Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community

By Ed Stetzer and David Putnam
Nashville : Broadman & Holman (2006). xii + 244 Pages.

Reviewed by
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 251-253

The purpose of the book is to “assist you in being able to think through your context, apply universal principles in your mission setting, and then identify and apply strategies that will make you more effective in your context” (2). Ed Stetzer is Research Team Director at the North American Mission Board (SBC), and David Putnam is Executive Pastor of Mountain Lake Church in Northern Forsythe County, Georgia. Both are seasoned church planters. This is the fourth book dealing with church planting and Emerging Church issues to which Stetzer has contributed. It accompanied the recent release of Planting Missional Churches, which is an updated version of Planting Churches in a Postmodern Age (Broadman and Holman, 2003).

This book assumes a shift in American culture to a “glocal community.” The term describes the “convergence of the global reality with our local reality,” which requires “new strategies for effective ministry” (5). The authors are not theorists, but practitioners. Their approach takes values developed from church planting and applies them to the context of established local churches which seek to reach their communities with the gospel.

The writers are theologically conservative. They emphasize the gospel of repentance and assert that when the church’s message becomes something other than “repentance and forgiveness of sins . . . the gospel itself is lost in the process” (39). They believe in a regenerated, active church membership (150). And they push for radical cultural awareness. They urge readers to act like a missionary would in a foreign culture, who usually learns local culture and people with the goal of introducing the gospel therein (217).

“Exegeting the culture” is not a new concept. It means that certain practices the missionary/planter/pastor is familiar with and embraces as his own “personal preferences” may not adapt to the culture he hopes to bring the gospel into. Accordingly, this book urges readers to lay aside personal preferences in order to embrace trans-cultural biblical principles in making disciples of all nations. As the book suggests, the best way to contextualize the gospel within a culture is to plant new churches.

Though this book has much to commend it, cautions are necessary. Being “missional” tends not to focus on one particular method over another, but certain methods may be more or less useful in a culture. What about employing methods in a culture where conflicting views exist about what is moral or immoral? The “missiological” emphasis in the book is welcomed with caution. It seems to be too sociological. The authors state, “Missiology impacts how these things are done, but the Bible requires that certain things should be done” (53). Whereas this is a true statement, the dichotomy is not necessary. Does the Bible merely give overarching mandates with no propositional paradigms to employ? This statement is also contradictory since the writers are seeking to follow a “missional” approach whose paradigm they maintain has derived from Scripture.

Unfortunately, the book also sets forth ideas from contemporary missiology like “redemptive analogy” (96-97), the “man of peace” (218), and the mystical idea seeking to determine where God is working before knowing how to join Him (220- 21). The book offers such “methods” as time-tested ways of doing ministry.

No perfect methodological approach to ministry exists, but wise evangelical pastors should pay attention to certain principles in this book. Yet that does not guarantee gospel success in a culture. Some lack of success may be due to a poor “missional” strategy or inability to faithfully contextualize the gospel. But in some cultures, churches will not be planted and communities will not be reached, even though one has done all of the work of loving people and contextualizing the gospel. The Bible suggests (cf. Luke 9:5; Acts 13:51; 16:7) that in some instances churches will not be planted and people will not be reached. Nevertheless, any missionary, planter, or pastor should be aware of cultural issues as this book urges.

The presentation of discipleship is also problematic. The authors say that people are “converted” to the community before they are “converted” to Christ, and present this as the proper discipleship process (105-6). Though this may work with church plants that often desperately need people, established churches should be more cautious when involving non-Christians in the community. The authors suggest that “code-breaking churches . . . create all kinds of opportunities for the unreached/unchurched to participate in service.” But like what? Where should unbelievers serve within a church? They do not give examples. And how should a pastor shepherd non-Christians once they are participating in the life of the community? Again, no examples are given.

The book calls it “sin” for evangelicals to be unwilling to depart from their personal preferences when seeking to reach a people. But should one always be so quick to divest himself of all personal preferences? This reviewer comes from a certain theological heritage, was trained at certain evangelical schools, and has come to embody certain practices often equated with the evangelical experience. The reviewer is currently a church planter, seeking to understand people within a certain culture to contextualize the gospel and plant a church among a certain people group, but to abandon a particular evangelical heritage and certain preferences does not seem wise. Should one leave his denomination because it is not largely welcome in a certain town? Humans do not live in a vacuum. The gospel is lived out in a diversity of contexts where evangelical churches are planted. It seems that the “glocal” church is most blessed by the interrelationship that faithful churches have with one another, while simultaneously knowing that every preferential cultural oddity is not culturally transcendent.

The major premise of Breaking the Missional Code is that the culture in North America is increasingly non-Christian, and that the church no longer enjoys home field advantage. This reviewer agrees. Therefore what is needed is a heart change toward the Great Commission and a mentality shift to love people within any and every context. To this end, Stetzer and Putnam have produced a work that serves North American pastors, church planters, and leaders very well. Missionaries will also see this book as long overdue. Therefore, the reviewer cannot recommended it highly enough.