Thursday Review: Stetzer and Putman on Breaking the Missional Code

A review of Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community, Broadman & Holman, 2006. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

Breaking the Missional Code is widely perceived as one of the classic books on missional church yet until now it’s not a book I’ve read. I think I was put off by the somewhat mechanistic and programmatic approach of Stetzer’s book, Planting Missional Churches [purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US ]– which I have read. Breaking the Missional Code is better. (Some day I should do a blog post listing books-people-I-assume-I’ve-read-but-which-I-haven’t!)

Stetzer and Putman explore why some churches are growing and others are not with the aim of answering the question: ‘how can we teach our leaders to move beyond trying to recycle and reproduce church culture models and move toward a more biblical and missional approach in each of their unique cultural settings?’ (3)

The church in the US (and the book does address itself to a US context) is in a new situation. People used to see the church as the first place to take their questions, but now people go anywhere but the church. Churches used to only need to exist to attract seekers. Now, more proactive strategies are required. A growing number of people born in North America have no Christian memory. ‘Asking people to literally change their worldview after simply hearing the gospel, with no previous exposure to a Christian worldview, is usually unrealistic.’ (84). In addition the church faces new, non-geographic definitions of community including much greater ethnic and cultural diversity.

The answer is not to look for a new model for the church but for each church to contextualize in its own situation. This is what it means to ‘break the missional code’ (a phrase with unfortunate Gnostic connotations). The same approach doesn’t work everywhere! ‘Instead of franchising the successful models of megachurches, [church planters who break the missional code] are finding methods and models that connect with their community’ (154)  They are learning about their contexts before choosing their methods. They are learning from others without copying them.

‘Insightful pastors will seek to lead churches as missionaries.’ ‘In this new millennium, we need a renewed emphasis on the church’s missional beginning.’ (49) ‘Churches become so tied to practicing their own preferences that they become the main goal, not the glorification of God within the culture where they are found’. (51)

This beings with an understanding of the community you want to reach. What steps can we take to gain this understanding? Get counsellors from the context. Identify natural barriers of your community. Review the census information. Study demographic information. Talk to the experts. Move beyond demographics and anecdotal conversations. Do prayer walks. Identify spiritual strongholds. Review the history: become the expert. Understanding networks. Understanding where God is working in churches and in cultures. Find all the churches in your area and map them out. Research indigenous churches. Determine their musical preferences. Determine their dress. Determine their leadership systems. Determine how they learn. Identify the people groups in the area that are within your mission context. (See chapter 15.)

Stetzer and Putman identify the following ‘transitions to missional ministry’:

  • from programmes to processes
  • from demographics to discernment
  • from models to missions
  • from attractional to incarnational
  • from uniformity to diversity
  • from professional to passionate
  • from seating to sending
  • from decisions to disciples
  • from additional to exponential
  • from monuments to movements

‘Breaking the code is not about programs; it is about values’ (72). ‘Those who break the code are committed to making and multiplying disciples. Many pastors have learned the hard way that you can attract a crowd and still not have a church’ (75). They identify three important steps:

  • live like Jesus lived
  • love like Jesus loved
  • leave behind what Jesus left behind

‘What did Jesus leave behind? He left people who lived like him and loved like him.’

‘While churches that effectively evangelize the unchurched/unreached do not abandon proclamation evangelism, they set it in the context of community, experience, and service.’ (84) Missional churches emphasize community because the gospel travels best along relational lines. ‘Churches that break the code put a high premium on experience’ (85), especially inviting the unchurched to experience the life of the Christian community. And they assimilate the unreached into service while on the process of conversion.

All of this adds up to significant change in the way we do church. Yet churches that are stagnant and need to grow ‘think they can do it without change!’ (137) I know this from my own experience. I remember addressing a conference on new ways of doing church. A bit of biblical material and a bit of cultural analysis and everyone was happy. But when I started talking about household churches without professional clergy everyone got agitated. I wouldn’t have minded, but they have come to a conference on new forms of church! The reality was they didn’t want to change; they just wanted to tinker with their worship meetings.

Stetzer and Putman have quite a bit to say on the worship meetings of the church. This is obviously a consideration, but I think it can distract people as they transition to missional church. It allows people to think that being missional is about what happens ‘in’ church and when the church gathers rather than seeing it as an intentional, shared, missional lifestyle.

I think at times a residual institutionalism stills breaks through. For example, we are told to raise two to three years salary for each full-time team member. Some of the methodology for the planting process feels overly prescriptive like the need for a group of 30-40 ‘investors’.

But I love the way the book ends with a call to approach ‘North America on our knees.’ They explain: ‘One of the mistakes we made in the past was beginning on our feet instead of our knees. Leaders who break the unbroken code make a commitment to being on their knees – and lead their churches to do the same.’ (236)

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9 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Stetzer and Putman on Breaking the Missional Code

  1. Hey Tim,

    I have one question in regards to this comment:

    “It allows people to think that being missional is about what happens ‘in’ church and when the church gathers rather than seeing it as an intentional, shared, missional lifestyle.”

    Why does this dichotomy need to exist?

    I have wanted to wrestle with this issue with either you or Steve for a while. I know that you speak against “the event” of Sunday mornings both in Total Church and in your explanations of Crowded House. If by “event” or “worship meetings” you are referring to smoke machines, projectors, rocking bands, and a culturally savvy, hip “communicator”, then, yes, kill the event. But if by event you mean the gathering of the saints for word and sacrament ministry, then I need some help.

    I can’t help but struggle with the idea that what happens “in” church is against or unnecessary for mission. Being one who leans toward confessional Christianity and the reformed view of the means of grace, I think the proclamation of the Gospel in word and sacrament is essential for mission and shared lives together, for the vitality of the believing community, and for her worship in the world.

    Maybe you could review Michael Horton’s “People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology” sometime, the contrast would help me understand your view better. Thanks man!

  2. I’m not against the weekly meeting of the church! Our congregations all meet weekly. Nor do I think they cannot be missional. Indeed I think they should be always accessible to unbelievers (that’s one of our values). But I do not think they should be the focus of mission. People need to see that mission is a whole-life thing – ordinary people doing ordinary life with gospel intentionality. A focus on a weekly meeting (given our prevailing traditional culture) distracts from this emphasis. Maybe it need not and maybe it should not, but it does!

  3. “But I do not think they should be the focus of mission.”

    I wholeheartedly agree!

    I suppose my rub is that it seems to be that when we attempt to downplay the centrality of the Sunday gathering (Lord’s day), it actually comes across as either unnecessary or even prohibitive for mission.

    What I hope to articulate is a dual fidelity, to the church as a people and a place. A people who have responded to the Gospel with faith and repentance, who then engage in ordinary life with Gospel intentionality -on mission together. But the power for that shared life and Gospel intentionality comes from the Holy Spirit, working through the ordinary means of grace when we gather. The place where Christ has pledged to meet us in the new covenant is the place where “church occurs”, in word and sacrament. As in the progression of Acts 2; Spirit, Gospel, Faith & Repentance, Baptism -A community on mission is born (2:42-27).

    Thanks for the space to work this out. I hope my comment wasn’t received as antagonistic to your views, just looking for clarification. Total Church has been not just a ministry altering force, but an entire re-working of daily life for me. So, thanks a million Tim!

  4. I am an Acts29 member in the U.S. and have applied for some missions/evangelism work towards Muslims in London (seeing that there are 1.8 million) during this summer (with Operation Moblization), my pastor was telling me I should get hooked up with you guys. He gave me Total Church to read, very interesting! I should add that I’m a seminary student as well, what advive/thoughts can you give.

    Thank for your time Tim.

    His servant and yours,

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for the response. I’m not planing on staying, just coming to share the gospel with the unchurched (specifically Muslims). I was wondering if The Crowded House was involved in street evangelsim, or just enveloping and morphing into a community. I understand, according to Total Church, that its “mainstay” is geared towards living the gospel and sharing with one another’s convictions together (that’s great, no that’s awesome), but I was wondering if you do actual evangelism, or if you have heard of Operation Mobilization?

    Thanks again.
    His servant and yours,

  6. Hi Matthew, yes, I do know OM – I was part of an OM summer team over twenty years ago. Your phrase ‘actual evangelism’ is very revealing! It suggests you still see evangelism as an event rather than as a lifestyle, as ordinary life lived with gospel intentionality. If you spend thirty minutes sharing the gospel with someone in London, do you think they will be converted? Or discipled? Or even ‘actually’ evangelized? No, they will need to hear the gospel many times and see it lived out in community. So any short-term evangelism needs to be firmly embedded in a long-term gospel community that is building relationships with the lost.

  7. Tim,

    Touche’, great response! You’re right and I stand corrected with the tern “actual evangelism.” I guess what I was meaning was, does your church structure allow for other brothers or sisters in Christ from other places to come and assist you in evangelism (perhaps areas which you are thinking of church planting).
    Obviously, it it the Holy Spirit who illuminates the person being “evangelized,” and it is much more effective if that person can then be plugged into a community of believers for real discipleship. I believe in the regenerative power of the Word, not a ‘magical saying.” Therefore, my question would be then: if OM doesn’t work out (for whatever reason), would your church (an I understand, I do not mean building but body of believers) be interested in outside brotherly assistance. Also, if OM does work-out, I think I would like to get people plugged into your network. I find it Biblical, yet revolutionary towards dogmatic Christianity.

    Thank again for your time Tim, God bless.

    His servant and yours,

  8. Hi Matthew, we have in the past run a summer short-term event called Summer in the City. And there was talk we might do it again this summer, but I don’t know where that decision is up to. Tim

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