Book Review: “The Unexpected Journey” by Thom S. Rainer (2005)

Bibliographical Entry

Rainer, Thom S. (2005). The Unexpected Journey. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Author Information

In 2005, when this book was published, Thom Rainer was the Dean of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has since become the President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. He has authored 22 books. The idea for this book was Thom’s, who then approached his editors with his proposition. His wife, Nellie Jo, joined him in all the interviews represented in the book. He and Nellie Jo have three sons.

Content Summary

Thom Rainer has designed a book based entirely off conversations with others—conversations that are neither ordinary nor happenstance—where in each new chapter, he meets a person (or in a few instances, a couple), each with their own unique testimony of how they converted from one of thirteen various false religions to the Truth of Christianity.

In each new city, Thom and his wife, Nelly Jo, sit down with the object of the chapter in a home, a church or a restaurant, simply to hear the person or persons tell their story. The only time Thom or Nelly Jo really talk at all is to steer the conversation for times’ sake, but so excited are the converted to share their stories that this rarely happens. To ensure that we’re getting the true meet of the testimonies, Thom assures us that he is writing from transcripts openly recorded during  each of the conversations.

The intent of Thom Rainer’s book is to introduce you, the reader, if but briefly to the individuals with whom he speaks and to the religions from which they came. The religions represented in this book, and the order in which they are presented, are: Mormon, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist, Jehovah’s Witness, Agnostic, Wiccan, Buddhist, Unitarian, New Age, Muslim and Satanist. For our purposes here, and to get a taste of what Rainer has developed, we will get a brief biographical glimpse of the first two groups in the book, Mormon and Jewish, what brought these individuals from their false faith to Christ and their advice on how to reach others from their various former religions ourselves.

We begin in Salt Lake City, Utah with Rauni and Dennis Higley, two former Mormons. Dennis’ family had been Mormons for six generations (18), and Rauni had only converted to Mormonism (17) a short while before she moved from her home in Finland to Utah as a translator for the Mormon church (19). And this is where the two met. Doubt in the Mormon teachings came as Rauni began translating important and historical Mormon documents (20). She began her own research, eventually drawing Dennis into her skepticism (20), until both finally agreed that the teachings of the Mormons were false and based on deceit (21). In the end, they both experienced major fallout, both financial and social, for leaving the Mormon church (27-28), but it all came after Rauni and Dennis had finally found Christ (25) through the thoughtfulness of a Christian employee (24). Soon, they found a church (26) and saw all three daughters choose Christ as well (25). The Higleys’ advice in reaching lost Mormons for Christ involves confronting the Mormons with questions, but only when you have a solid Biblical foundation yourself (26).

Next comes Steve Barack, a former Jew in Chicago, Illinois. Raised an Orthodox Jew (33), Steve failed to see strict adherence to the Jewish law in his own home (35). Disillusioned with the faith of his upbringing, he ran from the faith only to meet Christ through a hairstylist with whom a he had fallen in love and a Pentecostal Preacher (37). Despite the fact that no one had ever shared the love of Christ with him before (38), Steve made his life-changing decision three days after hearing from the pastor the straightforward remark that God loved Steve (39). Steven and the hairstylist eventually married (40), and after several happy years in their Messianic church, Steve eventually planted a Messianic congregation in Chicago (41). To reach Jews for Christ, Steve says we must focus not on converting them from their being a Jew but on showing them their potential fulfillment in Christ (42); show them the truths of Jeremiah 31 and II Corinthians 3; and most of all, love them (43).

In Rainer’s concluding thoughts, he offers fourteen solid conclusions on how to reach the lost, based off the information gleaned from the interviews in his book.  Briefly stated, these are to: know what both you and they believe, listen to and pray for them, invite them to church and learn about their home lives, encourage them to study both their religious documents and the Bible, don’t be intimidated by other beliefs but prepared for this pluralistic world, share your faith regularly and live like a Christian, always be willing to invest time in non-Christians and love them unconditionally (199-203).  It is, of course, this last thought that tied the majority of the interviews together. So many times throughout the book, the converts commented on the power of Christian love (43, 52, 57, 91, 101, 123, 137, 139, 154, 168, 182, 193, 196). If we remember just this one thing, to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will do so well to reach them with the Truth of Christ.


Upon first opening this book, I was immediately ecstatic that the format of my next textbook would be that of my favorite genre of book: the traveling adventure. One of my favorite authors, Peter Jenkins[1], wrote of similar experiences in his books A Walk Across America and A Walk West (and, incidentally, he himself accepted Christ during his own traveling adventure in book one). So from the very beginning, I came to view Thom Rainer’s book on a different level than other textbooks I have read. And, upon finishing, I recognized that he did not let me down. Although his book lacked the “adventure” of my genre, it contained the very real, very personal stories of so many people—the real draw of any non-fiction adventure book, especially those of Peter Jenkins.

I was also happy to discover that the book I had purchased online was used—another favorite of mine—and filled in with someone’s personal notes. Each offered just a little bit more information than I could get from the text—which is precisely why I always like to encourage people when they borrow books from me to feel free to write in them.  But since neither of these thoughts pertain to Thom’s writing specifically, I will move on.

On the surface, it seems that there is very little over which I can criticize Thom Rainer, since the majority of his book was simply relating the stories of many to the written page. However, as a writer, I understand what great effort such an undertaking involves—and so I must conclude that he succeeds quite well in how he managed to whittle hours of conversation and probable rabbit trains down into the concise chapters he has. For that, I applaud him.

It was difficult, at first, to recognize just who Thom Rainer was. I have made it a habit, after years of reading, to skip the “Acknowledgment” section of any book, especially one backed by so much research, as it will invariably be filled with names of people and editors I do not need to know. And in doing so here (9), I missed the driving thrust of the book as well as the briefest of autobiographies I would get from Thom Rainer. Supposing many readers are like me, he ought to have reiterated what he was all about in his “Preface” (11), which I found entirely devoid of any background information. That being said, I now know who Thom Rainer and Nelly Jo are, and based on the nature of the book, I can understand why he chose to take himself out of the majority of the remainder of the book.

The next difficulty I faced with Rainer’s work was his method of choosing the individuals he interviewed. He never goes into detail about how he chose these people, though he offers some hints, as I will point out shortly. In my opinion, he would have fared better to either tell us straightforwardly how he settled on the final thirteen individuals, or to leave that part of the process out entirely. But to mention it briefly as he introduces just one of the people really detracted from the rest of the interviews. The instance to which I am referring is that of Mumin Muhammad in Chapter 11. Based on the story of how Thom came to choose Mumin to interview for this book (from “several potential candidates”) (170), it really sort of hurt my view of the other interviewees in that they their stories did not come to publication based simply on the grace of God displayed, but because they beat out other “candidates” in interest. While I understand that is how books get written and sold, I could have done without this information and would have been happy to have remained ignorant to the writing process. I would rather view each of the individuals recognized in this book as normal, everyday non-believers who came to Christ rather than as the most extreme (Mumin the Muslim, 171), the most famous (Marcia, the New Ager, 162), the most decadent (Jeff, the Satanist, 193).

The reason I bring this topic up is not merely because I want my textbook to be more like my non-fiction novels. My reasons are far more academic and practical than that. I dislike Rainer’s methods, because it seems to present his interviewees as atypical. How can I be confident to use the suggested methods of soul-winning at the end of each chapter, if the people suggesting them are the most extreme versions from said belief systems? For example, Mrs. Jones, the former Atheist, who says that to reach her heart, she needed “offensive judgment” and someone to cut her down to size (74).  This is obviously not an approach built for everyone, so what is?

I appreciated how Rainer clearly warned in his Preface that his book is meant to be neither a source of Biblical apology nor a thesis on the teachings of false religions. With these warnings, I can approach the problematic areas of how he chose his converts with a far more opened mind. For just as it was implausible for me to use the exact wording from William Fay’s book, Share Jesus Without Fear when asking someone “Do you have any kind of spiritual beliefs?” [2] it would be implausible of me to take the exact suggestions from this book without first critically analyzing the person with whom I am talking at the time, and fitting my words to match the circumstance. The information Rainer offers in his book and the suggestions made by the interviewees may not work across the board. So it is important to approach each new situation critically, personalizing and adapting as the situation demands.

Thom Rainer depicts for us an excellent map of lives here in his book. He researched well and recounted clearly the conversations he had with these amazing people. He also gave excellent background information on each of the world religions he has represented here. As far as historical and doctrinal information goes, I think he hit the nail on the head with each new religion. I did wonder, however, about the numbers he gave for each of the religions. For example, while I find it very, very difficult to believe the terribly low numbers on Buddhism worldwide (300 million, 138), when taking into account that Buddhism is the unofficial national religion of almost every country in Asia, I find it just as difficult to swallow the seemingly high numbers he offers for New Agers (162). But since he has done the necessary research in numbers and not I, perhaps I should just accept them or, better yet, research for myself the numbers updated to 2010.

In closing, I wanted to point out three major ideas I gleaned from this book that will help me as I continue on in my ministry. First, despite the fact that this book was not exhaustive of all world religions, I found it disheartening that, with all the talk of false religions that teach a salvation-by-works doctrine, Thom Rainer left out the most deceitful salvation-by-works cult there is: Roman Catholicism. I fear that his reasoning, or that of Zondervan, was keep from offending their customers, though I cannot say for sure. However, just because someone cries “Lord, Lord,” does not mean that Christ can let them into heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). It is growing ever-so-important that we recognize the schism between the true faith and the false, lest we fall into the trap of accepting the lost and ignoring the cost.

Secondly, I wanted to share that inside my book (since I bought it used, as I mentioned before), I found a newspaper clipping of an 18-year-old boy named Ram Bahadur Bamjan of Ratanpur, Nepal whom followers claim to be Buddha reincarnated. An old and godless religion is growing and worshipping the created more than the Creator (Romans 1:25): and it continues to happen today all over the world, in all religions the same.

Last, I would like to point out perhaps my favorite “how to” from the book. This also comes from the chapter on Buddhism, page 139. Helena the former Buddhists suggests that, when talking to a Buddhist, “ask them if the children of loving parents have to buy the parents things in order to talk to them. That’s what we do with our Buddhas.” This hits home for me, as my wife and her entire family are converted Buddhists (or at least a Chinese version of Buddhism, enveloped in Ancestral Worship). This tidbit will be key for me as I continue to reach out to the other Buddhists in my life.

[1] Books by Peter Jenkins include: A Walk Across America, The Walk West: A Walk Across America 2 , The Road Unseen, and Across China

[2] Fay, William (1999). Share Jesus Without Fear. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 34. I have tried use this phrasing several times and have actually had to reword the question so the person understands.

© 2010 E.T.

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