Sunday morning. The acrid taste of dread fills your mouth as you think: I have to go to church. 

You want to go to church; just not your church. Your church is a ‘good’ church. The music is tolerable, the people are fine, the sermon is okay — mostly based on Scripture. But the whole experience slips over your soul like unflavored gelatin — tasteless and fluffy. 

Sound familiar? And that’s the experience of clergy and laity alike. In a world desperate for Truth, a good church just isn’t good enough.

“It’s a sin to be good if God has called us to be great,” said Thom S. Rainer in his book Break Out Churches (Zondervan). “Christians refer to Matthew 28:18-20 as the Great Commission not the Good Commission.”

Rainer is the president of Church Central (, the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and President of Lifeway Christian Resources.  

Many factors separate the growing, effective church from the mediocre church-as-usual set. It is clear from Rainer’s exhaustive research project studying thousands of American churches that too few churches and their leaders have the vision, passion, and commitment required to leap from good to great.

Or a focused desire to be great. Rainer said that too many on both sides of the altar say, ”I wish my church would… (fill in the blank). 

“Leaders in breakout churches stop wishing and start asking, ‘Lord, what would You have me do?’ They individually become part of what God would have them to do. When God starts changing individuals, He starts changing the church.”

Although Rainer and his research team found only 13 (!) established churches that transitioned from run of the mill or good to great, he is optimistic that any church can make the jump, but not, he cautions, without great sacrifice or evangelistic fervor. 

Said Rainer: “We did not do a screening of theology on the front end of our survey, but when we came out on the back end, it was with conservative evangelical leaders. None of the other types of leadership were even close. Quite frankly, it hard to do evangelism unless one holds to the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.” 

Rainer further asserts that the appeal of evangelistic, Biblical preaching transcends church=attending Christian believers. “The unchurched are only attracted to a church that believes in the truths of God’s Word. When you interview the unchurched, they say that they will only go to a conservative church. Essentially, they are saying, ‘We get enough of relativism out in the culture. We’re looking for a place that really believes something.’”

The driving force of evangelistic zeal has to begin with leadership — either clergy or lay — that is awake, convicted, and passionate.  

“We heard consistent testimony of wake-up calls as leaders progressed to becoming legacy leaders,” said Rainer. “Sometimes the wake-up call would be an external, dramatic moment of deep conviction of the Holy Spirit; or an internal contribution of the Holy Spirit. In each case, a sudden rather than a slow progressive movement caused these leaders to change. 

“In every case, a deep prayer life preceded their breakout to a greater level of leadership. I cannot tell how long that deep prayer life preceded their becoming the type leaders that they were but so much emerged from their own prayer lives. 

“Some of the breakout scenarios that we saw really did begin with laypersons who were prayerful and desirous that their church be the church God wanted it to be rather than church as usual. However, the breakout is unlikely to continue unless the senior pastor is on board with it.”

While a dramatic wake-up call in leadership was a consistent factor in breakout churches, styles of worship varied. 

“There is no correlation between style of worship — liturgical or contemporary — in terms of evangelistic growth. That’s counter-intuitive because most people believe that more contemporary churches have the greater evangelistic growth, But we have found the more contemporary churches have growth explained by transfer growth but not evangelistic growth,” said Rainer.

Rainer sees the next trend in church growth coming in simplification of a church’s focus by doing a few things well instead of trying to cover the gambit of activities. “Over commitment and busyness are killing our best people and the ministers within the church. I see churches doing less but doing what they do better.”

What Rainer and his researchers saw in breakout churches makes him hopeful that any church can go from good to great. “Don’t give up,” Rainer urged. “God’s the God of possibilities. All of these churches (profiled in Breakout Churches) were in impossible situations, but we saw what God was able to do when people were willing.”

© Rebekah Binkley Montgomery 2005

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