise in ways that theological verbiage, like my own in the parenthesis above, cannot do on its own. More importantly, this premise, though not argued for so much as illustrated in this book, isright, and Troyer’s illustrations make a powerful, gut level case for rediscovering this dimension of the church’s identity as the body of Christ.
Third, the four central practices recommended by the book are undeniably helpful. I myself have already borrowed from his section detailing practices by which churches can engage their spiritual imaginations in picturing how the gospel might best be embodied for their local communities. At a recent meeting of church leaders, I read a prophecy of hope from Isaiah along with a portion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We looked at how Dr. King, inspired by and in the mold of Isaiah, dared to concretely imagine what the biblical hope would look like if it were fulfilled in his own day and within his own context. Then we attempted to follow King’s example—writing our own version of his speech in which we concretely listed dreams for our neighborhood—dreams that emerged from the interaction of the biblical hope with our local context.
Finally, the book is written from the perspective of a person who has clearly spent a significant portion of his life practicing what he preaches here. There is great value in that, and much to be learned from the wisdom he has evidently accrued in the process.
Though at times a bit disorganized, and while lacking theological precision, this book is still an excellent source of stories and practical wisdom concerning the call we all share as the church—the call to embody the good news of Jesus Christ in our individual lives as Christians and in our corporate life together, so that the world around us can meet Jesus in us and be transformed in that encounter.
Author: Zach Spidel
Zach Spidel is pastor of The Shepherd’s Table, a Brethren in Christ church plant in Dayton, Ohio. He earned his M.Div. from Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary.