Many Christians can look back on a particular phase of life when they participated in a church community that was so rich, so fulfilling, so sweet, so amazing, that it tasted a little bit like heaven. A community that you never wanted to leave, and that you wanted to last forever. I don’t mean to idealize yesteryear. When we look back on times like those, we don’t forget the struggles, the sins, and trials, and disagreements, and heartaches, or the messiness of life. But when the experience of gospel-driven community is so rich, the bad pales in comparison. Pretty much every one of my friends who were privileged to be a part of God’s work through the leadership of JR Woodward at Virginia Tech in the 1990s agree that we tasted a little bit of heaven. My friend JR learned a lot about how God creates disciples, community, mission, and culture during those years, and in his subsequent travels and church plantings has learned a whole lot more. Recently IVP published book, Creating and Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World, containing his thought on missional church theory, strategy, and pragmatics.
I have no intention of summarizing Woodward’s book because it is too varied to do so. Nor am I able in this space to translate his original terminology into more traditional theological language. Because there is so much here that will stretch church and ministry leaders, I will not spend the bulk of this review touting all that is good about this book. Just buy it and read it! (Here’s a sample chapter.)
However, Woodward and I, while both evangelical pastors who are concerned with the non-missional culture of most American churches, have adopted different theological traditions. In others words, although we still count each other friends, our paths don’t cross too much these days because we travel in different ecclesiological networks. JR has found his home in the emerging/missional community of faith, while I live in the Presbyterian and Reformed community, particularly in the PCA. So naturally we don’t agree on several doctrinal and practical issues that have historically divided Reformed believers from other non-Reformed evangelicals. But our differences do not create unbridgeable chasms in terms of the ideas in his book. Thus I will highlight just a few of the subject areas in the book where his language and theory could be tweaked/honed to reach an even wider audience (isn’t that one of an author’s goals?).
First, it’s hard for me to tell who the author’s audience is. Is it mainline Protestant churches in decline? Woodward has obviously read much from the theological library of the best mainliners have to offer. Is it non-denominational evangelicals? Woodward’s Christian roots lie in this stream of Christianity, especially in the movement known as Great Commission Ministries. Is it unchurched- and nominally churched-background believers who find themselves to be the primary conversation partners in the emerging/missional church movement? Woodward’s current network of fellowship is mostly the emerging and missional church. Is it any Christian worshiping in a congregation with a hierarchical leadership style with a solo/senior pastor at the top of the authority structure? Woodward’s model of polycentric leadership, which drives the thesis of his ministry philosophy, seems to be primarily addressing these kinds of situations. Is it the Anabaptist branch of Christianity? Woodward wants to build a minimalistic evangelical ecumenism around the Nicene Creed and the doctrine of spiritual conversion, along with a desire for decentralized leadership to let ministry run wild and be messy, both hallmarks of the Anabaptists of the radical Reformation and their spiritual heirs.
Second, I appreciate Woodward’s polycentric leadership model derived from Ephesians 4. The five types of ministry leaders, when working together, would make for a team with biblical balance. Most people recognize (and lament) that churches tend to emphasize the gifts and interests of its pastors: either right doctrine, true piety, or humble cultural engagement. Woodward notices that when churches adopt a leadership model that gives equal standing to those with apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, and teaching gifts, and these leaders equip the congregation for the works of ministry that each leader is best suited to offer training, modeling, and encouragement, then the local church tends to look more like a community firing on all biblical cylinders. In other words, different leaders have different spiritual gifts to equip the church for the sake of proclaiming the gospel and working for shalom in the world.
But when Woodward identifies the role of “apostle” as a present day equipper in the church, I don’t think he means that such people have the authority of the limited number of apostles commissioned by Jesus whom we read about in the New Testament. For Woodward, the role of the modern day “apostle” is a person who has a focal concern for God’s people to “live out their calling.” If today’s “apostles” are “dream awakeners,” then label JR one of them! According to Woodward, the purpose and call of modern day “apostles” is “creating a discipleship ethos and calling people to participate in advancing God’s kingdom.” I don’t think these kinds of statements are problematic at all. With this definition, “apostles” today are akin to visionary church planters, popular itinerant speakers, church revitalization pastors, or traveling church consultants who settle into a church for a few months or years to help bring reformation. But because the term “apostle” in the Bible seems to refer exclusively to the first century apostles who were personally commissioned by Jesus Christ as officially appointed gospel ambassadors of the Lord, were granted supernatural sign/miracle gifts, and were guided supernaturally to pen the scriptural revelation of the New Testament, I think using the term “apostle” for church leaders today is at best confusing and at worst dangerous. Church history has borne out the danger of emerging leaders who appoint themselves as “apostles of the Lord.” Many have gathered sizeable followings or put themselves on the same level as the Apostles Peter, Paul, and John. So I suggest Woodward offer clarification on his terminology, or switch to another term like “church planter.” (The title “missionary” obviously won’t do because the missional movement seeks to call all Christians to live missionally—being missionaries in their cultural context wherever God sends them.)
Now for a few highlights on the unvarnished positives of this book. One of the most helpful chapters is “Cultivating Missional Environments.” Woodward advocates for congregations practicing “thick practices” (i.e., liturgies: practices that tend to shape what we believe and how we live) to cultivate environments that address the concerns of the five equippers. Thus Apostles will work to create thriving environments via the thick practices of Sabbath and disciple making. Prophets will work to cultivate liberating environments via the thick practices of being present to God and breaking bread together. Evangelists will help to make welcoming environments via the thick practices of hospitality and sharing God’s story (not personal testimonies!). Pastors will create healing environments via the thick practices of confession of sin and peacemaking through reconciliation. Teachers will cultivate learning environments via the thick practices of sacred assemblies and future-oriented (eschatologically-informed) living. Ideally, the five equippers will develop a communal rhythm of life to shape disciples into greater Christ-likeness.
Another helpful chapter offers practical examples for living missionally: “The Cultural Web and the Neighborhood Church.” Woodward has thought deeply, creatively, and theologically about what a church might look like as it intentionally reaches out into its neighborhood, inviting people to live as if heaven is a real place. His thoughts on the institutional structure of the church provide a strategic grid for refashioning mission, relational evangelism, and outreach into the congregation’s wider community. His theory of three-space ministry, worked out in the laboratory of several local churches in diverse ethnic and geographic regions around the U.S., modifies the common evangelical church model of large congregational gatherings on Sundays and small home gatherings mid-week for Bible study, fellowship, and prayer. Woodward proposes that small home gatherings should be bigger for the sake of stability, variety, and richer community. Thus mid-sized groups (15-50 people) meet regularly together as missional communities to express “their sentness together in specific missional spaces and develop a communal rhythm of life which forms them to become more like Jesus, incarnating the good news in their neighborhood.” Furthermore, he adds the idea of a third space called a “mission space” where believers and unbelievers mingle (typically more unbelievers than Christians) with a regularity and fairly predictable life rhythm. These missional spaces “develop around where people work, live, relax, or serve, and can be adopted by individuals, a few people or an entire discipleship community.”
Probably because there are so many fresh ideas in Woodward’s book, he may have felt compelled to include three appendices to summaries his conclusions, recommendations, and vision for churches creating a missional culture. Appendix 1 defines the five equippers (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher) and their roles, and clarifies how equipper leaders are identified and multiplied in the congregation. Appendix 2 is an Equipper Candidate Reference Form, which builds on the character and competency requirements in 1 Timothy and Titus to help church leaders identify whether a candidate is worthy of officially ordaining as an “equipper” in the church. (Note that in the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions, “elders” are synonymous with what Woodward means by “equippers.” Appendix 3 is an Equipper Candidate Interview form, useful for evaluating a candidate’s (1) character and virtues, (2) missional living, (3) theology, (4) skills, (5) specific equipper orientation, (6) case study question, and (7) network (e.g., denominational) association. All three appendices are useful tools for churches that need help cultivating a missional culture in their congregation, or for those churches that already have similar tools but might add further insights found in this book.
This is a remarkable book that distills the best of the missional conversation. Read it for its theological vision and its practical strategies for making the church salt and light for the world. Better yet, read and discuss it with ministry leaders in your church. Here is a Discussion Guide.
[Disclosure: The author, JR Woodward, was my pastor during my college years and is still my friend.]