When you realise that there can be great “ministry successes” based on “secret and shameful ways”, you start to prize faithfulness all the more.
When you see dry-as-dust ministers making no impact but claiming a justification in their plodding “faithfulness”, you might start to prize fruitfulness.
Which is it?
Three initial thoughts:
1. If the purpose of the discussion is to make ministers feel better or worse about themselves, it’s almost certainly the wrong discussion. If it becomes about managing our own egos in ministry then we’re already on the wrong footing. Too often we take sides on this one because we want to insulate ourselves from critique (if we’re ‘faithful’ but fruitless) or to congratulate ourselves (if we’re ‘fruitful’ but faithless).
2. The benefit of the “faithfulness” side is that it prioritises what God is doing in us before it considers what God is doing through us. This is good. God does not treat His children as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. The faithfulness crowd focus – or at least should focus – us on what God is up to in their own walk with Jesus before they ever consider “bums on pews.”
3. The benefit of the “fruitfulness” side is that no-one can be fruitful without abiding in the Vine. It’s possible to be a stone-hearted servant lacking any kind of vibrant relationship with Jesus. “Faithfulness” can become a cloak for “doing your duty” and all the sins of the prodigal’s elder brother come into play. The fruitfulness crowd focus – or at least should focus – on an expectant and lively communion with Jesus that just does bear fruit. It’s not the busyness of the builder, laying brick upon brick. It’s the organic growth of the branch that will be fruitful in connection with the Vine,
So it seems like both sides have good points to make: faithfulness makes me think of God’s work in me before all else. Fruitfulness makes me think of my position in Christ before all else. But in practice I find that both positions can unwittingly distract us from our true focus. The faithfulness minister can be too keen to protect their own ego when proper critique and hard questions may be in order. The fruitfulness minister can end up viewing “abiding in Christ” as a means to their real end – ministry “success”.
But if John 15 is properly in view then the faithfulness minister is directed to the true nature of faithfulness – not bricklaying obedience, but intimate communion. They are also challenged on the issue of fruitlessness – not, notice, “numbers.” But still, we should be asking about fruit. Galatians 5 fruit is a good place to start: love, joy, peace, etc… Jesus does not merely say “Plod along, the outcome is immaterial.” He said “If you make your home in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (v5)
Does this fruit go beyond character formation? Well Jesus did say that the fruit itself will abide (John 15:16). It is people who abide in Christ – not simply your Christian character. Therefore it is appropriate to ask “Are others growing in the Vine through my ministry?” No? Then something’s up. And Jesus tells you – abide in Him (v4), let His word abide in you (v7), pray (v16), love (v17) and you will bear fruit: promise. True faithfulness does result in fruitfulness.
And for the fruitfulness crowd – remember: the fruit is not the point. The Vine is. It’s easy to get convicted about our lack of fruit in ministry and to make that the reason we return to the Lord. Well praise God that something reminds us to commune with Christ. But desire for results isn’t the best motivation is it? Let’s never seek fruit for the sake of fruitfulness. That would be like using your spouse simply to have children. The truly faithful do not seek first fruit – they seek first the Lord. In Him – and only there – they are fruitful and multiply.