Over 6,000 new churches were planted among Muslims in 18 different countries in Africa over the last seven years. And hundreds of former sheikhs and imams have become followers of Jesus Christ over that period. In just a few years, 45 different “unreached” Muslim-majority people groups in Africa now have access to God’s word, with more than 3,000 news churches planted among them.
These awe-inspiring statistics, mix with heart-warming narratives about former Muslims, flow out naturally as one talks to Jerry Trousdale, a former church planter among Muslims in West Africa and now head of a disciple-making movement among Muslim people groups.
Trousdale, author of the new book Miraculous Movements (Thomas Nelson, 2012) and director of International Ministries for CityTeam International, spoke with The Christian Post last week about the group’s successful but counterintuitive disciple-making strategy, why disappointment made him leave missions for a period, and how he thinks being a pastor is even harder than being a missionary.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
CP: I was intrigue by the Disciple Making Movement’s strategy to disciple people to convert, not convert people to disciple. Can you talk about how your organization was led to reverse the order, and compare the fruits of your effort before and after this strategy?
Trousdale: I maybe will give you more background than you want, but it may be helpful to you. CityTeam is a ministry that started over 50 years ago and was a very successful rescue mission in North America. Ten years ago, the president of CityTeam read the book Good to Great and realized that CityTeam was great at traditional compassion ministry – it even had scores of thousands of people who would pray the Sinner’s Prayer, receive Jesus every year as a result of their compassionate touches – but he began to ask the question to the senior staff, “How are the cities that we touch different?” “How is San Francisco different? What is the spiritual water level? How has it changed?” That was hard to quantify. How has the city been transformed? When there weren’t easy answer to that, they said for us great has to be Jesus’ word to make disciples.
Candidly we didn’t know how to do that. We tried many things to make disciples but we are not very good at that. We are good at helping people in need, but not at making disciples.
My own path came in a different way. I was a missionary much of my life. I pastored mission-sending churches. I studied missions at the master’s and doctoral level. My heart was in missions, but somewhere in the middle of my life in my 40s, I came to doubt that we had the spiritual technology, if you can use those words, to finish the task in this generation.
I was thinking about Matthew 24:14, it didn’t seem like we had a way over all these huge barriers. Countries we couldn’t get into, barriers of lack of transformation – Rwanda, Christian and Christian genocide there – the extreme cost of planting one church in highly restricted areas, much less hundreds and thousands. And just so many other things that seemed like maybe my grandchildren’s generation would see the Lord finish the task.
So I was disappointed and for some years got out of missions. Then the Lord began waking me up, dreaming about the people groups that I knew and loved in West Africa. I was actually with Thomas Nelson (the publisher) at the time, and I wound up resigning from Thomas Nelson to go back into reengage the task of the unreached people groups in the world.
I had no idea how we were going to do it. I had good missiological training. But it was a time of fasting and prayer. About that time, was the time that CityTeam had the same struggles. We both met David Watson. David was a missionary in India. He was a very successful missionary with his missions agency, but he asked to go to a more difficult area when he was thrown out for being too successful in a Muslim country. He got put in jail and got kicked out of the country. And so he went to an extremely difficult Hindu area, and initial effort there resulted in the first six people that he discipled being martyred. And he realized, “My goodness, my pride has done this.”
So he and several others spent some years in the early 90s thinking how to make disciples Jesus’ way. How do we go back to Scripture and let Scripture inform us about our methodologies. David, with an Indian leader Victor John, the two experienced some dramatic things happen in northern India, which has become a textbook study of an unreached people having thousands and thousands of churches.
David met Pat at CityTeam and he met me and my African colleagues, and he became to mentor and coached the Africa team that I was part of and also CityTeam. He began to say let’s think how we would do missions more biblically and make disciples more biblically.
And it starts with things like the Great Commission, Jesus said go and make disciples, not converts. And the way we know that is because the next words are teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. We don’t really major on teaching them to obey, and that is the heart of discipleship. When you start with a mentality that says, God’s highest blessing comes when we fall in love with him, grateful for what He has done for us, and we choose to give our lives to Him unconditionally and obey all that He says, and then dramatic transformation flows from that. And it is the transformation that Jesus talks about in the upper room discourse. His last discourse with the 12, in John 14 and John 15, he lists 15 different blessings that accrue to people that love and obey God.
The thing that is very remarkable is that when you start people out from the very first day when they are discovering the Bible with a template that says, “You know, everything we learn from these words. If we really believe it is from God, it means we need to obey them today. Hold each other accountable.” It seems impossible for us in the Western world.
CP: I was thinking that while reading your book, that we are doing everything in reverse here in the U.S.
Trousdale: What we are learning from Asia and what we are learning from Africa, now applying in America. And it works here too. That is one of the reason that Thomas Nelson wanted us to do this book, they felt that the principles were so basic and so counterintuitive but so true that they felt it could help revolutionize the way we make disciples in North America.
CP: This is sort of off on a tangent, but when I was reading points of your disciple-making strategy, it made me think of Francis Chan and how he was frustrated. He wanted everyone to be radical and obey the Bible.
Trousdale: Oh sure. Absolutely. I am totally convinced that pastors have the most difficult job in the world. I was a pastor for 15 years at two different churches, and it was much more difficult than anything else. I’ve had a lot of weapons pointed at me over the years, in situations like that I almost died a couple of times, also almost died in Africa because of illnesses. But it wasn’t as hard as pastoring a church.
One of the challenges I think we have is that pastors want to make disciples. They want to, but the time constraints they have, the challenges of recognizing that people are not conditioned to obey. And so it becomes very difficult to see the type of outcomes you want to see in a church when we are doing a lot of things backwards. Our discipleship, we say a formula prayer, maybe with somebody we don’t even know leading it. Then we go into a discipleship class and maybe for three weeks or six weeks or ten weeks, we read some scriptures and then we are discipled. Then it’s up to us for the rest of our life to live a life of obedience to God. Some people do, but the statistic is not on our side. The statistic of normal Christian life and normal life in North America are unfortunately too close together, almost indistinguishable.
CP: The book focuses on Muslims coming to Christ in Africa, but do you know if Muslims in the Middle East are coming to believe in Jesus at the same rate? Would you say the harvest in Africa is more fruitful at this time than the Middle East?
Trousdale: Yes, I would. Absolutely. Part of that is that this process is just in its infancy, being tested in North Africa and the Middle East. However, there are outcomes that are encouraging. Obviously I can’t talk in much detail about that, but it is just beginning. We had seven years now in Africa. And of the people in Africa, 81 different people groups that have at least 50 percent Muslim have now significant movements among them. Of those 81, 45 are people groups with 99 or 100 percent Muslim.
So we are talking about fairly extreme areas of Islamic influence. These are peoples who have been Islamic for well over a hundred years, some hundreds of years. And so we have seen some dramatic transformation. Interestingly enough, of the more than 6,000 churches that have been planted in last seven years, 3500 of them, more than half of them, have been planted in those groups that are 99 to 100 percent Muslims.
So we do have some data, lots of data, from area that are difficult and dangerous where there are dramatic persecution or tragically we see Christians being martyred. And so we see it happening in extreme Muslim areas, but it’s fairly new to North Africa and Middle East. Right now in Africa, there are 350 other organizations that we trained that are having success. We probably trained over 1,000 but around a third of them have really engaged it and made the paradigm shift to be successful. And so now there are 350 groups working on this in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are a lot less than that, that are starting in the Middle East.
There are a lot of efforts starting in the Middle East.
CP: I’ve also heard that many Muslims who converted to Christianity go back to Islam, many times because of the lack of family support. Could you talk about this and what you know about this problem?
Trousdale: Yea, that is absolutely true and you’re absolutely right that is a challenge. We certainly see that occasionally happen. The most dramatic experience we have seen of that is that we had actually a disciple maker trainer, church planter in an Arab environment and when it was discovered he was planting churches, enormous pressure was put on him and he reverted and went back to the mosque for a season. And that devastated a whole network because it was in an area that is severely persecuted and worse. And so nobody knew what has been told to whom.
So that is an extreme case of that happening. The good news is this model tends to focus on families rather than individuals. Because when you are finding a person of peace or a family of peace, it is usually a small oikos, it’s a small community – a clan, nuclear family, group of close friends. The person of peace already has God’s hand on them and so they are already inclined to bridge the Gospel into their community. When churches are started with a group process, discovering the Bible and holding them accountable, a couple of things happen.
About the fifth or sixth week their lives are changing. I don’t quite get this as a pastor. If you ask me about the theology of that, I would just have to say I’m going to have to ask Jesus about that. Gosh, they are still in Genesis and God starts blessing their lives and changing their lives because they are obeying Him in little things. And families start being healed and kids start behaving differently toward their parents.
So people as a group start experiencing God. As a group, as a family, as a clan or as a Discovery Bible Study group, tend to be ultimately become small churches.
What you have is an invisible church, you have a clan that has come to faith, usually as one, often with a mass baptism, and so what happens is that instead of the pressure being all only one person against the whole community, which is often the case when a Muslim is extracted, now you have a small church. You can toss an individual out, but you can’t toss a clan out, you can’t toss a family, you can make it difficult for them but it’s not the same as an individual left on their own.
When you work through families, it (persecution) is minimize somewhat.
CP: How can American Christians best support the Muslim background believers in Africa and the church planting movement there?
Trousdale: Prayer is a wonderful thing. That is the most important thing. Praying for the lost people. In most churches, people can help connect you to people who are praying or interceding for the nation.
The book was originally not going to be about any particular religion, just the phenomenon of church planting movement. The decision was made that probably the story of Islam is so dramatic that this is probably the way to start. It does sort of arrest your attention, to say more than 200,000 Muslims have come to faith in seven years. And I think that was a decision that the publisher and we made. It doesn’t mean we are centered only on Islam.
The goal that I have and CityTeam have for people in North America who are reading this is to provide an opportunity for people to engage lostness in a different way. A way that is absolutely suited for ordinary people who are not professional Christians who haven’t been to seminary or Bible college, but love Jesus and want to share their faith. And it will hopefully encourage them to find some people that God put on their heart and pray for them. And ask God to show them who is a person of peace here.
There are people I know that are very hungry for the Gospel. Maybe it will show up in your language. Instead of saying isn’t it a beautiful day today, you can say, “isn’t it remarkable that the creator God gave us a day like this.” Just changing our language, looking for spiritual hunger and we find it. Then we begin a discovery of Scripture beginning in Genesis. The most wonderful things happen when you ask lost people what obedience will look like even in the first chapters of Genesis. It’s remarkable what people come up with when they are asked if this is true how would I obey that.
People who are going through the story of creation will say, “God said Adam and Eve will die, but He didn’t kill them when they sinned. God must love us.” We had Muslims discover that. And they said, “Wow, we didn’t know God was like that. We didn’t know God loves us.”
Or people will say while studying the early chapters of Genesis. They abuse animals, they beat their dog or cat. They say, “You know what, I will stop doing that because God created them. If I respect God, I need to respect his creation.” Little things like that, you say, “Wow, a lost person came up with that?” Just things like that begin to set up a spiritual environment for God to begin to change their lives.
Transformation is the key and obedience is the key to transformation. And when transformation happens, multiplication always follows.
CP: Is there anything else you want to add?
Trousdale: You know, I was asking myself the other day what was the purpose of this book. For me, it is extraordinary good news. It’s news that Muslims are coming to faith, that lost people are coming to faith, that they aren’t an unreachable bloc of humanity, marching in lock-step with the Quran. They are people just like us and they are hungry and thirsty to know God. So the fact that it is happening is extraordinary good news.
You know we lost the sense of the Gospel in the New Testament, which means good news. You are a newspaper, I think this is extraordinary good news.
The second thing to that it’s good news how it is happening. Simple, ordinary people are facilitating and even sheikh and imams are becoming part of it – the most unexpected people. It is simply discovering and obeying God and letting Him change their lives. That transformation is extraordinary good news.
This is just good news that God is in the same business as he was in the book of Acts. The verse that gets me so excited is in Acts 6:7. As I read that I say that is precisely what God is doing again, the word of God is going forward. Disciples are multiplying greatly and even priest, imams and sheikhs are becoming obedient to the faith. So I no longer doubt that we can finish the task in this generation. God is giving the tool to the church and hidden in plain sight. Matthew 10 and Luke 10 have been there for 2,000 years saying don’t go door to door, but find people of peace and engage families. How did we miss that for 2,000 years?