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Jun 05

Book Review: Breaking the Missional Code: Stetzer and Putman

Breaking the Missional Code is a book about doing church ministry in the 21st century, co-written by two pastors who have experience in planting churches in America .   

Ed Stetzer has planted several churches and is currently serves as both co-pastor of Lake Ridge Church , a new church plant in Georgia , and as the Missiologist and Research Team Director at the North American Mission Board.  He’s also well educated, holding two masters degrees and two doctorates, and is a former seminary professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville , Kentucky .  The author of several other books, he also runs a website for church planters at, is on the board of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network led by Mark Driscoll, and speaks at conferences around the country on the subject of church planting.

David Putman is a pastor at Mountain Lake Church , a contemporary church in suburban Georgia with a weekly attendance of around two thousand.  He has more than fifteen years of experience in church planting and is a co-founder of Mountain Lake has experienced phenomenal growth since being planted just seven years ago. 

Both authors have southern Baptist roots and connections, but they hardly conform to the stereotypical model of a Baptist church you may be accustomed to seeing on television on Sunday morning in your local community. Stetzer’s church is in its early stages and is both reformed and charismatic, while Putman’s seems to be more seeker-oriented and appears to be modeled significantly after Atlanta’s North Point Community Church, pastored by Andy Stanley, which—for the uninitiated—is to the south what Saddleback is to the west and what Willow Creek is to the midwest.  Both Lake Ridge and Mountain Lake are committed to out-of-the-box forms of ministry within the context of a by-the-Book heart of ministry, and both are in the same county north of Atlanta . 

Being experienced church starters, the authors have observed firsthand the tendency most of us in ministry have towards tips, techniques, plans, shortcuts, and systems.  They’ve seen pastors take the Willow Creek model, or the Saddleback model, or the North Point model, and attempt to implement it in their communities with varying levels of success and failure.  Sometimes they succeed strongly… and sometimes they fail miserably.  Stetzer and Putman point out that these initial church models were successful at Willow Creek, Saddleback, and others not because the models themselves somehow unlocked a perfected, one-size-fits-all, mystical, Jabez-like secret solution hidden from the world until Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, and Andy Stanley showed up.  These pastors and the models they use succeeded because they identified the cultural barriers unique to their community (i.e., they “broke the missional code,” as the book title explains), identified a plan to overcome the cultural obstacles to hearing the gospel, and implemented a plan that removed non-biblical barriers to receiving the gospel.  The reason the Saddleback plan failed in some other settings was because the church wasn’t in a Saddleback-type community, and the cultural barriers differed from those the model addressed.  As a result, the model dealt with issues that did not exist and overlooked issues that did exist.

The authors write on the premise that each culture has unique issues that the local church must address to be able to effectively communicate the gospel, whether the culture is in suburban California , urban Seattle , rural Alabama , or mid-western China . 

“Breaking the code requires a belief that there are cultural barriers (in addition to spiritual ones) that blind people from understanding the gospel.  Our task is to find the right way to break through those cultural barriers while addressing the spiritual and theological ones as well.” 

They point out that these cultural barriers are constantly changing, and they are aware that some critics will minimize the real need for cultural sensitivity.  They write:

“… many will say that these shifts, and a book like this, do not matter.  They are convinced if you just “preach the gospel” and perhaps “love people” that your church will reach people.  They are wrong, and their ideas hurt the mission of the church.  Communities across North America are filled with churches led by loving gospel preachers—most of whom, if statistics are true, are not reaching people… you cannot grow a biblically faithful church without loving people and preaching the gospel.  But loving people means to proclaim a gospel about the Word becoming flesh—and proclaiming that the body of Christ needs to become incarnate in every cultural expression.”

The authors are aware of the tendencies we have to become obsessed not so much with God’s call on us as on the call of the conference speakers, church-oil salesmen, growth gurus, and self-help vagabonds who primarily pitch tips and techniques.

“Many church planters, pastors, and various leaders simply seize the first “cool” model that comes along and attempt to make it fit into their communities.  All the while, many decry the use of similar methods by others in the community because they are not as “hip.”

Church planters need both a call from God and a love for people.  It’s too easy, they correctly point out, to become more entranced with our own preferences and end up living in our own dated culture, affecting no one but those who already know what we know and are just like us.

The authors examine Jesus’ four directives that describe the mission of the church, and discuss each one in more detail, providing examples of all four:

  • we are sent
  • we go to all kinds of peoples
  • we go with a message
  • we go empowered by the Spirit

The authors also provide a lengthy and valuable discourse on the migration that has taken place in modern churches, moving first into Church Growth models, then into Church Health models, and now into Missional Church models.  The discussions, charts, and analyses on these models will be of tremendous value to those struggling to understand what is happening on the evangelical landscape around them.

Other chapters include commentary on leadership qualities and strategies for moving towards a missional mindset in your church in various areas such as evangelism, discipleship, and worship.  Regarding worship, conflicts and tensions between the Believer Targeted/Seeker Hostile version and the Seeker Targeted/Believer Hostile style (i.e., “worship wars”) are discussed appropriately and within a biblical perspective.

“It is important to note that worship must take on an expression that reflects the culture of the worshiper if it is going to be authentic and make an impact.  Numerous “worship wars” are going on in the local church in North America today.  The reality is that most of these battles are based on traditions and personal preferences, not biblical authority.”

We would agree, while adding that true worship takes place in the heart and can be present or absent in the setting of various forms of corporate worship.

The remainder of the book provides valuable commentary and discussion based on first-hand experience and observations of churches who are striving to be more missional in their ministry.  The authors seem aware of the challenges involved in developing a church that is strong in discipleship as well as strong in evangelism.  Few churches do it well.  Our observation, which has been confirmed by many in large seeker-oriented churches we know well, is that many seeker-oriented churches suffer from a massive shortage of mature, growing believers equipped to teach and train.   The resulting tendency of some seeker leadership is to downplay discipleship and pretend that generic small groups lead people to maturity in faith.  They don’t.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, there are some discipleship-centered Bible churches that are more adept at producing bloggers than converts. 

The book also includes an excellent overview of the emerging church movement, which the authors break down into three subgroups:  The Relevant, who “takes the same gospel in the historic form of church  but seeks to make it understandable to emerging culture”; the Reconstructionist, which “takes the same gospel but focuses on questioning and reconstructing the much of the form of church,” and the Revisionist, who “focuses on questioning and revisioning the gospel and the church.”  The authors clearly advocate the perspective of the Relevant, while expressing less patience for the Reconstructionist, and great concern for the Revisionist, the type most often affiliated with those in today’s emerging church movement. 

Chapter 13, entitled “Breaking the Missional Code without compromising the Faith,” provides an excellent commentary on the challenges and controversies involved in maintaining doctrinal purity while changing forms and methods that are not biblically defined.  Among their observations:

“For some people, it is easier to say, “We must not take our cues from culture.” Entire ministries exist to attack any cultural influence upon the church.  It preaches well (as evidenced by many pastor’s gatherings), but it is ultimately both unbiblical and untenable.  It is unbiblical because God calls us to our culture and context and, to some degree, the church must reflect its culture.  It is untenable because no one lives in an actual Christian environment. Many choose their preferred culture and assume/proclaim that it is God’s preference as well.  To be theologically faithful and culturally relevant we must be willing to engage in answering the hard questions because the mandate of Scripture and the lostness of culture require nothing less.”


“A church is theologically sound and missionally appropriate when it remains faithful to the gospel and simultaneously seeks to contextualize the gospel (to the degree it can) in the worldview container of its hearers.”

The book concludes with some insightful best practices to help others make the transition to a missional church.

Breaking the Missional code is an important book that seeks to reach beyond our tendencies to expect everyone to do ministry the way one person or group thinks it should be done.  With recommendations from such diverse leaders as Rick Warren, Dan Kimball, and Mark Driscoll, the authors have surveyed the landscape of evangelical America and pulled together biblical and missional components from both contemporary and traditional models of various denominations and geographies.  And they demonstrate that reaching people for Christ doesn’t have to be devoid of either sound theology or contemporary applications.  Those who have done ministry by the Purpose Driven book or the Willow Creek book and failed will find encouragement in Stetzer and Putman’s exhortations to do ministry by The Book, not by following fads and trends or by implementing church models that reach specific demographics in Barrington, Illinois, or Orange County, California, but by digging deeper into the community to determine the unique cultural obstacles in their respective communities and then communicating the gospel in a way that doesn’t create non-biblical barriers to people receiving and understanding the gospel.

Books on doing church tend to be slanted at times; some who are pro-seeker/pro-contemporary tend to downplay the need for Biblical preaching, serious discipleship, and the critical need for churches to systematically grow mature followers in Christ, at times even making fun of those who seek to grow and graduate out of theological kindergarten classes and move from milk to meat.  Indeed, some seem to advocate little more than structuring Sunday morning church as if it was all about getting someone to come to a cool rock concert to make a decision to mix a little Jesus into their jobs, careers, and marriages, so they can then have a lot of goofy, juvenile-like fun on Sundays, be cool, and still be a Christian and expect to go to heaven when they die.  Such thinking is wrong, and unbiblical, and churches who build on this philosophy will not survive coming trials and tribulations.  Other books on the subject that do emphasize Christian maturity and growth in the intellectual understanding and engagement of the faith often lack a missional commitment and love for reaching those who don’t know the gospel, failing to see that communicating in a style of the 50’s (whether it be 1550 or 1950) is no more effective than communicating in Chinese while doing ministry in France.  This book seeks to avoid either extreme and longs to see ministry be both missional and biblical.  There will be those who maintain this book is unnecessary; some of these critics will those who take offense at anything grounded in the Bible; and other critics will be those who take pride in their dated style of communicating, not aware that what they are doing in their ministries is in one sense exactly what Stetzer and Putman advocate:  communicating the gospel in a style that relates to the community in which they minister.  Some of these same critics will fail to see that God in His providence has placed them in a ministry setting where their preaching/communication style unintentionally happens to fit well within that particular community.  Not everyone is so blessed, and it is for those that this book will be helpful.  The authors are correct: “Every church must find its unique call and vision.  Not every church is called to reach the same people, worship using the same music, attract the same people, and appreciate the same values.”

Breaking The Missional Code is a balanced perspective on building a biblical church ministry and is must-reading for anyone striving to reach their communities for Christ while at the same time struggling to understand where they may be going wrong.  It will also be helpful for those who are suspicious of contemporary church models and fear they are all watering down the faith or discarding critical doctrines.  Some are, to be sure, but those in this book are not and serve as encouraging examples to those who seek to love and serve Jesus.

-Josh Riley

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