Breaking the Missional Code by Ed Stetzer and David Putnam

Stetzer, Ed, and David Putman. Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

In their book, Breaking the Missional Code: Your church can become a missionary in your Community, Ed Stetzer and David Putman ask the question, “Why are some churches and pastors so effective and others are not?” (1). By effective, they seem to mean churches that are “experiencing explosive growth because they are learning to connect with their communities” and seeing people responding to “biblically faithful and culturally relevant outreach” (1). Those pastors and churches that are reaching into their communities and finding success are code breakers according to Stetzer and Putnam. They argue, “the way you do things does impact your ability to reach your community effectively;” and therefore, they claim, “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” (1-2). While it is extremely difficult to determine if they have achieved their stated goal without actually seeing effectiveness in the communities where pastors and churches put to practice the concepts discussed in this book, Stetzer and Putnam do find success in providing greater thought and understanding in the areas of context, missional principles, and various approaches for doing church.

“You cannot grow a biblically faithful church,” write Stetzer and Putnam, “without loving people and preaching the gospel. But loving people means understanding and communicating with them” (15). In an effort to help their readers find ways to communicate and understand people, Stetzer and Putnam open with a chapter on the major changes occurring throughout the world. They caution the reader however, about taking the characteristics of one community and blindly applying them to another. In one of many “Breaking the code. . . ” statements, they write, “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” (5). The key for code breakers is first learning how to exegete a community. One must understand the various things that influence the community, and as the argument goes, the code breaker needs to get in the world, even though he is not of the world. He needs to deeply understand the community long before ever determining what church model to use or what methods to deploy. The code breaker must also understand the biblical mandate for reaching the world with the gospel as well as his calling and special talents and giftings. This calling to a specific people in a specific context may mean code breakers are not in their preferred community, but they are where they will be effective. “Our churches often struggle,” states Stetzer and Putnam, “because we put our preferences over our call—our preferences over our mission” (36). Therefore, code breakers must not allow preferences to be idols—they must be put their preferences to death. “Before anything that is truly of God can be born, your own preferences have to die” (215).
After examining a number of common traits held by pastors who Stetzer and Putnam have identified as code breakers, they shift to developing a greater missional understanding and creating a thoughtful way to think about a number of code breaking strategies. This makes up the latter half of the book, with Chapter 15 serving as something of a culmination of all the previously presented material in one systematic action-planning tool. The outline of this chapter mirrors the two primary foci of the entire book—understanding self and understanding community.

The excellence of Breaking the Missional Code is found in its appeal not to take any specific ideas promoted within the book and apply them with no time invested in thought or a lack of exegesis of the community. Instead, Stetzer and Putnam write, “The key to breaking the code of a community is to have the heart of the Father for that community. The only way to do that is by spending serious amounts of time with the one who loved Jerusalem deeply enough to weep over it” (22). Unlike many books on the topic of reaching communities or planting churches, this one sees something beyond a formula, system, or turnkey plan that should work in all places for all people. This book makes a strong effort to teach a principal of reading the community and then engaging wisely through effectively designing the most appropriate strategy for that specific community.

Another strength is the style and tone of authors. It is as if they are saying, “You can do it, you just need a little coaching and a pat on the shoulder.” The book is loaded with examples, many coming from their own observations. The tone seems to exude authority on the subject, which should not be a shock considering that both of these men have a reputation of church planting work and a strong dedication to the advancement of the gospel.

A difficult aspect of Stetzer and Putnam’s approach has to do with the churches they view as code breaking examples and the criteria of how they measure code breaking aspects of reaching a community. These example churches tend to be large mega-churches with popular author-pastors. Mark Driscoll serves as one example; however, before Driscoll’s church was as large as it is at the time of this post, he was selling books and speaking at emergent/emerging church conferences. No discussion appears in the book regarding the author life of the code breaker. The same is true of Rick Warnen, another example of a code breaker author. While selling books might not be critical of being a code breaker, many of the examples do come with a seasoning of flavorful publishing popularity and conference speaking.

Also, larger congregations do matter it seems when looking for examples of code breakers. Examples from this book, suggest it's really about size.  Yet, while we all desire to see large numbers, there may be more ways to see and measure the success of a code breaker. It is one thing if the large church is spiritually healthy, but it is quite another if the code breaker simply knows how to draw a crowd. What is better, a church of 2,500 with 10% of its people actively serving and spiritually growing or a church of 400 with 80% of its people in a healthy place with Jesus? But even this question is subjective. It might be fruitful if a determination of what is good and what is not is provided along with a definition of the measurement standard. In addition, a code breaker today may be building and equipping a church that has a much deeper reach into the next two generations over the church that has a large attendance but will fall by the wayside when the charismatic code breaker is no longer the super star pastor.  Sometimes the success is due to years of prayer and laboring to lay the right foundation, long before the fruit of numbers is ever seen (and we should be able to call this period success too).

Despite the negative aspects of the examples of code breakers, Breaking the Missional Code is a valuable work. Stetzer and Putnam address a number of issues that have typically gone unmentioned by other authors on the same topic. They seem to recognize that there is no single perfect model so the successfully attempt to present the book on how to develop the model for a specific area, in a specific time, reached by a specific pastor. For this reason, this book should be read by all those in a position to influence how a church functions as well as those called to plant churches.