Book Review: “Breaking the Missional Code” by Ed Stetzer and David Putman (2006)

In their book, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community, Ed Stetzer and David Putman reveal key insights necessary for all pastors, church planters, missionaries and laypeople to effectively break through all cultural barriers of their communities in order to reach the people of those communities missionally with the Truth. The following paper offers first a brief summary of Breaking, then a critical evaluation of the ideas and methods found therein, and finally a discussion concerning the application of these ideas and methods to this writer and potential church planter’s ministry in Southern Asia.

A summary of this book must focus on the insights discussed, chapter by chapter, which are involved in breaking the missional code. Such a summary, however, would be incomplete without a proper definition of “code breaking.” Stetzer and Putman describe a code-breaking church as one which can first read a target culture, and as one who can then translate its own ministry into the language of that target culture (Breaking, 21). A church who succeeds in this cultural relevancy and biblical faithfulness has therefore successfully broken the missional code.

Stetzer and Putman begin the Breaking chapters by describing the surfacing “glocal” (“global” plus “local”) context in North America (5), as well as the church’s responsibility to strategically infiltrate this context. After discussing the various segments of this new American context (Chapter 1), the authors share the stories of seven code-breaking churches (17-20) as well as certain characteristics these church hold in common (Chapter 2). They then introduce their extensive discussion on the mission of the church with a re-rendering of Christ’s commission to His followers and Church (Chapter 3). The authors discuss how the missional church has grown out of both the Church Growth and Church Health Movements (44-49), and how it must maintain a proper balance of missiology, ecclesiology and Christology (53-58). The authors then connect the principles of Chapter 4 to Chapter 5, where they discuss this transition to missional ministry by laying out clearly ten “from/to” scenarios (Chapter 5).

Stetzer and Putman begin in Chapter 6 to describe missional code-breaking churches from the other angle: rather than speaking of how they can distinguish themselves from other churches, they discuss how code-breaking churches like those seven in Chapter 2 have already distinguished themselves. They do so by describing the leadership effectiveness, evangelism, community, types of services, etc. of missional code-breaking churches (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 discusses the contextualization or incarnation of these code-breaking churches, describing the methods of communication (93-100), the experiences of worship (100-102), and the progression of both evangelism (102-04) and discipleship (104-107). Chapter 8 then introduces several church-strategies that have grown in popularity in recent years, for example church planting (109), churches with multiple expressions, services or locations (110-112), house churches (112-114), and several other samples from around the world (114-117). He connects Chapter 9 to this discussion on missional code-breaking churches by focusing on the aspect of their spiritual formation as it relates, again, to Christ’s commission (Chapter 9).

Because this entire aspect of code-breaking involves a shift from one paradigm of ministry to another, code-breaking involves a church either starting something brand new or returning to something they had left a long time ago. Thus the authors spend Chapter 10 discussing the methods of renewing and revitalizing a dying ministry of missions, a process which involves renewed worship, partnerships and connections (Chapter 10). They continue in the next chapter by discussing how these revitalized missional churches can then plant new missional churches, emphasizing specifically their models, methods and milestones (Chapter 11). The next chapter discusses how various churches and organizations can partner together in order to extend their mission outreaches, focusing on many important aspects such as denominations, relevant research, and networking (Chapter 12).

With all of this more background information concerning missional code-breaking churches set, Stetzer and Putman then begin their four-chapter conclusion which contains the most vital of information and begins with the all-important facet of avoiding compromise, or maintaining right doctrine, while breaking the missional code (Chapter 13). They follow this warning with seven characteristics of code-breaking leadership, such as forward thinking and team building, that have been most evident in code-breaking churches (Chapter 14). The following chapter breaks the process of code-breaking down into three easily handled tools. These tools are understanding one’s self, his community and where God is working in churches and cultures (Chapter 15). The final chapter of the book discusses seven requirements to proper code-breaking, including such things as going to the unreached, preparing the soil, and approaching the whole venture in the attitude and action of submissive prayer (Chapter 16).

Now with a proper summary of Stetzer and Putman’s Breaking firmly established, it is possible to continue with a critical evaluation of the ideas and methods found within. The following evaluation will critique three specific aspects of Breaking: the apparent rush by the authors and publisher to publish this book and the implications of that rush; the authors’ arguments concerning “desire” as it relates to missions; and the vague, Episcopalian-leaning thoughts of the authors with regards to several discussions on conversion.

The first critical evaluation against this book deals with the apparent rush by the authors and publisher to publish Breaking. After only a scholastic read through Breaking, one coulde easily catch at least some of the many mistakes in script, spelling, form, etc. throughout this book. This reader found twenty-two such mistakes (i.e. four mistakes per page on pages 27 and 61), a number which would more than likely have been much larger had he either read the book specifically with an editor’s eye or begun counting the mistakes early on in his reading. Certainly, both humans and computers are imperfect, and mistakes will survive into first editions; but there is no excuse for such sloppy editing—the worst this avid reader has seen in any professionally published book. While such careless editing is a major problem, there seems to be a much more pertinent issue at stake than this. In his dissertation comparing church planting models to growth, Joel Rainey reveals the growing popularity of all church planting models in the last several decades (Rainey, 1), and implies throughout his paper the large influx of written material on the subject. It seems that, in the case of Breaking, the authors and publishers viewed their material—material not much vastly different from other works by Stetzer—as so time-sensitive, that they carelessly skipped necessary pre-publishing stages in order to see the book in print. Such an act poses as a metaphor for the very thing against which the writers have intended to write. “Am I ready to plant?” (159) “Are my teams in place?” (160) “Am I ready to go public?” (166)—such questions from the discussion on milestone in Chapter 11 reveal the true attitude missional code-breaking church planters need to display as they approach their ministry. These planters must approach their ministry launch with as much determination and foresight as church planting authors ceaselessly suggest. No veteran church planter should approach his newest project by flippantly skipping steps in the missional-church planting process, and no veteran church planting author should do the same with his newest book.

The second critical evaluation against Breaking deals with the authors’ arguments concerning “desire” as it relates to missions. The authors suggest that missions is not about the church planter’s preferences (32), and that there is no relation between a planter being missional and choosing what he likes to do (50). While the mission of the missionary or church planter is certainly Christ’s mission, the authors go too far to suggest that the minister’s preferences play no part in the mission. Such a suggestion reeks of similar wide-spread testimonies of professional ministers who openly claim, “I told God ‘I never want to be a preacher!’ And yet here I am! God has a great sense of humor.” Such cheap views of God’s calling—of God’s working in His children’s lives—that He would purposefully force His children to do things they do not enjoy, taints His loving, Fatherly character. The God Who formed His children, Who has known His people since before they were in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5) has given those same people talents and desires and abilities to accomplish His work, and to do so with the utmost joy. “There is joy in serving Jesus” is no mere clichéd line from an old hymn. It is reality. If a church planter, pastor, missionary or anyone else whom God has called to a specific ministry reaches the point of joylessness in ministry, then he either has a sin-filled life or has somehow walked down the wrong ministerial path. The answers to his joylessness, to his sudden sensations that God has called him to do something that he hates to do, are first a self-examination to find what place God presently has in his life, and second a reconsideration of where his ministry is headed.

The third critical evaluation against Stetzer and Putman’s book deals with their vague, Episcopalian-leaning thoughts with regards to several discussions within Breaking on conversion. In order to approach this critique fairly, it is necessary to first explain “Episcopalian-leaning thoughts on conversion.” John H. Westerhoff, author of Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching and an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian with a Protestant upbringing who leans toward Orthodox and Roman Catholic spirituality (Westerhoff, 78), describes two primary kinds of conversion experiences. The first he calls “pietistic,” the immediate, dramatic conversion experience (Westerhoff, 10)—the “I once was blind but now I see” (Newton) type of conversion. The second he calls “mystic,” an extended and oftentimes slow journey into union with God (Westerhoff, 10)—the type of conversion to which Stetzer and Putman allude in Breaking. The major instances of this second, Episcopalian-type conversion experience in Breaking comes in chapters seven and nine. While in Chapter 7, the authors do write of an actual conversion (104), they also write about pre-conversion discipleship and, more importantly, a journey of experiences (106) not unlike that of the Episcopalian mystic conversion. In Chapter 9, the authors repeat this idea more directly by contrasting the instantaneous conversion to a longer journey-version, suggesting that the journey-conversion is the experience of most believers. Understandably, the authors’ intent here is to describe the idea (without using the biblical terminology) of prepared soil (Matthew 13)—the vast majority of believers today had heard the Truth at some point before they converted. The Holy Spirit had been working in the hearts of all believers for some period of time before they finally invited Him into their hearts. The terminology in Breaking, however, seems to prefer the Episcopalian-journey description of conversion over the biblical prepared-soil conversion, and such a shift if descriptive terminology could prove disadvantageous to the authors as they are bound to be misread by some lesser-informed readers. The reason such a distinction is important is that conversion is not a journey—sanctification after conversion is the journey. The idea that the authors attempted to make concerning discipleship occurring long before conversion could be best compared to a cross-country flight: discipleship without conversion is as worthless as packing for a flight without ever getting on the plane—there is no journey until the individual gets on the plane.

The above summary and critical evaluation of Stetzer and Putman’s Breaking sets the stage now for a personal look at how this book has affected my life, and how it will affect my own future ministry. The following personal application segment will focus on three particular subjects I found most useful: the idea of intentionality in ministry, the comparison and contrast of missions and evangelism, and the authors’ discussion on code-breaking questions.

The first subject which has affected my own personal outlook on life and ministry is the idea of intentionality in ministry (specifically based off the authors’ discussions in Chapter 3). One issue with which I have often struggled in regards to the traditional-vs-modern evangelistic approaches has been that the traditional approach often encourages cultural adaptation in missional contexts, as long as the context is utterly foreign; however, the same traditional approach staunchly refuses such adaptation within the changing cultures of its own community. These traditionalists quote such passages as Matthew 28:18-20 and I John 2:15-17 in order to justify their actions both at home and abroad, though they often fail to recognize that the one passage complements the other. Missionaries, both at home and abroad, have been commanded by Christ to enter the world to evangelize and disciple the lost; they have also been commanded to not love that world they have entered. What the authors of Breaking have helped me to realize is the all-important aspect of intentionality in ministry—intentionally adapting my methods to fit my culture—an act which traditionalists often fail to incorporate, and some modern evangelicals often abuse. There is a balance between these two commands from Jesus, which both the traditionalists and the modern evangelicals need to finally and fully understand.

The second subject from Breaking which has affected my future ministry is the authors’ comparison and contrast of missions and evangelism. What caught my eye initially was the apparent contradiction of terms between the authors’ Introduction and their concluding chapter. In the Introduction, the authors define evangelism as telling people about Jesus; they define missions as understanding those people before we tell them (3). In the final chapter, the authors write that one necessary ingredient to breaking the missional code is to no longer view missions and evangelism as two separate disciplines (226). This is to say that each ingredient is tied to the other, and as I approach my future ministry as a church planter and biblical educator in China, I must understand correctly the proper definitions of both missions and evangelism. As Stetzer and Putman suggest, in this new glocal context (5), to evangelize any people, I must first understand them. Therefore, whether I am an evangelist, missionary or layman, I must always be an intentional sociologist, studying and understanding those people to whom I seek to minister.

The third subject from Stetzer and Putman which I found most relevant to my own personal outlook on life and ministry is the authors’ discussion on code-breaking questions. Throughout Breaking, I found much of the language to be highly theoretical and therefore difficult to practically apply to my ministry here and now. When I reached Chapter 6, however, and discovered these four simple yet centering questions (81-83), I was then able to maintain a proper focus throughout the remainder of the book on what it means to be a missional code-breaker. These are questions that I will be asking for the rest of my time here on earth as I approach new nations, new people groups and new people. These are questions I have begun answering already as I now look towards my future in China, and these are the questions that will help me guide my own studies and training.

Despite the aforementioned poor editing of this 2006 copy of Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community, I have found this book to be highly practical for my own ministry today, here in this North American city of sixty thousand, and I believe it will continue to be as practical for me next year, in the Chinese city of about 1.5 million. This book has and will help me to better read my target people group, not simply so I can fit into their culture or niches, but so I can adapt the message of Jesus Christ to their culture in a missional way. I will keep this book for future reference as I continue now on my own journey—my own plane ride, as it were—in sanctification and towards that not-too-distant ministry in China.


Newton, John. “Amazing Grace.”

Rainey, Joel. A Comparison of the Effectiveness of Selected Church Planting Models Measured by Conversion Growth and New Church Starts. Thesis (Ed.D.)–Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2005, 2005.

Stetzer, Ed, and David Putman. Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

© 2010 E.T.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Church Health, Church Planting, Missions, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Book Review: “Breaking the Missional Code” by Ed Stetzer and David Putman (2006)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: “11 Innovations in the Local Church” by Elmer Towns, Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird (2007) | Elliot's Blog

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