This article was originally published in the ACR’s latest journal, which contains lots of helpful reflections on evangelism. You can access the journal in full here.
What does a faithful ministry look like? What does fruitfulness in ministry look like? Are these things distinct or exclusive or identical to each other? Does one take precedence over the other? How, in other words, do we correlate faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry?
The metaphor of fruit and harvest is worth pondering afresh, because a farmer knows acutely the difference between faithfulness and fruitfulness when it comes to his vocation. The difference is one of responsibility. A farmer’s responsibility is to sow seed, to water and tend the shoots, to harvest in season; he must be diligent, prepared, hardworking and persevering. He knows that if he isn’t his harvest will be unfruitful. Nevertheless, he also knows that even if he does all these things his harvest may still be unfruitful, because there are things beyond his responsibility, but rather belong to another: drought, storm, plague and blight.
A farmer, then, lives a ‘telic’ life: a life aimed towards and energy poured out towards a desired outcome, fully aware that while he can guarantee failure (unfaithfulness), he cannot guarantee a successful outcome (fruitfulness). His responsibility is faithfulness in hope of fruitfulness, not fruitfulness itself.
So, too, with the watchman whose role it is to watch against invasion: a watchman can oversee the demise of a town through unfaithful duty, but he cannot guarantee the life of its citizens (in this case, the people fleeing to safety). And it is this metaphor of the watchman that God applies to the ministry of Ezekiel, required as he was to speak faithfully and responsibly the whole counsel of God even as he heard it (Ezekiel 3:16-21; 33:1-9). While faithfulness would correlate with personal fruitfulness (he would save his soul alive), it could only promote—not guarantee—fruitfulness in others.
In a (Christian) world saturated with vision-statements, mission-statements, strategies, KPIs and metrics, it would be a timely reminder for us to flee back to the Scriptures and ensure we are clear what God requires of us—and what he does not require of us—as ministers of the word. For ourselves, our church recently heard Mark 6 read and preached. In that chapter Mark gives us a picture of three different ministries. First, there is Jesus, who preached the gospel and called for repentance and faith (Mark 1:14-15) in his hometown and yet offended those who knew him since he was a boy (6:3). Then we read about the disciples who were sent out to preach repentance (6:12) and yet not to linger when their message was rejected. Finally, Mark concludes his narrative with the ministry of John the Baptist, who preached repentance to Herod (6:18).
In each, a call to repent is given. In each, a faithful ministry of the word is exercised. And yet, in each, there is little fruit. Jesus is greeted with unbelief by those who knew him best (6:6). The disciples return exhausted and have to withdraw to recover (6:30-31)—remembering that whatever their ‘fruitfulness’, immediately following on from this, with the feeding of the 5,000, many turn back from following Jesus (John 6:66). And John the Baptist—well, he is beheaded and his head served on a platter (6:27-28). God’s last old covenant prophet, Jesus’ apostles, and Jesus himself: none of these snippets of the mission of the gospel produced fruitfulness, even though all were faithful messengers.
The apostle Paul’s words encapsulate the reality of faithful ministry and its correlation with fruitful ministry:
‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.’ (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
‘For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?’ (2 Corinthians 2:15-16)
And we’re not sufficient! We can’t save people. And preaching the gospel will always be difficult because it always involves preaching repentance. Whatever the efficacy of strategy, vision, and metrics, we must never obscure our fundamental insufficiency for the task. To do otherwise is to detract from God’s glory and falsely impute it elsewhere—like our systems. If anything we do implicitly (or explicitly) communicates anything other than God’s sovereign determination in election and call (in fruitfulness), we must repent.
But what a good thing it is that God is sufficient for the task. And it is his responsibility to save. He opens doors, he provides avenues for the gospel to be proclaimed even when we are bound, he is saving a people for himself. He gives the growth.
And yet, consciously or subconsciously, many are found sadly attempting to guarantee fruitfulness in their ministries. And invariably, if fully worked-out, this leads to forsaking faithfulness, or even redefining what fruitfulness is (if the definition of fruitfulness is altered so as to have any fruit, then who cares if it’s diseased, worm-ridden and rotting?).
Consider the decline into liberalism in many of western Christianity’s large denominations. Much of the compromise on ethical issues and human sexuality, of core doctrines like penal substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the uniqueness of Christ, and the authority of Scripture, came about because there was a perceived threat to the fruitfulness of ministries (people in pews). As a result, the method of ministry changed, and the criterion of ministry was no longer fidelity, but relevance. The western church is littered with the litany of faithful ministers who, out of good intentions desiring the lost to be saved, forgot their one responsibility in the process: fidelity. The fuel that fed the fires of compromise were the good intentions of those who wanted fruitful, growing ministries.
Closer to home, as conservative evangelicals, are there signs of danger for ourselves? Why is it that we have so many metrics (as useful as they may be in their appropriate place) to measure fruitfulness? What are our corresponding ‘metrics’—or ‘standards’ (or confessions!)—of faithfulness? Do they have precedence in our church discourse, our denominational and public life?
Perhaps there are some other questions worth reflecting upon. Allow us to draw attention to three areas, which will inevitably draw a response, given they involve real people making real decisions! Our aim is not accusation, however, but acuity; nor irritation, but illumination. The areas are: a shift to the city; a shift in conference emphases; and a shift in ministry appointment criteria.
The shift to the city has many flavours, from the emphasis on urban ministry pitted against the ‘suburban captivity of the church’ through to models of ministry that explicitly mould Scripture to present a theological emphasis on ministry in the city as a priority for the church. The consequence of both, however, is that ‘not city’ is downplayed. There is nothing wrong with city ministry! But what does ‘fruitfulness’ in ministry look like in rural contexts? We’ve been in large urban churches where there are as many visitors each week as there are members. We’re currently in a church that, while 15 minutes’ drive from the CBD, nevertheless is functionally a country church: a population of less than 5,000 and no traffic lights in the parish! Our parish boundary, aside from about 400 metres, is entirely water. We’re at the end of the line. In its 150 year history, what ought faithfulness and fruitfulness have looked like? What truths do the dynamics of country ministry remind city ministries of?
Playing into this, secondly, is the shift in conference culture over the last twenty years. We used to run conferences to teach the Bible (as simple as that), and to teach the Bible to laity. Our conference calendar is overwhelming now, with a focus that has shifted towards conferences for ministers and conferences about how to do ministry. We must self-evaluate. Does the skew also represent a shift towards prioritising ‘fruitfulness’ by downplaying ‘faithfulness’? Do we merely assume a fidelity to Scripture and so speak instead about ways and means to go up ‘levels’ of numeric growth?
Again, there may be a helpfulness to what is presented at these types of conferences—there is a responsibility to be faithful in the most faithful way possible!—but we must reflect on what the shift in conference culture reflects about the shift in our mind set about what is at the heart of ministry. Why is it that the speakers at these conferences are almost invariably the senior minister, and the senior minister of a larger church, not the small struggling ones? Have we, in our conference culture, implicitly equated faithfulness with fruitfulness? We’re not looking for personal invitations to speak! But when have we ever heard of a conference that promotes as its ‘keynote speaker’ (and what happened to ‘preacher’?) the minister of a small, barely surviving congregation? What does this say about how we correlate faithfulness and fruitfulness?
It would make for an interesting study to reflect on what effect our public conversation, with its emphasis on numeric growth and metrics, has on the disposition and demeanour of ministers in non-urban areas. It would make for an important and vital study to explore whether there is a correlation to be found by the pressure we put on ourselves to do God’s work of fruitfulness and the burnout we see in so many ministers.
Finally, we must consider our church appointment practices. The shift in advertised positions over the last decade—in Sydney—has skewed from theological education and ordination as essential, to now often being merely desirable. Instead, there has been a commensurate growth in importance of ‘managerial skills’ in ministry job descriptions. Where are we heading in this? Is it possible that, in a desire to promote fruitfulness, we are at the cusp of minimising the priority of faithfulness? When conservative evangelical ministers put out job descriptions for assistants that tie stipend and tenure to numeric growth in the church, are we anything other than Arminian? When did we get the audacity to make assistants be responsible for what is solely God’s with fruitfulness—but not even have the integrity to submit to the same horror ourselves?
We cannot afford to pursue fruitfulness in these hues. It will invariably come at the expense of faithfulness. To do so forgets that the miraculous work of salvation belongs to God—alone. Instead, we pursue and promote fruitfulness by pursuing our responsibility: faithfulness as ministers of the word, in season and out.