Breaking the Missional Code
Ed Stetzer and David Putman
“Evangelistic community.” That phrase isn’t quite an oxymoron and is perhaps more than a misnomer. By definition, communities are defined, limited. How do you know who is and who isn’t part of the community without the boundaries that distinguish one community from another? Churches are, amongst other things, communities. The Church is also called to be evangelistic, to bring others within her community. So here is the challenge: the set nature of the church community must be expressed in such a way that it is regularly and intentionally drawing those from without in. Add in the fact that the church exists in a culture no longer familiar with, let alone friendly to, her ways and the challenge begins to appear Herculean. Breaking the Missional Code seeks to guide pastors, believers and churches seeking to be faithful to their calling to this task. More specifically, BTMC seeks to help North American churches apply principles used by overseas missionaries to their local context, becoming missionaries to the communities they live, work, and recreate in.
The major principles of BTMC can be summarized in the following points:
1. Western culture is changing in such a way that many different ethnic, national, and affinity groups exist in the same geographic area in a manner not seen previously on such a broad scale. This situation is described in the term “glocal community” as opposed to “local community.” (glocal = global + local) Therefore we can no longer attempt to understand communities in a given area as basically uniform but rather must viewed as layers of differing cultures existing together.
2. The Church (speaking universally but applied locally) must seek to meet these new conditions with new strategies customized to the culture they are attempting to reach rather than seeking to apply blanket approaches to any arising situation.
3. There is hope of success; churches have arisen which “have the ability to read the culture and translate biblically faithful and culturally appropriate expressions of church” [pg. 21] from which transferable principles (not methods) might be gleaned.
4. The processes used to reach the targeted culture will, by and large, involve (a) forms of worship that connect with pre-existing elements in the target culture and (b) intentionally developing relationships which provide natural grounds for evangelism and discipleship.
5. On a broader scale the planting of new churches has become the means by which new communities are reached with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
6. These new churches will form networks (not necessarily in the form of denominations) which enable them to be more effective in their efforts. These new churches will also intentionally seek to develop their form from a theological and culturally aware perspective.
The methodology central to BTMC compromise Chapter 15 in my copy of the book, found on pages 211-223:
1. Understand [Your] Self
(a) Confirm God’s Call upon Your Life
(b) Fall in Love with the People [That You are Called to Reach]
(c) Die to Yourself and Your Preferences
(d) Examine Your Leadership Readiness
2. Understanding Community
(a) Get Counselors from the Context [You are Seeking to Reach]
(b) Identify Natural Barriers of Your [Targeted] Community
(c) Review the Census Information
(d) Study Demographic Information
(e) Talk to the Experts [Those Who Know Your Targeted Community]
(f) Move Beyond Demographics and Anecdotal Conversations
(g) Do Prayer Walks
(h) Identify Spiritual Strongholds
(i) Review the History [Of Your Targeted Community]; Become the Expert
3. Understanding Networks
(a) Find Out where God is Already Working [In the Targeted Community]
(b) Determine Who Influences the People that God has Called You to Reach
(c) Find â€œBridge Peopleâ€ from the Context
4. Understanding Where God Is Working in Churches and in Cultures
(a) Find All the Churches in Your Area and Map Them Out
(b) Research Indigenous Churches
(c) Determine Their Musical Preferences
(d) Determine Their Dress
(e) Determine Their Leadership Systems
(f) Determine How They Learn
(g) Identify the People Groups in the Area that Are Within Your [Targeted] Mission Context
Having read the book I offer the following as the strengths and weaknesses of approach taken by BTMC and the solutions it offers.
1. Offers Helpful Insight into Problems with Contemporary Church Culture
(a) Let me show you what I’m talking about with some of my favorite quotes.
“…evangelicals have obtained political power but exercise little moral influence. For many, evangelicals have become a voting block rather than a spiritual force.” (pg. 9)
“In other words, there is no just one white, young, emerging cultural code to be broken. The gospel needs to penetrate every culture and every culture needs to be exegeted for the gospel.” (pg. 12)
“Many evangelicals live in a ‘Christianized’ world where people listen to James Dobson tell us how to raise our children, consult Ron Blue to understand our finances, sing along with Third Day for musical inspiration, choose political candidates based upon Christian Coalition voting guides, and read Tim Lahaye to enjoy some good Christian fiction. We live in this evangelical subculture. Some call this the ‘herding effect’” (pg. 33)
“Take a moment and look at Acts 1:6: Here they are two thousand years ago, and they’re saying, ‘Lord, is this it? Is the rapture coming? Are you going to restore your kingdom to Israel?’ Two thousand years later and evangelicals are still obsessed with the question. Nothing is wrong with speculative fiction, but here is the point…When the disciples had an inordinate interest in the end times, much like we do today in North America among evangelicals, Jesus said “Do not get focused on that!” (pg.40)
“In churches that move to Christian maturity, satisfied church people often miss the point. Instead, they often want to go ‘deeper’ with ‘meat.’ Ironically that ‘deep meat’ is often a focus on the obscure or unclear in Scripture rather than on the life-changing nature of what is clear. The irony is that most people crying for ‘meat’ are really crying for minutia. They want to learn the deeper truths about the times of the rapture rather than how to live the Christian life. True meat teaches people how to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.” (pg. 80)
“…quit trying to trick guests to wear special name tags, to stand up for greeting, or even to remain seated while people stand ‘in their honor.’ People are not stupid; they know you want their name and number for follow-up. If you make them feel welcome and they connect, they will give you that information.” (pg. 147)
“Any church with a membership twice its attendance is not and cannot be living up to its responsibility to care for, nurture, watch over, and disciple its church members.” (pg. 150)
(b) BTMC informs believers that we can’t assume Biblical vocabulary, categories, or understanding in the people we’re seeking to reach
On page 125 the authors make this point unambiguous:
“Those outside the church most often begin their journey toward Christ with their backs toward the gospel’ they either have a neutral or hostile attitude toward the church. Over a decade ago, George Hunter began informing us that secular people had ‘no Christian memory’ and that the church no longer enjoyed a ‘home court advantage.’ He went on to define those with no Christian memory as ‘ignostics.’ We can no longer assume that people understand some of the basics of the Christian message. In most cases, secular people are ignorant of the gospel. Some are offended by it. Those who are not offended are often neutral because they have no basic understanding of Christianity. Many, and in some communities most, people have never walked into a church, they have no familiarity with Scripture, and they have no relationships with authentic followers of Christ. Any perception they might have are skewed by the media.”
This is a point which needs to be made often. One of the things that continues to surprise me, regardless of how often I encounter it, is the failure of believers to expect the lost to think and act like lost people. I’m sure it comes from a lack of understanding in regards to the fundamental change brought by the new birth. That does not make it excusable. I would only quibble with BTMC’s assertion that “some” people are offended by the Gospel. The Bible says that everyone (including you and me before Christ intervened in our lives) is offended by the Gospel. I will concede that some manifest that offense to a greater degree. However, we should expect that which the Bible says is offensive to everyone to provoke an offended response. Furthermore, based on the scriptural revelation that no one seeks God as well as continually skews what they do know of Him, we shouldn’t be surprised that our lost culture can’t speak the language of God’s wisdom revealed in His Word. Not only should we not be surprised but we should also anticipate such a response.
2. Encourages Helpful Attitudes in Christians and Churches
(a) The “sent” nature of the church
BTMC offers the reader a healthy does of Great Commission imperative. The third chapter of the book focuses in with laser-like precision on the non-negotiable command to believers and churches to be about the business of going and winning lost people to the Kingdom of Christ. In this sense, every church is a Missionary Church. From page 31:
“The church is, and you are individually, God’s missionary to the world. Your church is God’s instrument to reach the world, and it includes reaching your community. We are sent on mission by God. We are to be a missional church by calling, nature, and choice. We are called to be on mission in our community. We have been sent to be on mission in our context, and we must accept that call, that directive to be on mission where God has placed us.”
(b) The imperative to minimalize preference in light of the church’s calling
The danger of allowing our preferences to take preferred status in our decision making is a subtle one indeed. We tend to think what we prefer is right (and vice versa I suppose), thus we are often blind to unscriptural standards we enforce on others around us as non-negotiable. This is a battle to be vigilant in and BTMC offers helpful encouragement in this area. The one caveat is that through right practice we can train ourselves to prefer that which God has commanded but rarely do these types of preferences interfere with our call and, in regards to our call, the Lordship of Christ leaves little room for making me comfortable. BTMC is also helpful in remind us that the early church struggled with these same issues as they moved beyond Jerusalem.
(c) Brings evangelistic imperative into the individual’s personal life
I don’t have one salient quote to provide on this point. I’m speaking to the general tone of the book, one which compels the reader to continually be thinking about what is going on in one’s own life and church to reach the lost. In a time where many churches use programs and institutional activities to provoke evangelism it is refreshing to read a reminder that one can be a faithful evangelist simply by talking about Jesus with those you interact with on a daily basis.
(d) Encourages love for one’s community
I think this is one of the strongest points that BTMC makes in its encouragement to be intentional about ministry. Perhaps this point resonates with me so strongly because I so strongly dislike the thought of picking a ministry position based on something other than an awareness of God’s call on your life. I’ve heard of plenty of people who hop from position to position seeing a bigger church, more prestige, more pay, etc. I’d like to see a return to a marriage/covenant perspective between the minister and his people. I can understand this can be a challenge. I hope it is a fight that more ministers are willing to engage in. I understand that churches can loose touch with the changing communities around them as well. This too is a fight worth fighting. From pages 214 and 215:
“For many churches, particularly in areas that some people consider undesirable, this is a hard step. Once they loved the people who lived around their church but somehow, somewhere along the way, things changed and they have not yet fallen in love with the community that is around them now. We can never reach a community that we don’t love. We will never reach people whom we are unwilling to love. If you are having a difficult time loving the community, pray. You must ask God to change your heart and the hearts of the people in your church! Once God softens our hearts toward the community, then we can begin to live as aliens who love the community where God made us sojourners.”
1. Overlooks the significance of the new, transcendent community formed in redemption.
The last helpful attitude that I listed above was BTMC’s strong encouragement to the reader and the Church to love the community which they are called to reach. This helpful attitude, when expressed in practical “how to” format in BTMC, ends up being an unhealthy emphasis on adopting the culture of the targeted group. I call this unhelpful because this effectively eliminates the opportunity for a new, transcendent culture which is based on the redeemed new life in Christ to develop.
The book is ripe with language of the best “method” to reach a particular group and encouragements to “design the church” (pg. 158) in a manner that will serve the purpose of reaching people. I’m entirely uncomfortable with using ecclesiology in such a utilitarian manner but that is not why I reference this language. I reference because the need to mold the church to fit the purpose of reaching people is often met in BTMC by taking the values already present in the “focus group” (pg 76) and mold the church around them. Therefore you have a church that not only apes secular culture but, from the get go, fails to show that there is anything unique to the church that compels these people together. Rather, the church ends up looking like any other affinity group with no factor readily apparent which explains why this group is different from a sewing club or 4×4 riding club save for what the group does.
This is culture-centric church development model is illustrated in an analogy on pages 32-34 and 42:
“In generations past this [glocal culture] was less of an issue. Most Americans (at least of the Anglo variety) looked and thought somewhat alike. Similar to a pancake, the surface of North American culture was flat and similar. Today, North American is like a waffle. If you hold a waffle flat, it looks like many evangelical churches; everything looks the same.
When we turn up the waffle, we see a different picture. We see that the waffle is made up of multiple divots. These divots represent customs, cultures, and communities, and contexts where people live out their lives with different perspectives and worldviews-right next to mine.”
On page 42 the author describes a church that had their community change around them. What did they do? “The church moved to a new divot in the waffle” and this is presented in a positive light.
This divot hopping fails to communicate the life altering change brought by Christ which compels people of vastly different cultures and worldviews uniting together despite their differences to worship the One who brought them together and into a church. If this molding of a church based around pre-existent cultural cues is a significant part of “breaking the code” then I join the author when he says “Where this code has been broken it is not unusual to see cowboy churches, biker churches, recovery churches, and the likes emerge.” (pg. 13) I am not, however, as sure this is a good thing as the author seems to be.
2. Overly reliant on technique and personality when discussing the development of a church
On pages 46 through 48 the authors of BTMC attempt to differentiate the methods of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels from the category of “Church Growth” strategies. I disagree with their distinction and suspect that if one were to ask the average evangelical pastor to name the 3 most prominent church growth gurus both those names would most often find themselves in the list offered. From the first reference to Warren and Saddleback Church on page 18 the reader finds the flavor of Rick Warren throughout the remainder of the book, both in name and in borrowed technique.
In fact, Warren is described on page 23 as “perhaps the most famous missional code breaker”, thus tying missional thinking/methodology to the most famous of the church growth experts. This of course ruins BTMC’‘s attempt (Chapter 4) to present the missional concept as distinct from the church growth movement. Regardless, as already mentioned, Warren’s influence is felt throughout the book in various ways. One of the more egregious examples is found on pages 23 through 24:
“Warren surveyed his community and found why people in his community did not go to church. Warren [then] developed his strategy from an analysis of the community. Warren’s process, not his letter, is the key. He asked the unchurched about their values, needs, and preferences and then developed his outreach accordingly. We need to exegete our communities as well.”
Finer minds than mine have communicated very well why there is a significant problem with seeking the mind of the unchurched to determine how the church does what God alone should direct so I won’t go back over that ground here. I simply offer this as an example of how the unhealthy elements of The Purpose Driven Church and other church growth methodologies come through almost unfiltered in BTMC, the only difference being that they are aimed at the glocal culture as opposed to baby boomers.
Furthermore, the reliance in BTMC on technique and personality leaves no room for a consideration of Biblical methodology. So much attention is given to the techniques of churches who are “breaking the code” that the reader is left wondering whether the authors believe the Bible only provides the content of the Church’s mission while saying nothing about its methodology. In fact, it seems to me that BTMC assumes that the goal determines the path free from any revelation from God beyond what to do. This is particularly troubling when one comes across statements like “Proclamation evangelism has decreased in effectiveness” [pg 84] or (In regards to a church plant’s potential for success) “everything rises and falls on the planter’s readiness.” In BTMC’s system there is no room for a scriptural catch that says “proclamation evangelism” will always be effective because God has chosen for it to be so or that the future of any church is dependent upon Christ and not the person who plants, pastors, or mows the yard.
3. Presents a feeble ecclesiology
On page 114 BTMC presents this definition of a church (quoting from the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message):
“an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
This is a fine definition, if a bit truncated. The problem here is not that a short definition was presented but rather that it comes 114 pages into the book, approximately ½ of the way through. Up until this point there has been much discussion of what a church should be doing. Several entities described by BTMC dare referenced as exemplary churches to draw lessons from. However, without a definition the reader is left without any idea whether or not these examples are actually churches or not. Furthermore, definition necessarily informs direction in regards to the church which would be helpful to the previous 114 pages.
This feeble ecclesiological perspective comes across in several areas. One, BTMC tends to reduce the “job” of the church to evangelism (pg. 39) and leave out the fact that the central purpose of the church is to glorify God. Again, to be fair, BTMC does at least once reference the glory of God as a central purpose of the church. However, when the details of how to do what the church should do from BTMC’s perspective the central task is always evangelism, even bending corporate worship to the task of evangelism. On page 139 Kevin Hamm of Valley View Church in Louisville, KY is cited positively when he says that “We have worked from the premise that worship is the front door of the church.” This utilitarian definition of worship as primarily an evangelistic opportunity fails to account for the primary purpose of corporate worship, namely the adoration of the Redeemer by the Redeemed. Considering that the lost cannot worship a God they hate trying to bend corporate worship to that end is wrong headed at best and blasphemous at worst. Other examples of this utilitarian approach to worship can be found on pages 41-42, 64, 100, and 210.
Related to a previous point, the lack of a well formed Biblical ecclesiology throws open the door to a church that is little more than an expression of the culture it targets to reach. From page 50:
“Being missional] means to take the gospel into the context where we have been calledâ€¦and to some degree, to let the church take the best shape that it can in order to reach a specific culture.”
Again, we have no reference to the form given to the local church by scripture as if scripture were silent on the issue. In fairness, the authors do allocate space to the need for theological foundations sourced from scripture, particularly in Chapter 13. However, the book never comes down on specifically how these theological issue effect the practical issues of the church.
In conclusion, I’m left unsatisfied by Breaking the Missional Code. After my conversation with Dr. Ed Stetzer I found myself genuinely excited to read this book and hoping that it would be a boon to my ministry. What I found was engaging and to some degree thought provoking but the problems with the book compromised the good it offered significantly. I suppose the most simply summary that I can offer is that I found that while BTMC presents itself as a guide to a new paradigm for whole church life (Chapter 4) I found it to be, by and large, a repackaging of familiar church growth ideology aimed at a new target group. Basically, if you took The Purpose Driven Church and inserted “Missionalâ€ for “Purpose Driven” and aimed the book at the glocal community instead of baby boomers you would have Breaking the Missional Code. Being thoroughly dissatisfied with The Purpose Driven Church and wary of almost everything related to Warren I was finally disappointed in Breaking the Missional Code.
That is not to say the book is without merit. The authors communicate helpful material as I’ve mentioned above. My reservation in recommending this book comes from the fact that I cannot anticipate that each reader who takes up BTMC will have a robust commitment to Biblical ecclesiology and thus be able to avoid some of the dangerously weak parts of BTMC. However, in supplement to other works on the nature and purpose of the church I would recommend BTMC to the seminary student or pastor who is looking for an understanding of what direction church culture will, most likely, be heading. It will also offer the helpful methodology outlines in Chapter 15.
However, if you want to read one or two books on the subject of the nature and purpose of the church I would recommend you pick up a copy of Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and The Deliberate Church or Phillip Ryken’s City on a Hill. Once those books (or others like them) have been thoroughly digested the reader would be in a position to better benefit from what Breaking the Missional Code offers.