The Unexpected Journey by Thom S. Rainer

Critical Book Review
The Unexpected Journey by Thom S. Rainer

Bibliographical Entry
Rainer, Thom S. The Unexpected Journey: Conversations with People Who Turned from Other Beliefs to Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.

Author Information
            Thom S. Rainer is a busy author, writing titles including Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples, Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap, The Unchurched Next Door: Understanding Faith Stages and Keys to Sharing Your Faith, and Giant Awakenings: Making the Most of 9 Surprising Trends That Can Benefit Your Church.  The bulk of Rainer’s work is centered on two intertwined areas: the Church and evangelism.  His most recent work serving as a tool in church tool shed is Essential Church?: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts. 

             A PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Rainer has served in a pastoral capacity for nearly a dozen churches.  He founded, and became Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at his alma matter.  In addition, he serves as the president of Church Central and is the CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tennessee.  For years, Rainer Group Church Consulting occupied much of Rainer’s time—and provided much of the experiences that appear in his many books— although recently he as reduced his responsibilities in this area, referring most of his business to The Lawless Group.  Rainer continues to travel around the world to speak and teach at conferences and seminars.  As evident in The Unexpected Journey, he is married with three grown children.

Content Summary
            The Unexpected Journey is Rainer’s attempt to capture the stories, or more correctly, the testimonies of thirteen people who previously were in other systems of faith (or none at all) and have since found and accepted Christ Jesus.  Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo traveled across the country over the period of nearly a year, recording equipment in tow, to question and meet with their interviewees.  Occasionally, others tagged along and one interviewee flew to meet the Rainers.  Each interview lasted less than a full day and was often conduced in the interviewee’s home, a church, an office building, or in a restaurant.  If in a restaurant, Rainer includes an appearance of the server, and often the beverage selections.  

            Opening in Sandy, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Rainer meets with two former Mormons.  The married couple were “high-level” Mormons, meaning that he was a sixth-generation leader over a large geographic area and she was a translator working in the LDS church headquarters. Through looking into documents of their own system of faith, Rauni began to have doubts (pp19-20).  Eventually, she shared these documents and her concerns with her husband and together they left the Mormon church.  As their story continues, they explain how they connected with a local Christian community and found salvation in Jesus.  In what becomes a reoccurring question with a reoccurring answer, Rainer asks the couple how Christians can better evangelize to Mormons.  He concludes each chapter with his interviewee’s answers.

           For the next interview, and subsequently, the next chapter Rainer and his wife travel to Chicago to meet with a former Orthodox Jew.  The format of the story is similar to the one in the previous chapter—Steve Barack shares his history in another system of faith and then how it was that he came to Christianity.  Each story is given its own chapter and each story has the same format.  And they all end with the same variation of the basic question, “I asked Steve how he would counsel a Christian who desired to witness to a Jew today” (p 42).  The next chapter delves into the life of a Hindu who suffered polio at the age of three (p 48) and was ostracized by his father for having bad Karma in a former life (p 50).  Today Dr. Ravi is a professor and serves as the vice president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (pp 47-48).

            As the familiar stories continue, Rainer chats with a Ms. Jones, a woman who went from the absence of a faith in a higher power of any kind—she was an atheist—to accepting Jesus as her Lord.  Similar to the interview with an agnostic, this chapter tells a story not unlike the rest and Rainer seizes upon this in way he presents Ms. Jones’ story.  Next comes a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were expected to allow their child to die in adherents to their faith.  Than comes the story of an agnostic with a difficult and wild life.  Chapter Seven tells the story of a Wicca witch who gave up her form of paganism for Christianity.  Following the story of the witch is a narrative of a high-energy former Buddhist.  In chapter Nine, Dr. Karan Townsend shares her experience of searching through Unitarianism until she found Christ. In another restaurant, a world-traveler shares her experience as a New Ager who eventually found Jesus.  Mumin Muhammad shares his journey as a Black Muslim, not to be confused with traditional Islam, although he transitioned into traditional Islam before becoming a Christian.  The final story is that of Jeff, a Satanist whose dabbing in the occult nearly led him to suicide before he gave his life over to Jesus.

            At the conclusion of the book, Rainer identifies some things he learned from each interview that generally could be learned from all of the interviews collectively.  Lesson 1 is that Christians need to know the Bible.  Rainer writers, “Most of the interviewees told us that they were amazed at the biblical ignorance they witnessed when they were not Christians.  Several times we heard them say that they knew more about the Bible than Christians did” (p 199).  The second lesson is that witnessing Christians need to know what the other person believes.  Lesson 3 is to listen and Lesson 4 is to pray.  “Invite them to church” is lesson five.  “I have done research in the past,” says Rainer, “that shows that the vast majority of non-Christians will come to church if we invite them” (p 201).  Lesson 6 is about understanding their home lives. Getting them to look closely at their own documents (if their system of faith has documents) is Lesson 7.  This is especially true of the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses.  Lesson 8 is to get the non-believer to look at the Bible objectively and Lesson 9 tells us that churches must be ready for a pluralistic world.  “The church also must be ready to disciple persons who have become Christians out of other belief systems,” writes Rainer (p 202).  Lesson 10 says that Christians cannot be intimidated by other belief systems.  “Share Your Faith Regularly” is Lesson 11 (p 202).  “Live like a Christian” and “Be Willing to Invest Time with Non-Christians” are Lessons 12 and 13, respectively.  And the final lesson is that Christians must love people with the unconditional love of Christ.

            Thom S. Rainer set out to encourage Christians to share their faith with those of other belief systems as well as those with no belief system at all; which means, he wants Christians to share their faith with all non-Christians.  From simply reading The Unexpected Journey, it is difficult to determine if he has succeeded in his purpose; however, one can see how hearing the same themes repeatedly may have a convincing effect upon the reader. Most of the book’s main premise and points are found in the concluding chapter.  Each simple lesson is what Rainer wants the reader to see in the preceding chapters, but for the most part, these brief lessons are somewhat obvious and can be found in nearly every other recent book on the topic of evangelism.  At first glance, Rainer’s approach seems unique, but after seeing the depth the stories do not go into, one gets the idea that these stories should have been part of a larger “how to” book on evangelical methods.          

The conversational tone of the book and the unnecessary details about how Thom and Nellie Jo Rainer got to each interview, where they ate, and how often the server brought them tea or coffee, serve to help the reader “tag along” in the interview; but at the same time, these additions are something of a distraction from the main point, that is, sharing the stories of the interviewees.  Rainer injects too much of himself into the book.  The most egregious examples are found in the opening of each chapter.  Rainer starts with how he and his wife get to the city where the interview will take place. For example, the first page of Chapter One lets the reader know that Rainer had just returned from Uganda, “three days earlier,” they had no problems making their connecting flight in Atlanta, their hotel was in downtown Salt Lake, the sky was blue and the sun was out when they drove the 15 minutes to the suburb of Sandy, and each time the navigation system interrupted the conversation Rainer wondered why they always have female voices (pp 15-16).  In the next chapter, the reader learns that Rainer lost his driver’s license and cannot fly, so he and his wife drive to their next destination (p 33).  Chapter Four opens with Rainer getting lost, but he eventually he finds his way (p 63).  Another unnecessary distraction is all the description Rainer provides regarding the service they received in the restaurants where they interviewed.  To avoid these distractions, Rainer might have used a slightly different format that would not have required him to include all of these transitions and unnecessary details; that is if he were not including them intentionally to help the reader feel present.

Factoids of the various religions the interviewees left are sprinkled throughout the book.  Often these factoids break up the narrative.  They are however, brief and informative.  While Rainer clearly states that, “this book is not an exhaustive treatment of other belief systems” (p 12), the book could have handled more of factoids, potentially at the end of each chapter rather than throughout the narratives.  Additional information might have increased the reader’s understanding of the former religious of the interviewees.  Instead, the only understanding comes from one who was unhappy with that faith structure and found Christianity.  The door is wide open for critics to suggest that none of these testimonies show an accurate portrait of the religious they are talking about because they left those faith systems disgruntled.  Additional factually written information and statistics might have closed this door a little.

             I found this book slightly entertaining but only slightly informative.  The teaching is nothing unique to evangelism and the encouragement The Unexpected Journey is seeking to provide readers is not unlike the stories found in nearly every other book on topic of sharing your faith.  This book would be valuable to those who have had little to no experience with the cultures and religion of non-believers and have not read any other books on evangelism.  

*I have no material connection to this book.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.