God is at work and the gospel is alive in our cities, towns and communities. This is the message Marty Troyer shares in his new book, The Gospel Next Door, released by Herald Press.
Troyer is the pastor of Houston Mennonite Church. His blog, The Peace Pastor, has been hosted by the Houston Chronicle for five years.
Ardell Stauffer, a freelance writer and editor, interviewed Troyer.
What’s different about the gospel next door from the gospel anywhere?
That idea is really central to the book. We’re not taking something where it isn’t. The gospel is already alive next door. There are people in our cities living for the gospel whom we’re not aware of. We’re not alone.
Maybe particularly as Mennonites, we don’t have a corner on the God of peace. So many people share those values and that passion. This means something is already happening that I’m invited to.
Are you addressing the church in the city primarily?
I focus on one city, and I hope people will see this in their own context. My examples are widely applicable in other places. I’m passionate about being local. I’m telling stories about a particular place as illustration.
You talk about the gifts of Jesus, of peace and of restoring justice. What is significant about those gifts in a community?
The gospel helps us to see more clearly. I’m fleshing that out in those three directions. The book is centrally about Jesus. To understand Jesus, we have to understand shalom and justice. I love Paul’s language: that God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. Jesus is the center, and it ripples out from there.
In Houston, I see the church at work, stories of people sharing Jesus, pursuing shalom in the city. That’s one of the real stories in the missional movement — that ministry is kingdom work and for the common good, rather than the old dichotomy of evangelism or social justice.
How do you see that happening in Houston?
I tell stories about groups, individuals and families who are not part of my church — people who because of faith in Jesus have come to a stand of nonviolence; who are training high school youth to have different options from the military; who live in dangerous or impoverished neighborhoods; who because of faith are working against violence.
These are not just fantastic stories, they are game changers for the church.
The book is also about justice, which includes everything from a church working with Habitat for Humanity to a local organization called Bridges for Life that works between victims and offenders.
I think of my pen pal Terrence, who went into prison at age 12 and is now 38 and still behind bars. In Houston prison and restorative justice ministries, the church is leading the way. We have overcrowded prisons, mass incarceration, and at every point along the way Christian ministries are addressing the criminal justice system.
The same for human trafficking. Of the worst six cities in the U.S. for human trafficking, Houston is No. 1. Julie Waters first heard about human trafficking in church, and she pursued a law degree to create a ministry — and we must put this in the context of multiple ministries and years-long work. The church is staring into the darkness and working for change.
What are ways for churches to connect into the larger church?
Almost always, there’s another organization to partner with or to join. Instead of saying, “Here’s a problem, we need to create a ministry,” say, “Here’s a problem, maybe the gospel helps us to see it. Check it out, people have built something already to address this.” We need to help energize what’s already happening.
When you are able to say that the gospel is already working, people come alive and can do more by referring them to the ministry that is already there.
You pastor a church in Houston. How has that shaped your understanding of the gospel message in our home communities?
In opening ourselves to the outside world, we open to the diversity of Christian streams and spirituality. Richard Foster has written about the six streams of Christianity. My church and maybe many Mennonites are in one of those streams. As we partner with other people, as we sit down and pray with people from different Christian streams, it opens our eyes. It clarifies our language about the gospel. Personal faith has come alive as we open our doors and eyes to the rest of the church.
We have transformed as a church by stopping believing the myth that we are the only ones in Houston who care about peace. We are not the only pacifist church or the only ones opposing the death penalty. We are deeply energized by the fact that we are not alone.
What tools can we use to find the work of God happening in our communities?
Some are spiritual tools. To see what God is doing in our context, we must be rooted in Scripture and worship. A good hymnbook is one of the greatest tools for justice we have. Then we let that ripple out into our communities. How is God the God of Exodus and of Revelation today?
We need to look from the bottom up, not the top down. We need to look at race. We have to take seriously immigrants, refugees and minority communities. Read the Bible with the lens of Black Lives Matter.
There are two Houstons. One is white middle-class. But you also must see Houston through the Fifth Ward or through pastors in black churches. You have to see it through the eyes of the incarcerated.
We Mennonites don’t have to recreate the wheel. We can go back to those things that were brilliant: Mennonite Central Committee, which was built on deep relationships, Mennonite Disaster Service, Ten Thousand Villages, Christian Peacemaker Teams. These are deeply communal things.
You have a blog, The Peace Pastor, hosted by the Houston Chronicle. How has that been part of your church’s outreach?
I’m a public theologian. A key reason for the book is my congregation. We are putting ourselves out there in a public way. This reaching out has formed the book, how we discovered partnership and the people we are connected to now.
Through the blog, I became aware that there’s a deep hunger in the world for the Anabaptist Christian way of being. The world is hungry for God but doesn’t see it in the church on a regular basis. There are lots of Anabaptist-minded people. It opens doors to relationship.