My father pastored five different churches between 1949 and 1994. His first four churches averaged 200 members, and his last church grew from 250 to 750 during his ten years of care.
A few years before dad retired from that last, rapidly growing church, I came home for Christmas. We went out for coffee, and he shared with me some reflections on church growth.
When he pastored his first four churches, he felt the “fruit” of his ministry was show in the parishioners’ growth in prayer, Scripture, fruit of the Spirit, and outreach. But when his last church doubled in size, he began to think of “fruit” in terms of Sunday-morning attendance.
He said he had never thought about numbers until he saw the membership increase. And when he saw numbers increase, he began to think of little else. He concluded,
Who would ever imagine that spiritual fruit could be measured by numbers, the same way GM measures a good year, by the sum of the pickup trucks produced?
The details of my dad’s temptation differ from ours. Most of us easily see through his bogus gauge of attendance. He did too. We are not pastors. We are nurses, mechanics, bus drivers, engineers, and homemakers. But we still have his exact temptation. Ours just looks different.
We each long to make a difference, to live a life that matters, to leave lasting footprints on this earth. And we scrutinize our lives, sifting through each conversation, studying each interaction with friends, hunting after that elusive quarry called “fruit.”
We stalk significance like the lion prowls its prey. Will I be remembered? Will my children ever thank me? Will my colleagues every miss me? Did anyone notice my brilliant idea?
When we see hints of harvest we rejoice, and when we make mistakes, we despair. Why did I give that stupid answer? Why did I run from that risk? Why did I never listen to my kids?
Jesus says that genuine, lasting fruit is the result of dwelling in him and him in us. Period! That he is the vine—the source of all fruit and nourishment—and we are branches through which his crop is unveiled.
I once heard a pastor say that if Jesus preached this today, he would say that he, Jesus, is the electrical outlet and we are the plugs. I suppose he is partly right. When we are plugged into God, his life flows through us, and our lamps give light to the world around us.
But mostly the metaphor is horribly wrong. It’s too mechanical. Every metaphor God uses of his connection to us is relational not machine-like. He never says, “I am the piston and you are the crankshaft.” He says he is our King, Father, friend, and (breathtakingly intimate) our spouse.
We would never cut an engine in half to make it produce more horsepower, but the Father prunes us—his branches—so that we produce more fruit. How can this be? The pruning drives into us a thirst of desperation to cling to the vine.
All lasting fruit arises from that spiritual, quantum–algorithm of our inner-soul grasping onto God for all we are worth. Actually, for all he is worth. Any other bounty—no matter the numbers—is bogus.
The world says fix your eyes on, examine, and measure your fruit; and you’ll know your worth. God says, “Come to me, thirst for me, hunger for me, cling to me, and I will satisfy you beyond all you can imagine.”
Our fruit is not the cold assemblage of transmission gears but the cluster of grapes created by an intimate relationship with Him; spiritual fruit is the explosion of intimate theology.
P. S. For many believers, our spiritual lives also seem unsatisfying. We ask, “Is this all there is?” God says that true, abundant, fulfilling, eternal life can be found: It is simply in knowing Him (John 17:3).
God made us to hear his voice, and in hearing His voice, we come to know him and find that overflowingly rich life. To nurture that conversational relationship with your Father, I suggest you read Hearing God in Conversation. Because there is more for us all: