Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World

Written by J. R. Woodward Reviewed By Matt Kottman

Woodward, a church planter/activist/missiologist, writes to address the issue of church culture particularly within church plants. In Woodward's words, “[E]ffective church planting requires thinking about the culture of the congregation” (p. 19). This topic is addressed in four parts. Part 1 looks at the power of culture. Culture is often assumed and taken for granted, so Woodward calls the church to ask questions about its cultural assumptions.

Culture is presented as having six elements: language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, and ethics (pp. 36-44). The environment of the church should be one that is learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, and thriving (pp. 46-54).

Part 2 focuses on “a leadership imagination that shapes missional culture” (p. 63). Woodward reasons that there are numerous shifts that have taken place in culture across several disciplines that challenge the traditional church's hierarchical leadership structures. Collaboration and teamwork is how people in the current generation work, and therefore the leadership structures that may have worked in previous times and situations do not work today. He notes also, “It seems that God uses situational leadership” (p. 80). Woodward calls on leaders then to relinquish the need for control and rather pursue a polycentric approach.

Woodward looks at the five-fold ministry in Eph 4:11 as the model for polycentric leadership in Part 3. He calls the offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher, “the five culture creators” (p. 111) or “five equippers” (p. 116). He defines the apostle as a dream awakener who focuses on helping church members live out their calling in order to create “a discipleship ethos and calling people to participate in advancing God's kingdom” (p. 126). Prophets are heart revealers, who pursue God's shalom with the goal of “calling the church to God's new social order and standing with the poor and oppressed” (p. 133). Evangelists as story tellers are called to “incarnate the good news” by “proclaiming the good news by being witnesses and being redemptive agents” (p. 143). The pastor as soul healer seeks wholeness and holiness as one who cultivates “life-giving spirituality within community and embodying reconciliation” (p. 152). Finally, the teacher as light giver helps people inhabit the sacred text, “immersing ourselves in Scripture and dwelling faithfully in God's story” (p. 162).

This leads to Part 4 of Woodward's book “Embodying a Missional Culture” (p. 168). This part seeks to put the fivefold callings of the church to work. He maintains that every Christian has one of the above gifts and that church leadership teams should be made up of leaders representing each of these five callings. He argues that the leaders train within each particular area. These leaders should look something like the guilds of the renaissance, which he refers to as equipper guilds (p. 206).

Woodward rightly notices that churches need to proactively create a culture that centers on mission. He also accurately points out that the leadership sets the tone and that certain practices, attitudes, and structures can actually work against shaping a culture of mission. Yet although he calls the church not to assume their culture, but to ask questions about their culture and to define it, I was left wondering how Woodward defines the gospel. He refers to the “good news” but never clarifies what this news is outside of its social implications. The reader is left to assume or read between the lines as to what the author's definition of the gospel truly is.

Throughout the book, the application of missional culture is applied to good works and social action, which leaves the reader to assume that the gospel is social action. Such a gospel would be only anthropocentric. An example of this is how Woodward describes light givers (teachers). He refers to the understanding he gains by studying the Scripture in community, that is, the community of “those who consider themselves outside of the kingdom of God” (p. 162). In other words, the teachers in the church have their understanding of Scripture bettered by insights from those who are spiritually blind.

There are also some unusual perspectives presented. For example, the role of soul healer (pastor) is one of play coordinator as a means to healing. “There are likely some people in the congregation you serve that feel as if they have no one to play with, and this simple fact is beating them up emotionally” (p. 154, italics mine). This seems a misrepresentation of the biblical role of pastor.

Woodward's suggested method of church decisions is also highly subjective. He claims that the church should pursue direction in decision-making as the Quakers did, where all participants would say what they feel in order to get “a sense of the Spirit” (p. 217).

Woodward has given a lot of thought as to how a church should function. Addressing the fatigue of church leaders, Woodward explores new ways of empowering congregations to be active in ministry. This book, however, leans more to being driven by praxis instead of theology. I would have liked to have seen the same level of creativity spring forth while holding fast to a more robust understanding of the equipping gifts listed in Eph 4. Our ecclesiology should be theological first and practical second. Perhaps a complementary book on activating the passive church for the call to active and passionate ministry, with a stronger theological basis, would be The Trellis and the Vine by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall.

Matt Kottman

Matt Kottman
Disciples Church
Leatherhead, England, UK

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