Is Good Really the Enemy of Great in the Church?

On Monday, I wrote about a passage in Ephesians that I often find misused. I don’t find it ruin-your-church-worthy, but I do think it is used in such a way that is inconsistent with what I understand it to be saying and with what I understand about church life. Today, I wanted to expand on a leadership saying that those in the church often import without discernment.

(As a disclaimer: I like leadership books and I like leadership talks and I think that they can help church leaders make better decisions. I think it is all part of God’s general revelation into how the world works and how people works, but they aren’t canon and they never should be. )

Ok, so anyone who has worked in a team-based or results-based organization over the past fifteen years is probably familiar with Jim Collins’ Good to Great. It is a good—no, wait, I’m supposed to say great—read. I find it helpful—really helpful, honestly. Everyone has heard some variation of this quote from it:

I’d like to start with a challenge: Good is the enemy of great. Good is the mortal enemy of great. If you think about it, it’s one of the main reasons why we have so few things that become truly great. We by and large do not have great schools. Why? Because we have good schools. We by and large do not have great government because we have good government, and it works pretty well. Most companies will never become great because most are really quite good. Therein lies much of their main problem.  

The truth be told, in this great society of abundance that is the modern world,  most people will wake up at the end of their lives and need to look back and accept the horrifying truth that they did not have a great life because it is oh so easy to settle for a good life. Good is the enemy of great.

Jim Collins (Source)

“Good is the enemy of great.” It makes itself into church staff meetings at a pretty decent clip (at least it feels like it does). The statement is so common that it has entered the collective leadership psyche of just about anyone in North America who wants to take a stab at organizational leadership. And I get it; that statement sells and resonates with something inside of us about not settling. I love that.

So, a few thoughts here specifically regarding church greatness.

What I Like . . .

I like the way this statement inspires faith (or at least can). Churches need to operate by faith (Rom 14:23)—that’s kind of how the whole enterprise works. Along with that, a statement like “Good is the enemy of great” challenges us to work hard—another aspect of ministry that is necessary. Consider how Paul writes about his labors to the Colossians:

28 We proclaim him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 I labor for this, striving with his strength that works powerfully in me.

Colossians 1:28-29 (CSB)

Striving and working hard is not a foreign concept to Paul—it was a necessary and regular part of his ministry. Paul even lists some of the consequences of his hard work in 2 Corinthians 11.

24 Five times I received the forty lashes minus one from the Jews. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked. I have spent a night and a day in the open sea. 26 On frequent journeys, I faced dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own people, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, and dangers among false brothers; 27 toil and hardship, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, often without food, cold, and without clothing. 28 Not to mention other things, there is the daily pressure on me: my concern for all the churches.

2 Corinthians 11:24-28 (CSB)

Clearly, Paul wasn’t a stranger to working and doing significant, hard, challenging work. He wanted to see the world reconciled to Christ, and he spent his post-conversion life going after it. He never settled but he worked hard by faith to see the living and active God save people. That’s something we should all aspire to.

Saying “Good is the enemy of great” in a church context can certainly be helpful. We can all get a little sleepy (lazy) and statements like Collins’ remind us that we should throw our absolute best into our ministry—we shouldn’t be lazy disciples. We should want to operate well, minister hard, suffer when called upon, and do it all with the energy that God gives us. It is hard to argue with that idea.

Where We Go Overboard With Greatness . . .

At the same time, “Good is the enemy of great” often isn’t used in reference to suffering for Jesus or making disciples. Rather, we drop it as we plan worship services, structure communication strategies, build org charts, decorate buildings, and lead staff meetings. Those are all good things and, at least in many of our contexts, necessary things.

However, in speaking this way we have created significant irony: We seek greatness in the secondary (or “good”) things about church life, and we seek goodness (at most) at what should be the greatest things about church life. We’ve completely flipped greatness to make it attainable—albeit secondary—and the truly great things get the least of our attention (or at least very little of our attention).

Another problem is that the concept of good being the enemy of great in church life is that it appeals to the flesh. It can capture a minister’s affections (specifically a young minister’s affections) and they then give all of their attention into doing glamorous things for Jesus. I fear that some of the reason we like a pithy statement like “good is the enemy of great” is that it provides our flesh an opportunity to hide behind the guise of greatness. It’s dangerous.

So Where From Here?

First, you really should read Good to Great. I assume basically everyone in the world has read it by now, but I could be wrong. The book is challenging; it is helpful; it is thought-provoking. But you don’t end at that book.

Church leaders need to have serious conversations about what it means to be great, and they need to start with the words and work of Jesus. Here are just three examples to get it started:

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:19

42 Jesus called them over and said to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions act as tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave to all.’

Mark 10:42-44

22 Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, insult you, and slander your name as evil because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy. Take note—your reward is great in heaven, for this is the way their ancestors used to treat the prophets.

Luke 6:22-23

Greatness to Jesus is different than greatness in the world. Can we pursue organizational greatness? I think we can and I think we should (within reason). However, the greatest things to the Lord are foreign to this world. The most beautiful things in the eyes of the Lord are despised by the world.

The problem with pursuing greatness is that greatness is often mislabeled. We might end up running great church organizations while fumbling on the more significant aspects of following Jesus. Greatness is slavery to Jesus. Greatness is taking up your cross and dying to your own dreams. Greatness is wrapping a towel around your waist and cleaning people’s bathrooms with a toothbrush. Otherwise, we might just be gaining the world but forfeiting our souls.

4 Replies to “Is Good Really the Enemy of Great in the Church?”

  1. I had a really GOOD conversation with a friend about the ideas of good and great. He pointed me to Erwin McManus book, The Artisan Soul. I thought he had some great insights:

    Good has become less than great, but good and great are different. God is about essence and great is about excellence. Great is about execution and achievement. Good is about essence and ethos. There is a danger to aspire to greatness while neglecting the critical nature of the good. What does God say after each day of creation? It is good. There has been no greater act than creation, yet is was described as good.

    Also, Siang-Yang Tan has a great quote about the danger of greatness. He says, “Many of young men have said they want to do great things for God. Really that just means that they want to be known, and famous, and bring God along for the ride…A better aim for one’s life instead of ‘Do great things for God’ is to do things for a great God.”

    Great topic!

    1. There you go quoting people I don’t know.

      Biblical greatness still seems different that what you are writing. Greatness in God’s kingdom is not the same as excellence/execution/achievement. At least that’s what I’m seeing. The concept of excellence (as discussed in the church) is one that makes me chuckle a little bit, but I get it enough not to push too hard on it.

      Greatness is servanthood. Greatness is becoming nothing. That’s the standard—and its a lowly one.

  2. This blog is really, really good. Points me to greatness in kingdom living. Thanks Hans.

  3. Your blog really ministered to me. You need to write a book(s). Thank you, Hans. You remain planted squarely(?!) in our hearts.

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