By Jeff Mingee
In 2006, Ed Stetzer and David Putnam helped churches think strategically about mobilizing their churches to reach their contexts with their book, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community (B&H, 2006). Like missionaries needing to understand the cultural keys required to unlock a foreign culture, churches needed to break the missional code in their communities. Fourteen years later, in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic and the resulting shutdowns, churches are finding the missional doors locked in their communities once again. Neighbors are less likely to come over for dinner. Guests are hesitant to visit a church. And if they do, a physical mask now prevents us from even seeing the proverbial mask they’re wearing. This new situation requires missional thinking. We need to break the missional code again.
Stetzer and Putnam wrote this book to help local churches. They write, “This book will 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). The authors accomplish this aim with biblical insight, examples of churches currently practicing the principles and helpful advice for those wanting to move in the right direction.
This new situation requires missional thinking. We need to break the missional code again.
Scripture clearly and compellingly reveals the church’s task to make Christ known. “Today, we need to function as international missionaries have for centuries. Why? Because Scripture teaches that the church is God’s missionary in the world,” they explain. “If we are going to join God on his mission, we have to recognize that we are missionaries… wherever he places us—just like the first disciples” (3). While pastors and church leaders attempt to navigate the constantly changing territory of our current day, we must not forget or neglect our missionary call.
Breaking the Missional Code provides both researched foundations and forward-thinking direction. Stetzer and Putnam begin by providing insight into the “Glocal Context” of our world today. The world is both global and local and as it changes, churches must think about how to get the gospel to a changing culture. 2005 methods won’t reach 2021 neighborhoods. “Breaking the code is the recognition that there are visible and invisible characteristics within a community that will make its people resistant to or responsive to the church and its gospel message,” they explain (5). In addition to the research surrounding our changing world, Stetzer and Putnam provide research into the unchanging commission given to us by Jesus. Considering the biblical charges, Stetzer and Putnam conclude, “We are exhorted to be on mission where God has placed on us now, and our job is to ‘break the code’ wherever we are” (31).
The bulk of the book provides clear direction on how churches can posture themselves as missionaries in their communities. For example, the book highlights the example of Rick Warren who surveyed the surrounding community to learn why they didn’t attend church. “He asked the unchurched about their values, needs and preferences and then developed his outreach strategy accordingly. We need to exegete our communities as well” (24). Warren is among many other pastors and churches—of varying sizes—highlighted throughout the book to give encouragement and examples to readers.
Practically, the authors provide helpful grids for readers. They explain, “There are four questions that those who break the code ask either intuitively or overtly. They are: 1) Where are the unchurched/unreached? 2) Who are the unchurched/unreached? 3) Why are they unchurched/unreached? 4) What is God already doing among the unchurched/unreached?” (81). These questions prompt church leaders to begin dreaming about how such questions would be answered in their own community.
COVID has changed our communities and is forcing churches to change some of their methods.
Stetzer and Putnam help church leaders uncover some foundational convictions that undergird the missionary task. Among others, these convictions include:
God is at work in the lives of those outside the church and invites us to join him. Those outside the church are open to spiritual matters. Those outside the church are most often reached relationally. Prayer is an essential part of the conversion process for those outside the church. Those outside the church must overcome identifiable barriers in their journey towards the gospel. (125-126)
As Stetzer and Putnam conclude the book, they provide four inclusive directions that are further spelled out into practical steps for churches and leaders. First, church leaders need to understand themselves. Second, church leaders need to understand their community. Third, church leaders need to understand networks. Finally, church leaders need to understand where God is working in churches and culture. Each section includes practical steps that leaders can take to move forward. Readers aren’t left with vague ideas but with practical applications, including the following:
- Confirm God’s call on your life
- Fall in love with the people
- Die to yourself and your preferences
- Examine your leadership readiness
- Get counselors from the context
- Identify natural barriers of your community
- Review the census info
- Study demographics
- Talk to the experts
- What are the three best-kept secrets about this community?
- Who are three people that love this community and understand the people who live here?
- What changes do you see on the horizon for this community?
- What are some of the most significant events that have taken place in this community’s history?
- Can you tell me any community needs that are going unmet in this area?
- Move beyond demographics and anecdotal conversations
- Do prayer walks
- Identify Spiritual strongholds
- Review the history; become the expert
- Determine who influences the people that God has called you to reach
- Find ‘bridge people’ from the context
Understand 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
COVID has changed our communities and is forcing churches to change some of their methods. The need remains. The task remains. Jesus said to his disciples “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). I believe he would say the same to us.
Stetzer and Putnam offer church leaders a helpful and compelling resource in Breaking the Missional Code. And at the heart of this task is the heart of God: “The key to breaking the code of a community is to have the heart of the Father for that community” (22). So, will we develop the heart of the Father for our communities in the aftermath of COVID? Will we develop the strategies necessary to reach them with the gospel?