Good to Great

The book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, explores why good companies do not make the leap to great. Today, we are going to take a look at what moves a good church to become a great church.

A Good Church vs. A Great Church

Collins defines a great company as one that has a “financial performance several multiples better than the market average over a sustained period.” I think a great church the would be one that has sustained numerical growth, namely through the attraction of unchurched people, better than the average in the same area.

Looking at the evidence and observations of churches that have moved from just being good to becoming great, there are two variables; qualitative and quantitative analysis. By qualitative, we are looking at the quality of ministry, while by quantitative we are measuring the quantity of their effectiveness in numerous areas.

I agree with Collins when it comes to the number one contributing factor to the greats. He said it all starts with leadership. John Maxwell says that “everything rises and falls on leadership” and I absolutely believe that to be true. So, the great churches usually have great leaders at the helm. And, just like Collins discovered, the best leaders are the ones that have a blend of personal humility and professional will. The sustainable great churches aren’t led by the celebrity type pastors, but often by self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy leaders who build great leaders around them – but they have an insatiable drive to get better and reach their communities.

A strong leader must be surrounded by strong team members leading their ministries. I have found that it takes more than just a great preacher to grow a church; it also takes great music, great children’s ministry, great pastoral care, and great administration just to name a few. One leader is just not capable of doing all of that on their own, therefore they need a great team around them.

I also believe that great churches are not afraid to confront the brutal facts. What I mean by this is that they have an incredible faith that they will prevail and grow as well as an incredible discipline to confront the most brutal facts of their current reality and adjust accordingly. Great churches also have a clear vision and narrow focus. They know where they are going and they refuse to clutter that vision with busyness and complex programs. 

Another differentiation of great churches is that they continually mess with the methods and move with times without compromising the message. They know that the methods are there to serve the message, not the other way around. So, they will continue to use whatever means necessary to get the gospel out to the world in an understandable way and they don’t get married to their methods. If it’s not working, they are willing to change.

I’ve noticed that churches that attract people from other churches and mainly grow through transfer growth are ones that may have a quick boost in growth, but it often isn’t sustainable. This is because if people switched churches once, they are likely to transfer again when something bigger or better comes to town. In contrast, people that grow in unchurched people and lead them to Jesus are more likely to sustain their growth because people are more likely to stay in the church where they became born again. They are also the group that is most likely to invite their unchurched friends and family to the church which keeps multiplying the growth and is much more sustainable.

Collins breaks down the transformation of companies that go from good to great into 3 broad stages; disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined actions. There is no doubt that these 3 stages translate into the church world.

Disciplined People

When it comes to disciplined people, it is important that the leader leads the way and that the leadership team follows suit; discipline has to flow from the top down. I think this is even more important because the church is largely a volunteer-led organization. Disciplined people is all about having the right people on the right bus – first who, and then what. This is so vital.

I often talk to pastors who say they just don’t have any leaders in their church. I have found that leaders don’t just show up, they are created. What I mean is that the leader (the senior pastor) has to invest in growing his team to become what the church needs. In the process of growing people, you will learn who you have on the bus and what seat they should be sitting in. This process is invaluable to the development of having disciplined people.

I have always set aside time each week and each month to train and develop my leadership team. To me, this might be the most important activity I do as a lead pastor. Paul said in Ephesians that the job of a pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” Equip means skill develop. So, my role as the pastor is to skill develop people in my church to carry out the work of the ministry. It doesn’t happen by default; it happens by being very intentional about training and developing a team. When you do this intentionally, you will develop the right people on the bus, as opposed to just waiting for the right people to show up. I’ve tried that and I soon ran out of patience waiting for the right people. I’ve found it better to develop the right people from within.

Disciplined Thought

Disciplined thought is about marrying both faith for a big future and the ability to confront the brutal facts of today’s reality. That is a juggling act and requires great discipline. I have discovered that great churches do this really, really well. That is what makes them the best.

I can recall an example of when I’ve had to face the brutal facts. We were getting hundreds saved every year but we were not seeing that translate into disciples. When we studied it, we discovered that we were seeing under 5% retention on our new converts. Grossly dissatisfied, we decided to do something about it. That’s where the My Victory Starts Here book and discipleship plan came from. Last year, we were able to retain 48% of our converts. We still want to improve on that, but that was a drastic increase and greatly grew our church because we were willing to face the brutal facts.

Disciplined Action

Disciplined action is about going to work every day to create the church you envision. This is rolling up your sleeves and working hard. It’s about creating a culture within your organization that will allow the vision to move forward. It’s about being willing to mess with the methods and change what needs to be changed in order to move forward. It really is all about a dogged determination to not settle for anything less than the best.

Level 5 Leadership

In chapter 2, Collins describes a Level 5 Leader as one who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman said this: “You can accomplish anything in life provided you do not mind who gets the credit.” I believe this is so important to sustainability. We need to refrain from the celebrity pastor led church model. Firstly, it is not biblical, and secondly, it can be very short lived. A prime example of this happened just a couple years ago when Mark Driscoll was fired from his church in Seattle. At the time, his church average was 14,000 in attendance. Within a few short months of his leaving, the church no longer existed. It completely disappeared, which is tragic. I believe great churches are led by leaders who don’t care who gets the credit and they operate with incredible humility. In my mind, a positive example of this is Brian Houston. For years, I had no idea who the senior pastor of Hillsong Church was. All I knew was that Darlene Zchech led worship. The music team was more famous, and probably still is more famous, than the lead pastor. I think Brian has done a great job of leading in such a way that it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, and Hillsong Church has truly accomplished much in the process.

Level 4 Leadership

A Level 4 Leader is described as committed to the vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision and higher performance standards. Level 5 Leaders have these Level 4 leadership qualities as well as the ones we previously discussed. I think the biggest battle for all of us “driven” types is the art of delegation and letting go. We do things ourselves because we know we will do it well and it is hard to release a task to someone who may not do as good of a job as we would. However, it is crucial to delegate and release the work to others. They will inevitably make mistakes, but that’s how they will learn. Let them have success and get the credit because what matters, in the end, is not who gets the credit but that the vision is accomplished. So, my recommendation for Level 4 Leaders is to let go and be willing to release.

Good to Great Leaders

At one point, Collins describes a Level 5 Leader as “ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.” The traditional mindset of a great leader often depicts a person with a high-profile image and a charismatic personality. But, Collins goes on to describe the top leadership characteristics of a leader who has taken a good company to become a great company as “quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated…” There was a day when these characteristics were not true of major players in the church world, especially in North America. I think there has been a subtle transition over the past couple of decades. Churches that are built to last have been led by no-name leaders. I think this is important because if a church is built on a personality, it will only last as long as that individual lasts in ministry. But, if the church is not built solely on a personality, it can navigate the troubled waters of transition and survive generation to generation. It is amazing when that happens. I think in the next 5 to 10 years we are going to see this become more evident than ever before because most of the celebrity pastors are going to retire and then we will see what happens to their churches. Depending on the outcome, we will know whether these pastors were great leaders who built their church on a team and a vision, or if they were just good leaders who built a mega church on a personality.

Good church leaders may look for someone or something to blame for stagnate growth. They may blame the economy, community layoffs, lack of funds, inadequate facilities, their history, the list goes on. Level 5 Leaders look at similar situations and must move forward without placing blame on external factors. I often say that excuses strip you of your power to change. The moment we place blame elsewhere, we remove our ability to solve the problem. We have to be willing to confront the brutal facts, take ownership of the mistakes, and be willing to change the methods. If we can’t do these three things, we will be overcome by the obstacles to growth and will stagnate, or even disappear. It’s vital to observe and act. I think the Level 5 Leaders face just as much adversity as everyone else, however, they respond differently. They hit the realities of their situations head-on and as a result, emerge from the adversity even stronger.

The Law of Velocity

In Chapter 3, Collins made about called Practical Discipline #3 which says, “Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems.” This really stood out to me when I re-read the book a couple of weeks ago. This is about the law of velocity; hitch your wagon to something that is already moving to make it move even faster, rather than trying to kickstart something that isn’t moving at all. I would love it if we in the church world could grasp this concept. The reason I say that is because there are a ton of really great pastors out there who are killing themselves trying to jumpstart a dead or dying church when they could be way more effective in the kingdom if they just attached to churches that have great momentum. There are other pastors who are leading nearly dead congregations in large beautiful buildings. At the same time, there are churches in the same community that are growing in temporary rented facilities or outgrowing their current locations and are in danger of having their lack of facilities inhibit their momentum. What if we were kingdom minded in our communities and married the great facilities with the great churches? What could happen?

Brutal Facts

I am always surprised when I hear a pastor say “numbers don’t matter,” or “it’s not just about the numbers.” When I hear that said, I know their church is struggling numerically. It think it is amazing that pastors make excuses for why their church isn’t growing, or worse yet, they refuse to ask questions as to why it has stopped growing or is declining. Numbers matter! Numbers represent souls and we are all in it for souls. Number mattered to Jesus; He counted everything. We know how many people attended almost every meeting Jesus ever had. The 5000, the 120, the 70, and so on. We need to be willing to count and observe the trends, confront the brutal facts if necessary, and then ask the hard questions to get the proper solution. It’s all about simply refusing to settle for average.

I think the major takeaway from this week’s podcast is to start with the determination to push beyond “good” and “good enough”. Our nation and our world have no need for good churches; they need great churches. Great churches led by leaders who are determined to make their church grow and are fixed on reaching the unchurched in their community for Jesus. We need great leaders who are determined to be great leaders, who invest in growing themselves and in growing their teams. We need great leaders who are willing to confront the brutal facts and change if necessary. Why? Because the church is the hope of the world and we’ve been given a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.


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