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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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A Little Help, Please?

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“We were saying Gig ‘Em long before there was a Johnny Football.”

Some groups are meticulous and thorough in creating a certain culture. For instance, growing up just outside of College Station, TX had such a strong cultural impact on me that, though I no longer live in Aggieland, it’s influence has been passed on to the next generation. Fan or not, just about anyone who follows college athletics can attest to the depth of tradition attached to Texas A&M University. The culture is so ubiquitous that my children disapprove of all burnt orange clothing, are suspicious of any emblem which resembles a longhorn, and refer to their Aunt Tiffany (A&M grad) as “Aggie.”

But there is a lot more to creating culture than just branding. The difficulty is enhanced when the “new” culture is perceived to be replacing/challenging/augmenting another which is already established…even if the old culture is falling / has fallen out of prominence.

When Chris Chappotin and I started the Missional Monks podcast we were just trying to sort through what we called the “what now?” questions in regards to missional church planting. Everywhere we looked there were books, podcasts, articles, conferences and webinars focused on teaching the basics of missional faith and why people should care. But there was so little available for those who had taken the plunge and were looking around – disoriented, alone and slightly terrified. “What do we do now?”

There was so much we didn’t understand (and plenty that still escapes us). How do we balance the value of discipleship and spiritual formation with busy schedules and deeply ingrained cultural expectations regarding information based education? What does it look like to have mission as an organizing principle? It’s one thing to SAY we’re missional…it’s another thing to cultivate a community ethos that actually lives that way.

Why does it seem that so many people, even those who were not raised in a Christian faith tradition, have such deeply ingrained expectations about what church “looks like?”

We would sit for hours at Denny’s – splitting time between talking to the servers and wrestling through these questions. Eventually it occurred to us that a) other people might benefit from listening in and b) there were undoubtedly others having similar discussions…and we needed their wisdom.

One of the fantastic byproducts of the decision to start the podcast was that we “met” lots of new people. Several of these folks – though we’re spread out geographically – have become good friends and vital conversation partners.

That is certainly true of JR Woodward, aka the Dream Awakener. You can check out our conversation with JR on the podcast page or just listen here.

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If you haven’t ever spent time on JR’s website, I recommend doing so…though not until you’ve finished carefully perusing MissionalMonks.com!

Fair warning, JR might give you a case of whiplash. He can go from incredibly goofy to profound more quickly than just about anyone I know. JR has experienced the struggles and pain associated with missional church planting. Rather than cover up these blemishes, he is willing to speak honestly and vulnerably about these matters. And yet his demeanor exudes an incredibly authentic joy. I was excited to finally get the chance to meet him in person this fall at the Sentralized Conference in Kansas City… and as my grandfather would say, he’s good people.

JR’s latest book, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, is packed with biblical and cultural insight as well as practical tools for engagement. He looks beyond branding and marketing to consider the myriad of aspects which create, sustain and perpetuate culture. This is exactly the kind of resource we were searching for in our early days of church planting – and it is just as helpful now. His publisher, InterVarsity Press was kind enough to send me a free copy to review…which I will do in my next post.

Stay tuned…

All Work and No Writing Makes Bret a Dull Boy

It is certainly true that I feel better, have more energy and fewer headaches when I’m exercising regularly. I hate exercising, but that doesn’t change this reality.

Meanwhile, reading and writing regularly has the same effect on my mental clarity, focus and energy as exercising has on the physical. I do not hate reading and writing – I love it – but lately my crazy, wonderful life has pulled me away from this discipline.

…And laziness has pulled me away from physical exercise.

I hope to reengage the reading/writing with an upcoming series of book reviews…a project that has been on my to-do list for some time now. I’m nearly finished with the first two and hope the others will follow in reasonable succession.

If anyone wants to read along, here is a list of books that will be addressed on Missional Monks in the near future. You can click the titles to pick up your own copy from Amazon.

Now, if I can just get my fat self to the gym…

Thin Places by Jon Huckins and Rob Yackley (read part 1 & part 2 of the intro, read the review, read the interview)

Creating a Missional Culture by JR Woodward (read the intro, read the  review)

Simple Harmony by Larry Duggins

Living Jesus by Randy Harris (read the review)

Missional Spirituality by Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson

Missional God, Missional Church by Ross Hastings

Living Mission edited by Scott Bessenecker

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