Robert Schnase writes that the most important fruits are growing, vibrant congregations that are changing lives through Jesus Christ.
The word “fruitfulness” keeps surfacing in church conversations these days. Scripture is ripe with references to fields and harvests, vines and branches, stumps and shoots, trees and figs. Indeed, the image of fruitfulness gives us a powerful language for understanding effective ministry.
What is the fruitfulness God expects of us and of our churches? Fruitfulness can take many forms. But we must be clear about the fundamental change we seek to make in human life through our ministry. The most important fruits are growing, vibrant congregations that are changing lives through Jesus Christ.
I was asked recently to imagine how the church would be different in five years if all our goals, hopes and aspirations were realized. I thought of a growing number of healthy, strong congregations of all sizes — congregations clear about their mission, making disciples for Jesus Christ, and making a difference in the world. I thought of confident congregations exhibiting radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity.
Then I realized these hopes could be made clear in very basic terms — churches with more people, younger people and more diverse people.
For some reason, we often hesitate to express this so directly. But if we believe that the Christian faith can help people grow in relationship to God, if we believe it can make a difference in the world, why would we not hope that more people experience the faith? I pray for more people worshipping God in churches and homes; more people studying God’s word in classes and retreats; more people offering themselves in service and mission to others locally and around the world; more people speaking out for justice and on behalf of the vulnerable. I pray that through our churches, more people learn the stories of the faith; that more people grow in their understanding and experience of forgiveness, compassion and love; that more people feel the sustaining presence of Christ through times of joy and grief, of decision and hardship. We should never apologize that we pray for and work for more people to experience and share our ministry in Christ’s name.
Imagine a church that decides reaching younger people is vital. Does it form a new committee? Maybe. But what if the task of rethinking ministry with younger people became the mission of every committee of the church? We must become intentional about adapting all our ministries and our methods to become more relevant and helpful to younger people. We must invite younger people into leadership and ministry with us. We have much to learn. But would God have it any other way than for us to give our hearts full of Christ’s love to those in succeeding generations?
More diverse people
So many congregations no longer match the communities they serve. Recently, a church discovered that nearly ten percent of households in its community were headed by single mothers. But single moms comprised only about one percent of the congregation. Knowing just that much information gives us a clear notion of how God might be calling that church to focus its ministry with greater intentionality toward single moms. The more a congregation slips away from matching the community it serves — in terms of median age, ethnic diversity, income, and educational levels — the more it turns in on itself and the smaller its impact for the purposes of Christ.
I realize that fruitfulness evidenced by more people, younger people, and more diverse people is no easy expectation. But consider this illustration that another bishop recently shared with me. She explained, “Sometimes you have to climb up the tree, shinny out onto a limb, and reach far out into the branches to get just one apple. Other times, you simply have to shake the trunk and pick up what falls. And at other times, an abundance of apples falls around you without even shaking the tree.”
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this description of harvesting apples. But what the story suggests about discipleship is true. I have been in situations where every small step toward fruitful ministry in Christ’s name came slowly and at the cost of great effort, careful strategy, and high risk. I have also been in situations where the harvest was so evident that I now ask God’s forgiveness that we did not do more in a season of readiness.
In many places, the challenges of expanding ministry are great. But remembering the parable of the sower, let us pray for those places where the ground is hard, the weeds are thick, and the rocks are real. Let us pray for those places where soil is good and the conditions are ripe, that pastors and laity may see the opportunities God entrusts to us. Let us pray that in every place, pastors and congregations may see possibilities and people whom God calls us to serve. And finally, let us pray that we may trust the ultimate end of the story in which the hundredfold harvest is promised as we work faithfully with an eye toward fruitfulness for the purposes of Christ.