I have been nudged three times recently along this path. The chair of our Trustees got me thinking again about this shift at lunch Tuesday, when he told me about a meeting in which the speaker talked about shifting from success to significance in the business world. Then two days later the website "Church Marketing Sucks" linked to this article about the same idea as applied to churches. My first nudge came a while back, when I heard Melissa's sermon about significance last fall. Added together, it has made an impact on me.
In the article that "CMS" linked to, the author (Eric Swanson) wants to flip the business cliche "Good to Great" that so many churches have glommed onto. Instead, he sees churches engaging in a different movement - "Great to Good." Even though this original article is from 2003, it is really appropriate today.
From the article:
But large churches discover a troubling secret. Size alone isn't good enough. Great or small, churches need something more than bigger numbers.
Congregations with a lot of people, an impressive facility, a big budget, and a whole lot of activities can rightly be called "successful." Let's just give them that. So now the question is, being successful, as you are, how are you significant? After the initial reports of your high numbers and net worth are out of the way, tell me about how you are embodying Christ in the world?
Yet Jesus' ministry is summed up, "he went around doing good." [(Acts 10:38)] 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.
This has been a favorite topic of mine for a long time. In August of 2005 I wrote
And what do we mean when we say a church is “succeeding?” Lots of people, (and more and more people every week), lots of money, lots of programs, super-cool facility, high-tech sanctuary, snappy t-shirts and coffee mugs with the church logo emblazoned on them. Yes! Absolutely, the church that exhibits these fruits can properly be said to be a successful church. The problem is, we are not supposed to be holding the church up to the yardstick of success in order to assess our faithfulness to the gospel. We are supposed to be holding the church to the yardstick of the cross of Christ.
Now, I have changed my mind about a lot of things, but not this. With the cross of Jesus Christ as the standard, our entire approach shifts from striving for success to striving for significance. We may have a deep theological debate about whether or not the cross is "successful" or perhaps we could redefine what we mean by "success" in terms of the cross or perhaps "success" looks different to God than it does to people - no doubt a scintillating conversation. But we would all likely agree that the cross is significant.
Swanson specifies significance in four areas: ministries of mercy, ministries of empowerment, ministries of evangelism, and ministries of replication. Ministries of mercy are those that meet an immediate need, like feeding hungry people. Ministries of empowerment are those that make a lasting difference, like teaching people to read. Ministries of evangelism are those that invite people to participate in the reign of God, transforming lives for an eternal impact. And ministries of replication are those that trasform followers into leaders, who subsequently continue in significant ministries themselves.
How easily would this translate into congregational life? I'm telling you, people understand "significance." It makes sense intuitively. It would not require a 40 day book study to implement. It is simple, and profound.
"Significance" gives shape to ministry in a way that "effectiveness" doesn't quite convey. Significant ministries penetrate deeply and work at foundational levels; effective ministries may move a lot of surface-level stuff, but lack the depth to make a lasting difference. At least, that's the way I hear those words - I may just be splitting semantic hairs.
It is the same with "excellence." It has been very trendy to talk about doing things with excellence, and I understand where it comes from. We want to give our very best in service to God. But excellent can turn into a synonym for showy, and may imply a layer of razzle-dazzle shellacked onto an insignificant activity.
"Significant" goes beyond "effective" and "exellent" in that it is possible to have an excellent, effective ministry that is not at all significant. Say for example, you have a very excellent, highly effective spelunking ministry in your congregation, developing some of the best spelunkers in the area. I've got nothing against caves, but the most effective spelunking ministry in the world is not very significant in terms of being the church that God calls us to be.
Now, of course a spelunking ministry may be significant. For example, if the church is inviting impoverished kids who otherwise would never have the experience to participate. That would be a ministry of empowerment. Or if the ministry focuses on the wonders of God's creation and learning to be good stewards of that creation. That would be a ministry of evangelism.
Becoming a disciple is deciding to be significant for Christ's sake. A church should be a community of people whose desire is to be significant, to make a difference, to move from great to good. Let's stop scrambling for success and start being significant.