Creating a Missional Culture


The culture of a church can either pull people down to their base instincts, or lift people up to their sacred potential. We create culture, and culture re-creates us. – JR Woodward


creating-a-missional-cultureI can’t help but be impressed by the time and energy that must have been required to write Creating a Missional Culture. JR Woodward can be a goof-ball in conversation and his writing style is often light-hearted, but his content is serious, focused and substantive. My biggest complaint is the difficulty of boiling down a review to blog post length…thanks a lot JR.

In the first part of the book, Woodward addresses several different aspects which converge to create what we call “culture.” He discusses the impacts of language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, and ethics across various manifestations and specific examples.

I remember in one of my grad classes when a professor said, “What is culture? Everything. Every freaking thing is culture.”

Well…Woodward pretty much covers “every freaking thing” individually in this first section. Again, from a content standpoint, the book is packed full. However, and I confess I’m not always the best judge of this particular trait, he does seem to balance some of the heavy lifting with easy (or, at least, easier) to grasp explanations and illustrations.

It would have been very easy to conclude this section of the book after describing the various aspects and implications of culture. Instead he makes an exceedingly helpful move and includes a chapter on specific environments which should be cultivated with these cultural factors in mind. Then he concludes with a case for polycentric leadership – neither centralized nor decentralized, but rather where “leaders interrelate and incarnate the various purposes of Christ in such a way that the entire body is activated to service and matures in love” (60).

This polycentric approach relies on the currently popular “5 fold pattern” of Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Personally, though this language is quite prevalent in much of the missional literature, I remain unconvinced that this was ever intended to be a comprehensive or prescriptive list of the necessary leadership styles in the church. However, I don’t see much reason to resist it either. It’s hard to think of many broad leadership categories which are needed and not covered here.

There are those who push back against the 5-fold structure. They challenge the biblical merit of the term leadership altogether, and call instead for “disciple-makers,” but their arguments seem less than compelling. When couched in these broad generic terms it becomes a game of semantics.

I’ll challenge the strong claim that Ephesians 4 is meant to provide the rubric for leadership. However, what the passage does say explicitly, is that these giftings are made available by God in order to equip the saints for works of ministry. Yes, that is disciple making. It is also leadership, and you have to do some crazy acrobatics or employ very thin and skewed definitions to pretend otherwise. I love Claiborne and Perkins’ statement in Follow Me to Freedom, that the response to bad leadership isn’t no leadership, it’s good leadership.

Part 2 of the book takes this chapter on leadership and expounds. Woodward looks at the ways in which the leaders’ missional imaginations can shape culture significantly. He completely reframes the definition of leadership to fall more closely in line with Paul’s exhortation that leaders are present to unleash the potential among the people. It requires humility, listening, releasing control and focusing gifts on empowering others more than accomplishing tasks.

release the APEWe dive even deeper in Part 3 where each of the five leader types are examined as culture creators. Rather than focusing merely on the apostle, prophet and evangelist to the exclusion of the pastors and teachers – as the growing, “Release the APE” movement sometimes risks doing – JR looks at how each temperament / leadership gifting is equipped to influence missional culture in healthy and holistic ways. Of course, he stresses that this will only be effective when the five are working together, rather than operating from paranoid competition.

The final section of the book brings all the previous parts together in order to consider how the missional culture is embodied in a local context. While there is a substantial amount of theory and theology discussed, very little of the book could be honestly dismissed as too theoretical. That is particularly true in Part 4 which is a sort of “applied sciences” division incorporating all previous discussions.

In places throughout, but especially in the closing chapters, the book does seem to be a bit biased towards larger communities – many of his suggestions would be completely unnecessary and impossible in our small house church. However, I often found myself thinking, “How could this principle be applied to our context?” and “What would it look like to set this expectation in our community now, even though there are only a few families serving together?” Given our larger culture’s tendency to cut-and-paste what others are doing, I’m glad a one-to-one correlation wasn’t feasible.

So, who should read this book?

I would definitely recommend it to pastors, elders, church planters, or others in leadership who are wrestling with the cultural roadblocks to living (rather than just studying) missional faith as a community. I think that the casual reader in an institutional, maintenance mode congregation might come away a bit frustrated. Maybe if they can talk some of those in positions of leadership into reading it with them…but even then, I don’t know.

It isn’t really a “casual reading” type of book…but I don’t think anyone is pretending it is. JR tackles some very complicated material head-on and does so in a remarkably accessible way, all things considered.

As I suggested earlier, I wish I had been able to read this book five years ago. I’ll be using portions of it in my next Academy class on “The Missional Imagination”…since I only have six weeks with these students and have to be very selective with the readings, that’s about as high praise as I can offer.


What would the church look like if everyone in the church used their God-given gifts and talents to equip the rest of the church in such a way that the entire church became more like Jesus? And if the whole church looked more like Jesus, how much more would our neighborhoods and cities look more like heaven? – JR Woodward


Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for the free review copy of this book.

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Posted on December 7, 2012, in book review, Missional and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Bret, thanks for the great review and shout out for “Release the APE”. I want to make clear that we do not believe in the “exclusion” of pastors and teachers on our site. In fact we believe they are as necessary as any other vocation. Supremely important! But our site focuses on empowering A,P, E because so much of our church culture does not. Our world is littered with empowered pastors and teachers, but not so much apostles, prophets and evangelists. We are trying our best to give APE leaders language, vision and empowerment!

    We know and trust that many sites and books give great empowerment to ST and that is great!

    Check out our belief page http://releasetheape.com/belief

  2. Thanks for the comment Beau. I completely agree with the struggle you point out, and I do not mean to imply that the goal of the APE movement includes the exclusion of pastors and teachers. The church has shown a bias towards the more “stable” roles of leadership for quite some time – which is one of the contributing factors that led to my own decision to work as a church planter.

    My point was that in his book, JR does an excellent job in resisting the temptation to feed the sense of sibling rivalry and separation. I don’t think continued rivalry is a goal in the Release the APE community, but I do think its a danger. Creating a Missional Culture does an excellent job at working against that sense of “us” and “them” by describing the ways in which all five aspects of leadership function together – not just in the grand scheme of the Kingdom – but specifically in the missional work of creating culture.

    Keep up the good work Beau, and thanks again for your comments.

  3. Bret, totally agree. That is a danger of our site and any time you try and focus and or push the pendulum back.

    Good thoughts!

  1. Pingback: All Work and No Writing Makes Bret a Dull Boy « Missional Monks

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