Vines, branches, seeds, vineyards, farmers, fig trees, harvests, sowers, soils, weeds, roots. Fruitfulness provides a metaphor for many profound aspects of the spiritual life and the Christian journey.
Jesus uses fruitfulness to draw our attention to our impact, the consequence of our ministry and of our life in Christ. He describes kingdom fruit, the effect and promise of the reign of God. Fruit refers to what Christ accomplishes through us. Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit (see Matthew 21; Mark 11) and describes the pruning of fruitless branches (see John 15). Fruitless means inconsequential, ineffective, showing no result. Jesus expects our life of faith and our ministries to make a difference. If it’s not working, stop doing it.
Jesus says, “My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8). Fruit evidences discipleship; following Jesus and fruitfulness are inextricably linked. Disciples bear fruit.
The writings of John Wesley are replete with references to fruitfulness. “Have they fruit?” was one question he commonly asked pastors, leaders, and churches.
These teachings and our passionate commitment to Christ’s ministry stimulate us to honest evaluation of the impact of our personal ministries, and the ministries of our congregations, conferences, committees, and councils. Honestly, churches, conferences, and other non-profit organizations are usually weak on evaluating outcomes, results, and impacts. The Call to Action explicitly invites greater use of metrics and evaluation to measure outcomes at all levels of the church. Some people celebrate this as a positive step, and others see this as acquiescence to corporate organizational models that have nothing to do with the spiritual life. But doesn’t Jesus clearly emphasize fruitfulness?
The fruit of some ministries are easily measured—in numbers of people participating, real changes in life conditions, homes rebuilt, dollars given, meals served, inequities resolved, illnesses cured. Other fruit seem beyond measure—the changes of the human heart, the growth in compassion, the stirrings of the call to service. Just because some aspects of ministry are immeasurable does not free us of the God-given call to focus on fruitfulness.
When we become unclear about our mission and fail to focus on fruitful outcomes, we begin to measure “inputs” instead of fruit, taking great satisfaction in how many people, meetings, dollars, buildings, and hours we’ve given to a task with little regard to whether these things have truly changed lives or made any real difference. Many churches and conferences have come to believe that spending more money, having a larger staff, holding more meetings, and preparing longer reports are progress. But these are all inputs. They are not fruit. The purpose of the church is the changed life—hearts deepened in Christ, children protected from malaria, vulnerable people sustained against injustice, the poor receiving access to education, mourners supported by the grace of community. There are thousands of ways of impacting lives through the ministry of Christ and a thousand forms of fruitful ministry. Some are measurable, and these we should count and learn how to do better. Where we cannot measure outcomes, we can describe changes and bear witness to the visible signs of the Spirit’s invisible work through us and our churches.
I readily confess that there are limits and problems with metrics, including finding the right things to measure that reflect and enhance ministry for churches, conferences, boards, and councils. Many strategies have us counting membership in a time when people are not joining, worship attendance in an era when people relate to the church in countless ways beyond worship, baptisms when parents are allowing their children to decide for themselves at a later age, and Sunday school attendance when most small-group discipleship takes place during the week. And far too many pastors, local church leaders, and cabinets are using numbers with an implicit “contingent/reward” modality: if I do this, then I earn, deserve, or receive that. This use of metrics risks becoming a disincentive to creative ministry.
However, when metrics are used properly, they become tools toward an end and toward the goal of changed lives. They help us understand what works and what doesn’t, and how to redirect resources toward greater fruitfulness. Even if we measure imperfectly and even though much of ministry is immeasurable, we have an obligation to focus on fruitfulness. Otherwise, we simply increase budgets, staffs, buildings, and meetings in ways that are unintentionally but insidiously self-serving, institutional, and inward-focused.
When Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches,” he reminds us that all our fruits derive from our relationship to God in Christ. When Jesus says, “and they will know them by their fruit,” this should make us extraordinarily attentive to the end and purpose of our calling. Our fruit is God’s fruit.
What do you see as the fruit of your personal ministry as a layperson or pastor? How does God use you to shape the lives of people around you and through them to change the world?
What are the most fruitful ministries of your congregation? What are the least fruitful? Of your conference? Of our general church? Do ministries need to be pruned? Do new seeds need to be planted?
How do you deal with the fact that some outcomes are clearly measurable and some are not? What fruit are describable even when they are not easily measurable?
How does the discipline of focusing on fruitfulness strengthen ministry? How does an attentiveness to fruitfulness shape your discussions, deliberations, and decisions as a church leader?
For deeper consideration, read John 15:1-17 or search the New Testament using a concordance or online resource for the words fruit or fruits.
For further reading, check out Good to Great for the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer. This is a short monograph by Jim Collins that supplements his book, Good to Great. Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us may be of interest.
Also, pick up Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results by Lovett Weems and Thomas M. Berlin.