REVIEW: JR Woodward’s Creating a Missional Culture

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I am way late with this review.

Not that I had a deadline or anything, but I purchased my Kindle copy of J.R. Woodward’sCreating a Missional Culture sometime in the early summer, and I just finished it a week or so ago. That is, probably, a telling glimpse into my life of late – reading time is difficult to come by with two tiny kids (1 and 2.5 years old), and some recent (intense) transition that has been pretty draining. The latter point, in fact, probably has less to do with lack of time and more to do with OMG-no-energy-for-this, as much as I may try to hide that reality from folks in both the real and virtual world.

Not to make this all about me (seriously, I’m gonna review the book), but there’s even more to this connection between personal transition and Creating a Missional Culture. See, I hit the one-click buy button on Amazon at the precise moment when the most difficult part of this transition was beginning – that is, the beginning of the end of our four year old church plant, Dwell. In June we entered a last-ditch phase of scaling back to one home-based gathering (ending our public Sunday gathering) in hopes of regrouping for a replanting effort this fall. In short, the regroup/replant didn’t happen; and come August, we made the excruciating decision to close the church plant for good, opening the floodgates for difficult spiritual, emotional, and vocational challenges for my wife and I.

In the midst of all that, and even up to the present moment, J.R.’s book has been an amazing comfort and inspiration.

In fact, yesterday (seriously, I’m going to review the book), I met with two ministers from the local United Methodist congregation where I’ve been attending services lately. We began to talk about the possibility of an aging and traditional congregation like this one experiencing new missional life – which led inevitably to me talking about the present book. And the conversation itself became alive; the very real potential latent in this anchored, resourced, multi-generational congregation to build onto its ecclesial foundation a missional, equipping structure literally stirred our hearts and raised our voices in the unsuspecting local cafe.

Forgive me if this review is less than academic or thorough, as the book deserves both. But, with this very personal context set, let me undertake this in two simple sections: Comfort & Inspiration.

Comfort

Full disclosure: I know J.R. Woodward.

I met the author in Washington, D.C., at the national conference for the Ecclesia Network. I knew of his blog before that, and loved what I was reading there. The man proved to be better than the blog; I felt welcomed and affirmed by J.R. as we  became acquainted, sharing stories and ideas about the missional movement at this moment in time.

I was also deeply impacted by J.R.’s talk on the final day of the event. It was, essentially, a talk about leadership and reconciliation. And, it was an honest look at the opposition that leaders sometimes face, no matter how sincere they are in their efforts, and the deep pain caused by this kind of conflict. J.R. was brutally honest in sharing his own experience of this, confessing that while he is certainly not perfect, the punishment does not fit the crime. This brought me to tears.

In the same way, when I read Chapter 8 of the present book, called “Embracing Emotional Health,” I was warmly comforted by the truth being told, to the point of tears. I was also challenged by the vision for leadership present here – and throughout the book – that may provide a way beyond some of these experiences.

Chapter 8 had me from the opening story of a church planter J.R. had met:

I could tell that his story was still recent and raw, for as this church planter shared with me the emotional hurts he had endured in his attempt to plant a church in a large East Coast city I could feel his heart breaking right before me. His core team decided that they no longer wanted to follow his leadership, so they proceeded to carry out a spiritual mutiny, which left my friend emotionally scarred, probably for life.

Whoa.

A few pages later, J.R. tells about his first five years church-planting in L.A. and confides, “I know what it’s like to be stabbed in the back… I don’t have the time or the emotional energy to share the degree and duration of the hurt and pain I experienced…” 

Double whoa.

The comfort here is palpable for me because, as other leaders may understand, it is quite nearly impossible to explain or defend your perspective once a church community, especially a small and very young one, has started sliding into angst and discontent. To hear, and read, “I understand, I’ve been there,” is like an oasis in the desert. Actually, I think it’s even better than that. It is healing balm for a wounded, dying soul.

Throughout the chapter the comfort slowly and sneakily transforms into challenge: What may be the cause for these kinds of painful frontier struggles for church planters? What is at the root that may be choking out the fruit? Woodward’s answer is, in part, the lack of polycentric leadership - a true plurality among equipping leaders at the center of a church endeavor. Only with this structure, Woodward contends, can there be an honest journey toward wholeness among leaders themselves that is then “caught” by the congregation itself, eliminating the toxicity that may enter the equation when only one person is both qualified and committed to lead in a visionary capacity (again, however “good” and well-intentioned that leader may be).

This polycentric structure is one of the book’s main themes, fleshed out in the five equipping gifts of Ephesians 4 – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. While I grew up in a Pentecostal environment that had a very different take on what these gifts were all about, J.R. (rightly, in my view) zeroes in on these as iterations of the basic “elder” or “overseer” role in the church, and then gives them very-L.A. nicknames: Dream Awakeners, Heart Revealers, Story Tellers, Soul Healers, and Light Givers. These nicknames help to describe the unique function of each gift; but, again, the common function is equipping - bringing the church community itself into works of ministry, service, and mission through the gifts they all have been given by the Holy Spirit at work in the church.

Taken together, there is, again, much comfort here for weary folks like myself, alongside the ecclesial challenge. In fact, perhaps comfort and challenge are married in another of J.R.’s themes: a leadership that really, truly relinquishes control. It’s elementary to his thesis that, if a missional culture is really going to take root in a local church community, if there really is going to be the kind of vitality that results in a community living differently than the world for the sake of the world, than there must be leaders who follow the New Testament pattern of really giving control of the outcome to the Spirit of  Jesus. Channeling missiologist Roland Allen, Woodward urges us to practice the principles of “cross and wind” – sacrificial servant-leadership that releases the results to the wind of the Spirit.

Paul was not the king of the communities of faith he started, he was their servant, for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor 4:5). Paul ‘believed that Christ was able and willing to keep that which he had committed to Him. He believed that He would perfect His church, and He would establish, strengthen, settle his converts. He believed, and acted as if he believed.’

Woodward continues:

We aren’t building and expanding a business, we are partnering with God to build the church for the sake of his kingdom… The significant lesson Roland Allen repeats throughout his writings is Paul’s unwavering belief in the Holy Spirit’s work in other people’s lives. He notes how Paul ‘practiced retirement’ (released control and literally moved on to another city within two years or so) to allow the Spirit to work freely among the new believers. Allen brings to our attention that Paul planted churches and taught the new believers how to rely on the Spirit apart from Paul’s direct involvement.

The conclusion? “Central to developing a missional culture is for leaders to cede control to and to model and teach reliance on the Holy Spirit.”

This doesn’t mean that leaders don’t lead. This doesn’t mean that leaders don’t take a stand or work hard to communicate vision and pursue unity in that vision. What this means, to me, is that having done that hard work, the apparent failure of my church-planting endeavor does not have to mean that I am a failure, or that my calling as an equipping leader is somehow invalid (however discouragement may set in from time to time). No, God’s gift and his call are irrevocable. Nor am I left to conclude that the challenges which arose during this wild church planting endeavor are necessarily a sign of God’s disapproval. If that were the case, most of the churches Paul founded would have been handed the same sentence, as intense challenges afflicted them, and Paul (like Jesus) found himself abandoned in the end. No, this is out of our control. And that’s good. Because the outcome is really, truly, the Holy Spirit’s job.

And after all the effort, the stress and strain and sleepless nights, the love and time and sacrifice and overflowing tears, it really is Jesus who builds his church and God who gives the increase in people’s lives.

And that is comfort, indeed.

Inspiration

I doubt J.R. would desire comparison to an exiled prisoner prone to wild hallucinations, but his book is, in many ways, a “revelation.” Now, it is not one of those end-times-y things about numbers and beasts and flying out of cars and Middle East conflict leading to the battle of Armageddon; but it is a vision of the church, and, in my estimation, a desperately needed one.  This is nothing less than the Apocalypse of J.R. (revealing something hidden from many in the Western church).

And as revelations tend to be, it is quite inspired, and inspiring.

J.R. begins by breaking down the concept of culture itself. It’s not enough to think of culture in the anthropological sense, as the habits or customs of a particular people group in a particular time and place. Rather, the bare-bones definition of culture is “what humans make of creation.” That is, culture is that unseen, assumed thing in the background of everything we do. And culture is created by engaging with six elements in the “cultural web”: language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, institutions, and ethics.

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photo: Creative Collider

While the author breaks each of these down into even finer bits, I was especially encouraged by his definition of “institutions.”  He begins with this: an institution is a stable social structure “that develops when at least two people do the same thing together repeatedly.” Institutions are inevitable in this sense and not negative in and of themselves. Then, Woodward channels Miroslav Volf:

According to Volf, two primary factors shape the life of an institution: the pattern of power distribution and internal cohesion and unity. Understanding how a congregation handles power distribution and how they maintain unity when it comes to their vision, strategy and marks of faithfulness helps discern the culture of the church. If the church as an institution is going to be missional, I believe the church needs a polycentric approach to leadership, where the equippers enable their fellow priests to live to their sacred potential. Thus the entire body is activated for God’s mission in the world.

Let me pause here and tell you why I’m so inspired. I’ve been a part of the missional conversation for six or seven years, and I must say that the conversation has become discouraging of late. In short, it’s become terribly superficial, emphasizing this strategy or that church form as theway to reach our post-Christian culture. It seems contrived and agenda-driven. But what J.R. does in this book is take that conversation back where it belongs – to the root. See, I’ve long listened to conference speakers opining about how the problem is the “institutional church” with its buildings and staff and budgets and programs, and what we really need is to get back to organic house churches with none of those things and watch the people flood into the kingdom. Or, there are folks who are doing nothing to change the way the church institution operates but just adding a slick, relevant delivery and calling it “missional,” and waiting for the same flood of conversions.

But, in my experience, neither of those approaches get at the real goal of a powerful kingdom presence in the neighborhood that really brings God’s peace and right-making into real people’s lives. See, we can’t escape institution, and it’s not about ditching the entire external structure anyway; but we must change the culture of our churches so that the life of the Spirit can flow freely and bring real, lasting change. This is what got those ministers and I so excited in the cafe the other day.

Perhaps this is all summed up well in J.R.’s correction that the goal of all of this, for goodness’ sakes, is for God’s people to come to spiritual maturity and actually be more like Jesus in the world! And then this: “Becoming more like Jesus is not a matter of trying but yielding, setting the sails of our lives to catch the wind of the Spirit.” The culture of a congregation determines whether this atmosphere of yielding to the Spirit and being transformed will be present, or whether there will be a dragging down of the community to their “basest instincts.”

I realize that this is precisely where I am shortchanging you, my blog reader, to the real beauty of this book. Because I’m essentially giving you bookends, combined with some autobiographical drama, and missing the unbelievably juicy middle of J.R.’s vision. But that’s why it’s a review, I guess – because now you need to go get the book to fill in that rather large blank.

But let me end on this note. J.R.’s treatment of Ephesians 4 and the fivefold gifts (APEST – apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher – or the L.A. nicknames, if you prefer) is applied to the six elements of the cultural web, with results that are, you guessed it, inspiring. In fact, as I sit here next to my Christmas tree, dreaming of what God may have for my wife and I in this next season of life, it is this vision that energizes my imagination. What if it were possible to see a polycentric leadership functioning in an honest pursuit of wholeness, equipping the congregation to function in their own gifts and callings by the power of the Spirit? What if it were possible to then see language, artifacts, narratives, rituals, ethics, even institutions, arise that were shaped through community environments that each equipper uniquely creates? Thriving, liberating, welcoming, healing and learning environments?

What if it were possible for this kind of church community – one in which the value of gathering and liturgy are celebrated, while discipleship groups and missional spaces are equally emphasized; in which experiments like meeting in the round with the Lord’s Table at the center are welcomed; one in which issues of power really are addressed, and a polycentric leadership really does act in humility – what if this kind of church community could take up residence in the neighborhood?

Well, then the kingdom of God would be breaking in.

I’ll end with a bit of the prayer Woodward ends with, a prayer that reflects the cry of my heart at this very moment in time:

Father,

We yearn to be the church you want us to become,

Shape us into something beautiful.

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photo: Dwell’s old location in the South End of Burlington, Vt

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.


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