Jim Collins's recent book Good to Great has inspired both business and church leaders. It is a study of 28 good companies that became great as measured by their outperforming the stock market by at least seven times over a 15-year period. Countless companies are now applying the "hedgehog concept" and other principles from the book, trying to become similarly great.
Likewise, many churches are seeking to become great churches. Entire ministry industries exist to help that process—from fund raising, to church building programs, to worship resources, to programming. And in nearly every community, there's at least one great church, as measured by numbers and facilities.
But large churches discover a troubling secret. Size alone isn't good enough. Great or small, churches need something more than bigger numbers.
Bob Buford, author of Half-Time, notes that at midlife, many people discover they've built their lives around "success" only to find it empty. So they reinvent themselves to build the second half of life around "significance." Similarly, Christian Washington, former investment banker and current director of Leadership Network's MC2 (Missional Church) Network notes that many "successful" churches are now in "half-time" mode and want to move "from success to significance." What's that look like?
The Bible says, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and … he went around doing good … because God was with him" (Acts 10:38). Wouldn't you expect more superlatives to describe his greatness? Yet Jesus' ministry is summed up, "he went around doing good." Maybe from God's perspective, the greatest thing we can do has more to do with goodness than greatness. Some churches follow that pattern—trading "greatness" in numbers for doing the "good" that Jesus modeled.
These are the "Great to Good" churches.
And this isn't just about big churches. Two-thirds of America's churches are either plateaued or declining. Not all churches are destined to become "great." But regardless of size, they can go about "doing good."
Good churches are those that do good things. The good that Jesus did can point the way.
Ministries of mercy
What did Jesus do? He did "good" through his ministry of mercy. Mercy is "God's attitude toward those in distress." Mercy is giving a person a fish so he can eat today. It's not attacking problems at the systemic level. It's just making someone's life better, if only for today.
It's why Jesus so willingly fed the five thousand (the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels). He didn't give them a lecture on planning ahead, or how to plant wheat for a future harvest. No, he said, "I have compassion on these people … I do not want to send them away hungry" (Matt. 15:32).
He did not solve the world's hunger problem, but he did make these people's lives better for that afternoon. And that was good. Sometimes we are paralyzed by inaction. With the overwhelming problems that people have, we often think, What good will this little act of kindness do? But Jesus said, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
At Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California, Andy Bales is well aware of the poor and homeless people in his community. Although there are nearly 1,900 homeless people in Pasadena, the shelter capacity sleeps under one hundred. The problems with "the system" are huge, but that doesn't prevent Andy and the caring people at Lake from showing Christ's mercy to those without homes.