Effective churches break culture codes

Mark KellyMany churches once were remarkably effective in their outreach but now are struggling because their evangelism techniques no longer connect with communities whose culture has fragmented and radically changed.

“Too many churches are boldly pressing forward in the third millennium with the methods and ministries that worked in 1954,” Ed Stetzer and David Putman write in Breaking the Missional Code, a 2006 release from the B&H Publishing Group of LifeWay Christian Resources. “The problem is that we aren’t sent to the culture of 1954.”

Stetzer is a missiologist who directs the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research; Putman is executive pastor of the Atlanta-area Mountain Lake Church in Cumming.

Churches need to adopt the process used by their missionaries in seeking to be an incarnational, loving presence of Christ on their mission fields, Stetzer and Putnam write.

“The missionary studies the culture, looking for the ways God is already revealing Himself to the people,” the authors recount. “When that ‘bridge’ is found, the missionary can express the eternal truth of the Gospel in a way that is indigenous to the culture. People respond with joy and the Gospel spreads like wildfire through the network of their relationships.”

A “missional” church, then, is one that acts like a missionary in its community, Stetzer and Putnam write.

Many church leaders, however, see evangelism as “something that takes place near us, while missions takes place overseas,” Stetzer and Putman write. “Our paganized, secularized, spiritualized North American culture,” they point out, “should be seen as a mission field.

“Evangelism is telling people about Jesus; missions involves understanding them before we tell them,” the authors note. “Large segments of people in our society and many aspects of our culture have yet to be influenced with the Gospel. Applying missionary principles in the North American context means we seek to understand the cultural situation and its people as we seek to reach them with the Gospel.”

Failure to understand a community explains why strategies that work for some pastors don’t work for others, Stetzer and Putman write. “Too many pastors lead churches in their heads and not their communities. They pastor some idealized version of someone else’s community rather than understanding and reaching their own.”

Stetzer and Putman compare two pastors, one who chooses to understand the culture and one who thinks culture does not matter. “Both pastors faithfully preach, teach and reach out,” the authors note in the introduction to Breaking the Missional Code. Yet the results are different. “We are convinced you can be equally called, gifted and passionate and yet experience different levels of success” depending on the leader’s cultural awareness, they write.

The reason a ministry approach brings great success in one community yet fails in another is that the second community differs culturally from the first, Stetzer says. “It’s funny,” he observes, “we require international missionaries to do the very thing we often forbid North American churches — to contextualize their approach to their culture.”

Stetzer, who has started churches in three states, learned the hard way that culture matters. “Years ago, my church growth world began to come apart,” he recounts. “Many of the surefire, guaranteed, great, new, whiz-bang programs weren’t working in my church or the churches we were starting. They were supposed to work. They worked in other places, but they did not work for us.

“It took a while for us to figure it out, but the reality was that what worked in one place did not work with effectiveness everywhere else,” Stetzer says. “The cultural code in my community was different from the cultural code where the experts lived. We were living on different mission fields.”

Breaking the missional code, Stetzer and Putnam write, requires church leaders to think through their context, apply biblical principles that work in every context and apply the tools most relevant for the particular context. Grasping a community’s culture and finding a strategy that will overcome barriers amounts to “finding a redemptive window through which the Gospel can shine.”

“Missions history is filled with stories of great revivals because missionaries were able to ‘break the code’ and the church exploded in their community,” the authors write.

Being a “missional” church, however, should not be confused with being contemporary, seeker-sensitive, postmodern, emerging or any of the various forms of church being tried across America, Stetzer and Putnam note. Those can all be missional, they write, but a traditional church can be just as much a missionary in its community as any other.

“A church is missional when it remains faithful to the Gospel message while contextualizing its ministry to the degree it can so the Gospel can engage the worldview of the hearers,” Stetzer says. “Traditional churches that are engaging communities that are receptive to traditional methods are just as missional as are contemporary, blended, ethnic or emerging congregations. The key is biblical fidelity and missional engagement in the culture where we are.”

In a country where so many have no understanding of the basic Christian message and do not identify with the traditional Christian subculture, churches must step out of their buildings and take the Gospel into their communities, Stetzer says.

“It’s time for us to stop thinking attractionally –- ‘Come see our show’ –– and start to think incarnationally -– ‘Let’s go among them and tell them of this Savior who transformed our lives.’”

Joe Thorn, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Elburn, Ill., notes that the missionary thrust of Breaking the Missional Code is not “a one-size-fits-all approach to church, nor does it value innovation for its own sake. It does, however, challenge the church to love God and neighbor by making the former known to the latter in the most effective ways for its community.”

The book encourages churches “to look beyond prepackaged programs that promise immediate results to universal principles and a process of implementing those principles in ways most appropriate to a church’s unique context,” Thorn wrote in a review circulated by LifeWay Christian Resources. “It pushes churches to know their communities’ needs, values and language in order to more effectively demonstrate that the Kingdom of God has come and redemption is real.”

One of the most valuable components of Breaking the Missional Code, Thorn wrote, “is how Stetzer and Putman lead readers through open-ended, diagnostic questions that give them a clearer picture of where their church is, and where it needs to go.”

The “biblical rooting” of Breaking the Missional Code “allows for cultural diversity,” Thorn wrote. “[It] can bring greater health, cooperation and success … by encouraging agreement on the essentials, diversity where necessary and an emphasis on what local churches must do as God’s missionary people to their community.

Copyright © 2006, Kainos Press All Rights Reserved

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About Mark Kelly

Jesus follower, Bible reader, husband/father/son/brother/uncle, rider, hiker, snapshooter
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