Breaking the Missional CodeWhat is the missional code, and how can it be broken? This is the question that Ed Stetzer and David Putman’s book Breaking the Missional Code seeks to answer.

Why are some churches effective in reaching their communities with the gospel while other churches struggle?

Stetzer and Putman are convinced that success cannot be attributed merely to a pastor’s talent passion or to a particular model of ministry; instead, effective churches have “a profound understanding of their host culture before planning a strategy to reach the unique people group that exists in that cultural context.”

The authors advocate for “missional thinking” that focuses “on doing missions everywhere” – even in a North American context.

Moving Past Cultural Barriers

Breaking the “code” means moving past the cultural barriers that keep people from understanding the gospel. It means that a pastor’s focus cannot merely be on “preaching the gospel” and “loving people.”

As important as both these elements are, they require missional engagement because:

“loving people means understanding and communicating with them. Preaching the gospel 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.”

Dying to Preferences

One of the major themes of this book is that breaking the missional code requires churches and their leaders to die to their preferences.

“Our churches often struggle because we put our preferences over our call – our preferences over our mission.”

When church members refuse to put aside personal preferences for the sake of reaching their community, they become a slave to their way of doing church rather than becoming a slave to others.

It’s not only church members who struggle with this temptation; leaders often desire to implement new and exciting methods – not necessarily because they will be effective in reaching the lost but because they seem like the best way forward. In other words, the church planter or the revitalizing church pastor must make sure that the preferences they are implementing are not simply their own preferences over against their congregation’s.

Learning from Everyone

Throughout the book, the authors are transparent about their own growth process and their experience in church planting and revitalization.

Ed speaks boldly about the time his “church growth world began to come apart” – when many of the programs he expected to deliver results did not work in a different environment, leading him to understand the need to build on the insights of the church growth and church health movements.

Helpful insights come from research and experience. For example, in church planting, it is surprising to discover that statistics show evangelism training actually made people less effective in the process, perhaps because the training programs are geared to a program and people became less likely to share the gospel within their own personal relationships.

The book also emphasizes the need for ongoing leadership development:

“Leaders who break the code are constantly working on it and not simply in it.”

Changing Definitions

Now that the book is several years old, a few sections seem dated (such as the chart contrasting the “modern” and “emerging” church). With the “emerging church” conversation behind us, I suspect the book’s advocacy for the “belonging before believing” (the idea that one is converted to the community prior to being converted to Christ, and that belonging to a community may even mean participation in mission trips, etc) would be tempered somewhat, since time has shown that many of the emerging churches that focused on belonging before believing did indeed downplay conversion.

If the book is updated and rereleased, I would suggest a little more elaboration and explanation of a few key terms. For simplicity’s sake, postmodernity is defined as “the rejection of the modern view of life and the embracing of something new,” but there is little exploration of what the “modern view.” I found myself wondering just what is meant by saying our churches are “outposts of modernity.” A similar example is found in a chart listing differences between “church growth,” “church health,” and “missional church” perspectives. Some of the terms in this chart are left undefined (such as “mosaic” rather than uniformity or diversity).


Overall, however, Breaking the Missional Code is a good book that illuminates the way to transition a church from a program-driven model to a missional orientation.