coverThere is much to like in JR Woodward’s “Creating a Missional Culture.” Where it hits it hits hard. Like most books that attempt as much as JR does, it also has gaps and weaknesses. In fact, that may be my biggest criticism of the book by the time this review is finished: in trying to do so much JR gets spread thin and the book suffers. But along the way he asks some great questions, offers some good pointers, and does one thing that is really, really important in getting us rotating around this idea of culture. Understanding culture – how it functions, what it does, and how it changes – is really key to discipleship these days. Why? Because as Simone Weil point out, “Culture forms attention.” More on this later.

I want to begin on page 21. When I am marking papers, I always compare the paper to two things: 1. My stated requirements, and 2. The goals – or thesis – the student sets out. So JR starts off with some promises, and when we are done walking through the book we’ll come back to this page with some questions. Did JR give us tools to assess the culture of our congregation? Did he help us identify, cultivate and multiply the five equipper types? Do we understand what polycentric leadership is and why it makes sense in this new social location? Do we have practical tools.. etc. etc.

PART 1: The Power of Culture

Chapter 1. What is missional culture and why does it matter?

JR launches us in with a story. It’s a good one. JR, I hope you have life insurance 😉 He gets into the nuts and bolts with a summary of missio Dei: mission derives from the nature of God, and a church without a mission is not a church.

On page 28 we are reminded of Newbigin’s church as “sign, instrument and foretaste.” JR uses Newbigin to set up the problem: hmm, Houston, we have a problem! Too many Christian communities barely look like churches, much less a foretaste of the kingdom. JR, like me, may have missed the richer significance of Newbigin’s statement: Newbigin, a good Anglican, is telling us with these three words that the church is a sacrament of the kingdom. That’s a theologically loaded term, and it would be helpful to look at it, because it has missional weight. We may come back to it later. For now, JR is setting up the problem.

Our churches are not very fruitful. We look like a collection of individuals more than a community. Where are the disciples, those living on mission with Jesus? We have been subverted by Western culture. Culture is a cultivating force (my words). We need a rhythm of life and bodily practices to cultivate environments that will reshape us (30).

Next, using Kathryn Tanner (Theories of Culture) and Philip Kenneson (Life on the Vine) JR tells us that culture is made up of narratives, institutions, rituals, artifacts and ethics that shape us. We are socialized into the dominant culture. JR is making the argument that culture forms us. In order to resist this shaping power we are going to have to create an alternative culture. Then the shaping work will be done just by our shared living and living on mission together. And secondly, this will necessitate another take on the function of leadership. (Btw, see also Schein on three layers of culture).

Chapter 2. How culture works.

Using Andy Crouch , JR argues that our purpose is to be culture makers. He notes that the complexity of the word comes from a long history, but its root sense is agricultural – from cultivation. JR will define the cultural web as consisting of six elements: language, narratives, institutions, rituals, artifacts and ethics. Next he spins these out for us. Based on the argument that we ought to be culture makers, how does our community accomplish these six things: creating language, creating rituals, telling stories. This latter one is a little more complex, since we inherit a story and then also weave our own in interaction with Scripture, Spirit, and the world. JR doesn’t specifically relate this element to ethnography, or to Appreciative Inquiry, but you can make your own connections.

JR’s take on ritual is interesting. He connects rituals to core practices, and then to the Church calendar, and then to liturgy. Using James K.A. Smith he describes liturgies as “thick practices.”

Next comes Institutions. I was glad to see JR move beyond the black and white, good and bad polarity that seemed so common a few years back. Institutions are an amalgam of systems, structures and symbols, hopefully related to a biblical telos. At their best, they are vehicles that help us go somewhere together. He quotes Volf that two factors shape our institutions: power structures, and the patterns of cohesion (belonging, and how we love each other. A great talk by Mary-Kate Morse HERE). These are really important elements in congregational culture (and if you know Systems theory, there is a tool for measuring the interaction of these two dynamics called the Circumplex Model). This is the first place where JR references “polycentric leadership” (41) and he relates this power structure directly to the priesthood of all believers.

Note: to this point JR has done almost no assessment. He has loosely laid out some components of culture relative to missional congregations, but has made no value judgments on any of this.

On page 42 JR asks some questions in relation to the symbols we use. What does our church name mean to our community? What are the symbols of success? I was thinking as I read this list that more pointed questions could be asked that would relate back to his assessment of the challenges we face. For example, “How do our symbols remind us of our covenant with one another,” or, “Do our symbols invite us into a shared missional journey, or a more personal one?”

The final section under Institutions is Ethics, and JR notes that they key question is this: “What does it mean for us to be faithful and fruitful in God’s mission?” He also gives a nod to the reflective nature of practice. In closing this chapter, he announces the next step will be to consider five environments needed to shape a missional culture.

Was there anything missing for you in this chapter? I was a little surprised that there wasn’t any reflection on how culture actually functions in its gestalt, forming way. Culture forms us – as Smith points out, through its disciplinary mechanisms – through practices, and through a vision of the good life. But culture is also a lens through which we see the world – think Taylor’s “social imaginary.” This is why someone like Ivan Illich can argue that, “To change a culture, tell an alternate story.” It is within that story that particular practices “make sense,” and leaders are ones who guard the ethos. “Leadership involves the creation of powerful narratives,” one scholar has said. “The skilled leader is one who can both articulate and embody a complex of stories.” (Howard Gardner)

The second section of the book is “leadership imagination,” and we may hear more about culture yet.

3. What’s Going On in the Culture of the Church you Serve?

This chapter opens with a quote from Alan Roxburgh: “Missional leadership is about cultivating an environment that innovates and releases the missional imagination of God’s people.” Then follows a Scripture quote, the APEST quote from Ephesians 4:10-13.

This chapter revolves around a simple thesis: that there are five environments we need to cultivate in order to shape a missional culture. JR intends to discuss how to shape these five environments in the third section of the book. The five are:

A Learning environment
A Healing environment
A Welcoming environment
A Liberating environment
A Thriving environment

(We could say this is JR’s own “cultural” version of “church health” – but I can see some churches giving their five staff members new titles…)

JR’s first point, “Cultivating a learning environment is essential to creating a missional culture.” (46)

“A learning environment inhabits the sacred text.. as a voice to be heard..”

“Real knowledge is knowledge that is practiced in everyday life,” and this includes action and reflection. (See also “not your father’s seminary.”)

“A learning environment involves dialogue, not monologue.”

This sounds more like a reformatted seminary to me than like the average church, or perhaps a parachurch environment. In The Great Giveaway (chapter four) David Fitch took on corporate worship as the production of experience. What is the “worship” service really about? Is it about the generation of experience or is it about formation and our participation in the Christian story? What should it be about? Fitch describes two sorts of worship environments in evangelical churches: the lecture hall and the rock concert (theatre?). The first setting is designed to stimulate thinking and personal reflection, and the latter is designed to produce feeling.

At the Aussie journal The Age Catherine Deveny described being “shaken not stirred” by a high-energy rock concert at a mega-church. She wrote,

“Christian pop, 80s power anthems, Metallica meets Cheap Trick. A mosh pit for Jesus was jumping with teenagers in rapture and a balcony of Planetkids went off for Christ. Music blared from the stadium sound system while the screen seduced us with slick videos edited so fast the phrase “subliminal image” kept popping into my head. Lyrics flashed up: “Come like a flood and saturate me now.” I wondered what Freud would have made of the disproportionate use of such words as ‘come’, ‘touch’ and ‘feel’, and the phrases “move within me” and “being filled”. My favourite was “King of Glory, enter in..”

Experience, let’s be clear, is important in the life of the disciple. But when the goal of our gathering becomes the production of experience, we are way down the road of romanticism, even solipcism. JR’s point is, “practice” – what we learn is not known unless it is acted out. Our knowledge as information paradigm is sorely lacking. Which reminds me of Brooks Atkinson, “It takes most men five years to recover from a college education, and to learn that poetry is as vital to thinking as knowledge.”

Each of these sections closes with a blocked out summary and some questions. For this section on learning:

How would you rate [your congregation] .. as a learning environment? (47) Additional questions sharpen this one. The only element I see missing would be a nod toward “the faith of leap.” In order to learn people need an environment that encourages risk, with permission to fail. In Surfing the Edge of Chaos the authors write, “Be the change you want to see. If we want to see more risk takers, take more risks. If we want to see more generosity toward others and their ideas, be generous. If we want people to dream bigger dreams, we must dream ourselves. If we want the whole person to come to work, bring all of yourself to work.”

The second element is a “Healing environment.” A healing environment helps the congregation seek “wholeness and holiness.” The experience of love becomes the engine of change. I am reminded of the work of Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, and also of a few of Larry Crabb’s books (The Safest Place on Earth). More recently, Pete Scazzero “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.” Grant Mullen has an excellent DVD series on emotional healing. How is it that believers can be saved, yet so bound up with burdens? (Mullen video interview HERE).

The third element is a “Welcoming environment.” “Cultivating a welcoming environment means helping the community practice hospitality as a way of life” (49). Some really good questions are asked in closing this section, like “How well does the faith community reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood?” A great resource for this one, in the larger frame of spiritual formation, is Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out.

The fourth element is a “Liberating environment,” which helps the congregation pursue God’s shalom, cultivating shalom makers. The key elements for JR involve the environment, justice and mercy.

The fifth element is a “Thriving environment.” “A strong discipleship ethos is developed and .. people are learning to match their passion with the needs around them. Mentoring and coaching are taking place at every level.” (53) In many ways this feels like a continuation of element four, spelling out more of the implications of shalom.

Five elements: do you think JR has them all?

This chapter bridges naturally to chapter four because “we need to think about the kinds of leaders needed to cultivate these environments.”

4. Polycentric Leadership and Missional Culture

This section leads off with a classic quote from Edgar Schein: “If one wishes to distinguish leadership from management, or administration, one can argue that leaders create and change culture, while management and administration act within culture.”

Got that? Leadership is about change; management is about maintenance. (Yes, it’s a bit simplistic but a nice shorthand; read Heifetz if you want to see how the two overlap).

JR opens with a discussion of art, making the point that “we are God’s masterpiece.” How does he does his painting and sculpting? (57)

JR is actually introducing Ephesians 4. There we find God’s design for building his masterpiece: us, collectively, the church. God gives five equipping gifts to grow His body to maturity: to completeness and beauty and harmony in its diversity. “A diverse team of leaders” will work to cultivate communities that look like Jesus. At the same time, “the whole church is the clergy” according to Markus Barth (59).

Of course, this is not the reality in most churches. JR notes that hierarchy and paid staff are the norm. He notes that this sort of structure does not speak well in a culture suspicious of power, and it does not take into account what we are learning about leadership from the social sciences. JR argues that faithfulness to Scripture AND connecting with our culture requires a shift: to a polycentric approach, “where equippers live as cultural architects cultivating a fruitful missional ethos that fully activates the priesthood of all believers.” (60) He then quotes Suzanne Morse:

“Successful communities.. will continue to broaden the circles of leadership to create a system for the community that is neither centralized nor decentralized, but rather polycentric. The polycentric view of community leadership assumes that there are many centers or leadership that interrelate. (The Community of the Future, 234)

JR doesn’t say more about what this actually looks like here, simply noting that it is not a centralized or flat structure, but interrelated. I get a hub and network picture: I’m making a guess here based on the quote from Suzanne Morse. An illustration would have helped.

This chapter now closes with a further nod to the shape of this equipping effort: again, “equippers as cultural architects.” This is the third time this little phrase has been used in two pages.

JR summarizes the points he has made on culture. All organizations have a culture. The culture shapes the community. Understanding, analyzing and creating culture is the work of a cultural architect.

You may be thinking back to chapter 2, recalling that we are all to be culture makers: we all get to play. But some are called to be architects of culture in the community, and these are the fivefold equipping gifts (I am putting 2 and 2 together, so I hope the answer is “4”).

JR notes that by definition a leader/equipper is a cultural architect. This is necessary because a culture will either help or hinder a community from fulfilling its mission. JR also notes that we need to remember that God partners with us in this effort and in fact the church is the creation of the Spirit.

We are now ready to launch into Part 2: A leadership imagination that shapes missional culture. Chris Lenshyn and I are reading the book together, find his post on Part I HERE.

4 Comments on REVIEW Part I – Creating a Missional Culture

  1. […] check out friend Len Hjalmarson’s review and take on part 1 HERE. Share […]

  2. […] imagination that shapes missional culture. See Len Hjalmarson’s original post here:  REVIEW Part I – Creating a Missional Culture In […]

  3. JR Woodward says:


    I appreciate the depth of interaction that you had with this section and I really liked the extra questions that you gave “How do our symbols remind us of our covenant with one another,” or, “Do our symbols invite us into a shared missional journey, or a more personal one?”

    Just to note, I am currently working on having a free cultural assessment on my website, and recently put up an equipper assessment. Just thought I would let you know.

  4. […] Part I (p 25-62) of JR Woodward’s book was “The Power of Culture.” This first section contained four subsections: […]