Anyone that has been reading leadership books in the last decade has come across the book, Good to Great, by Jim Collins.  In this book, Collins takes a look at businesses that made the leap from good to great, as well as what holds certain companies and people back from making such a leap.  He talks about a whole host of things in the book, but one thing I like that he says is, “Good is the enemy of great!”  I do not think that could be truer.  What keeps people from going to the next level in their education, their career, their marriage, and their spiritual life?  The answer?  Settling for good…for status quo…for mediocrity!  People say, “I have a good marriage, I have a good job, I have a good Christian life, I go to a good church,” etc.  The reality is, good is not good enough, especially in life of God’s Church!  The question is, “How does ‘the Church’ make such a leap from good to great today?”

As I think about that question, I am mindful of how some might answers it.  For instance, a great church might be classified by some as a church that has a large attendance, or one that has multiple locations; some might say a great church is one that has something for everyone, a place where there is no shortage of ministries; others might say a great church has the best music, or relevant teaching; etc.  Without question, a great church may have some of those things mentioned above, but is that what makes a church truly great?  I think the best answer we have is the example set forth by the Thessalonian Church in God’s Word.  In Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, we have an amazing example of a church that was not good; it was great!  But what was it that made them great?  Was it their buildings?  Their music?  Their staff?  Their programs?  NO!  It was something much more.  The Thessalonian Church was committed to the right things and Paul declared that they were a church that was truly making a difference for the glory of God.  As I have studied 1 Thessalonians, I have come across a few things that I believe classify them as a truly great church.  As you read these items, I have also posed a few questions every church should ask and answer before they declare their church to be great.

My favorite verse in the Thessalonian letters is 1 Thessalonians 2:13.  Paul says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the Word of God, which is at work in you believers.”  At the heart of the Thessalonian Church was their exposure to and receptivity of the Word of God!  Without question, this was a truly signifying mark of their greatness.  First, the Apostles actually gave them the Word of God and secondly, they received what they were given as God’s Word.  So, the first mark of a great church is one that is actually given the Scripture and then receives that Scripture as God’s Word.  The Thessalonian Church heard the Word and received the Word…and what was the result?  The Word was at work in the believers, just like Hebrews 4:12 says.

QUESTIONS:  Is your church consistently and faithfully being exposed to the fullness of the Word of God and is it received as God’s Word?  Is your church more centered on the opinions of man, or the truth of Scripture?  Is great value placed on the Word of God?

In 1 Thessalonians 1:5, Paul says, “Because our Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  He goes on to say in 1 Thessalonians 1:8, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere…”  The Thessalonians received the Gospel, were changed by it and then spread it everywhere they could!  A mark of a truly great church is one that has reckless abandon to the Gospel that has changed their life!  If a church is not gripped by the Gospel and compelled to do something with it, then that church is not a great church.  Great churches hear the Gospel, receive it and then take it to the world.  This is clearly seen in the Thessalonian Church.

QUESTIONS:  Is your church radically committed to the Gospel?  Is your church known for its passion for the Gospel and its commitment to spread it to the end of the earth?

The Thessalonian Church did not just talk about their faith, they lived it!  They had a walk that matched their talk.  First, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 1:7, “So that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”  An example of what you ask?  Well, there were many things, but I will mention two specifically:

  1. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says, “And you became imitators of us and the Lord, for you received the Word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”  The Thessalonians were an example of what it means to endure hardship.  They were an enduring church.  Paul mentioned their suffering on multiple occasions, but was also greatly encouraged by their willingness to endure.  The Thessalonians received the Gospel in the midst of great conflict and were persecuted for their faith; but they never gave up!  So, first, they were an example of what it means to persevere and endure hardship for their faith!
  2. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 says, “For they themselves report…how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God…”  Not only were they an example of perseverance, they were also an example of true life change.  They did not live a conflicting Christian life.  They were “in” the world, but they were definitely not “of” the world.  There was a difference about their life!  They had been radically changed from the inside out and their walk matched their talk.  Paul went on to say in 1 Thessalonians 2:12, “We exhorted each of you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.”  The Thessalonian believer’s walked in a manner worthy of the One who had called them into His Kingdom!

QUESTIONS:  Is your church a persevering church that is known for a high commitment to Christ no matter what the cost?  Is sacrifice and service visibly evident in the life of your church?  Is the testimony of your church one that clearly shows a people who are “in” the world, but not “of” the world?  Does your church have a walk that matches its talk?

In chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, I love how Paul uses the phrase “excel still more,” or “do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 10).  In the context of the chapter, Paul is urging the Thessalonian Church not to settle for status quo, but to excel more and more in the things he had challenged them with.  For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7 Paul says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor…for God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”  In other words, Paul was saying, “Excel still more in holy living.”  One of the marks of a great church is that there is a desire for more and more of God and the things of God!  A great church does not see holiness as drudgery or duty, but rather as delight!  The Thessalonian Church was a holy church; one that was not satisfied with being just good, they wanted to be great, as they did so “more and more.” 

The second thing Paul urges them to excel more in is brotherly love!  Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:9, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another,” but Paul goes on in verse 10b to say, “But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.”  In other words, “Excel still more” in your love for one another!  The mark of a truly great church is one that has true Christian love for others within the Body of Christ!  Jesus said that the world would know us by our love for one another!  A church that does not truly love one another is not a great church.  Unity should be the cry of the church.  Unity does not mean uniformity, but it does mean sacrifice and unconditional love (even for the difficult people J).  The Thessalonian Church was known for their love for one another and that made them a great church!

QUESTIONS:  Is your church known for its desire to “excel still more,” in the areas of holiness and Christian love?  Is holiness prized and valued in your church?  Is unity and Christian love evident in your church?  Is there an emphasis on putting others above yourself and is there visible evidence of sacrificial love for others?  In all of this, is there a longing and desire to do these things “more and more?”

Perhaps the biggest theme in the Thessalonian letters is the emphasis on the return of the Christ.  Without question, the Thessalonian believers believed that Jesus was going to return at any moment, in fact, some of them thought they had already missed His return!  As great as the Thessalonian Church was, it was not perfect.  In fact, there is no perfect church.  As long as sin exists, there will not be a perfect church.  While the church in Thessalonica did many things right, they also had questions.  They wanted to know what happened to brothers and sisters in Christ who would die before the return of Christ.  They wanted to know about some of the details of Christ’s return and some of the judgments that were to come, and Paul addresses many things in these two short letters.  What is not to miss in all of this though, is the fact that the Thessalonian believer’s lived as though the Lord could return at any moment; they truly believed His return was imminent!  In 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul says, “Remembering before our God and Father…your steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He went on to say in 1:10, “and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.”  The Thessalonians knew that the Lord was coming back and they lived like it could happen at any moment.  A great church will live, plan and act like that as well.  Great churches do not operate as though they have all the time in the world to get things done!  Great churches function with great urgency, knowing that the Lord could return in the blink of an eye!

QUESTIONS:  Does your church operate with a great sense of urgency regarding the things of God?  Is the planning, programming and budget of your church designed with an eternal perspective in mind?  Is the teaching and preaching of your church helping you focus on eternal things and prioritizing your life in light of Christ’s return?

Well, there you have it.  These are just five quick insights I have gained from Thessalonians and I hope you will use them to evaluate whether your church is “good” or “great”.  There are many other insights I could have mentioned from the Thessalonian letters, but these are five that stood out most to me and ones that consistently challenge me to be the kind of pastor God would have me to be.  We must always remember that God’s view of greatness is often different from ours and we need to be quick to measure our view of greatness against the truth of God’s Word.  My prayer is that more and more churches would emerge as truly “great”, as they seek to align themselves with the biblical teaching of what a great church truly looks like.