The One Secret to Building a Great Church

Our church planters often ask me, “What’s the one secret to building a great church?” They look at me eagerly, notebooks in hand, ready for my answer. I know they want a technique, a plan, or a guarantee. But this is what I give them:

Put your hope for success in God’s mercy and not your ability.

A successful church has nothing to do with the ability to lead, direct, or innovate. Literally nothing at all. It has everything to do with who God is and his mercy for us.

To prove this, just look at God’s preferred metaphor for his people—sheep. That’s a metaphor with some bad news and some good news.

The bad news? Sheep aren’t bright. With poor eyesight and drooping heads, they usually have no idea where they’re going. They step into streams and drown, fall over and die, or eat in the same circle over and over until there’s nothing left but their own waste. If a sheep ever gets where it’s supposed to go, it sure isn’t because of the sheep’s savvy.

The good news? We have a Shepherd who loves to lead sheep when they are dependent on him. The best ideas, the greatest gifts to the church never come through careful planning or brilliant strategy. Don’t get me wrong: There’s still value to planning and strategy. But when I look back at the history of the Summit, where I pastor, I have to be honest: The greatest moments weren’t the ones we planned for. They were unexpected interruptions, gifts of grace God put into our path because we, as a church, have trusted in his mercy, not our abilities.


Here’s another image the Bible uses for this truth—rock, shield, and stronghold. In Psalm 18, David put it this way:

The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies. The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. (Psalm 18:2–4 NIV)

David saw God do a lot in his life. If he were like most of us, he would have been tempted to conclude, “I did some pretty good work there! Not bad for a backwoods shepherd boy, huh?” Instead, as he looked back on his life, David saw something else: God, a steady rock when everything else was uncertain; God, a powerful shield when his enemies were innumerable; God, a safe stronghold when his entire life was filled with danger.

If there is one thing David’s life teaches us, it’s that God will be the rock and shield and stronghold for all those who trust in him.

God was David’s deliverer when David rushed out to face Goliath. That gave David a courage that no one else had—not even Saul in all of his armor.

God was David’s strength when he, an unlikely young shepherd boy, was anointed king of Israel. Nobody else believed in David—his own dad even skipped right over him. But God didn’t need a strong candidate; God would be the strength.

God was David’s shield when he hid from Saul. David even calls God his “rock,” which harkens back to the literal mountains David was hiding in. It’s as if he was saying, “I might have hidden behind these giant hunks of granite, but the real rock and refuge of my life was never a mountain—it was always God.”

David’s life screams one thing: Hope in God, hope in God, hope in God.

Hudson Taylor once said, “All of God’s ‘giants’ have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” That was it—just weak people, shepherds, who knew God was with them. God’s giants are weak men and women who reckon that God is with them, and their hope for any kind of success is the grace of God.

The sovereign God, the Ancient of Days, Israel’s Rock, the sustainer of the ends of the earth, Alpha and Omega, is with us always. The one who walks on water, the one who raised a little girl from the dead, the one who made the lame walk and the blind see—that’s who’s walking with us each and every day. Our God, our hope.