Recently, our church began the process of seeking the Lord and the vision that He has for our church for the coming five or more years. For this task, we gathered a team of 11 people, made up of leaders and lay people from our church.
Those who were nominated from the congregation were asked if they would like to be on the vision team before their name was announced. While I was calling each nominee, one of them asked me a very important question. They wanted to know what the goal of the vision process was? Was the goal simply church growth or was it more effective discipleship?
At first, I thought, I hope my friend knows me so they already know that my answer is more effective discipleship. However, the more I thought about their question, the more I was thankful for it. If one’s motives are biblical, then one should never tire of communicating them; in fact, in the day we live in it is essential. Motives and goals effect everything and nowhere is that more important to clarify than in the present “church growth” era.
In the first three verses of John 15, Jesus says that He is the vine and we are the branches and His Father is the vinedresser. The Father cuts off every branch in Christ that does not bear fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will bear even more fruit. Right away, there seems to be a huge emphasis on Christians bearing fruit. Later in verse 6, Jesus once again says that those that do not bear fruit are cut off and thrown in the fire. Then in verse 8, He says that bearing fruit is the way that we prove we are his disciples. From these verses one might suggest that “bearing fruit” is the goal of the Christian and the church, but is it?
The clear emphasis of the passage comes out in verses 4-11, where eight times Jesus repeats a variation of the phrase “abide in me”. Jesus makes it abundantly clear, that the GOAL of the Christian life and of the church is to abide in Him and His love. He goes on to connect our “abiding in Him” with bearing fruit saying that without Him we can do nothing, including bearing fruit.
Jesus is clearly teaching that “bearing fruit” is not THE GOAL of the Christian life or of the church, but instead, it is THE RESULT of the true Christian’s life. One might ask, “What is the difference between “goal” and “result”, when it comes to bearing fruit? Jesus seems to suggest that it makes all the difference in the world. Allow me to speak to both in order to help clarify exactly what Jesus is teaching, especially as it applies to our church’s future vision.
Bearing Fruit as a GOAL
If bearing fruit is the “goal” of the church, then it becomes important to understand what “bearing fruit” means? Sadly, this is where many in the church growth movement often begin to error. For many, “bearing fruit” became synonymous with “church growth”, and church growth meant more people in the seats and more money in the plate. If success is determined by the size of the congregation, and sadly in most Christian denominations it often is, then there is great pressure on pastors and churches to grow.
If growth becomes the goal, then anything that gets you to the magic number and is not illegal is permissible. And, if one is not careful, you become governed by what people want the church to be for them, instead of what God wants people to be for Him. Options about to ensure that churches grow and the ingredients look like a sanctified version of what the world wants.
The immediate results may be more people and possibly more giving, but the question is what is sacrificed for the success of church growth? Sadly, sometimes the spiritual growth of the lives of the very people who make the church look successful is the sacrifice. But Jesus tells us that we are to bear fruit “that will last”. Sadly, “discipleship” is often what is sacrificed for the sake of church growth, and though the church may stay steady or grow in attendance, its people, those who stay (but many more who leave) stop growing, if they were growing at all.
If bearing fruit is the goal, then it can become very easy to drift away from Christ in order to accomplish the goal. Sadly, the ends justify the means because, though it may be done in the name of Jesus, it is often done in our own strength. Jesus is emphatic when He says “apart from me you can do nothing”.
Bearing Fruit as RESULT
Jesus is very clear. The goal of the church is not to “bear fruit” but instead to “abide in Christ” with Christ and His Word abiding in them. Is this not possibly the clearest definition of true biblical discipleship? The church is to abide in Christ and is tasked to help those in the church to abide in Christ. After all, is that not what Jesus said in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28 when He said “Go and make disciples of all nations (goal), baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have command you.” Abiding in Christ is about walking with Jesus in joyful obedience throughout the seasons of life.
So where does bearing fruit come in? Just like in Ephesians 2 where we are told that we are not saved by good works but we are saved for good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do. In the same way, bearing fruit is the result of abiding in Christ (discipleship) and can never proceed it.
So, is there a place for church growth? Yes! But it must be as a result of discipleship, not as the goal of its vision. See, true Christian discipleship means abiding in Christ, and therefore, it means that we will naturally bear fruit as a result. Churches are going to grow, not because of strategies of their own making, but because they are obediently abiding in Christ. If a church is not growing, it is not simply a result of wrong strategies, because, as we have already seen, strategies may increase numbers but may not bring growth or lasting fruit. Discipleship done in obedience to and in reliance upon Christ will bear fruit and the church as a result will grow. That growth may not be fast, but it will, more likely than not, be lasting.
So, as a pastor do I hope our church grows? The answer to that question is YES, but through effective discipleship! Because without it we are not walking in faithful obedience to Christ’s Great Commission. Because, as much as we cannot bear fruit without remaining in the vine, in the same way Jesus says that if you are in the vine and you are not bearing fruit you are cut off and cast aside. But every branch that bears fruit is pruned so that it will bear even more fruit, fruit that will last. In the end Westminster is not my church or your church or even our church it is Christ’s church and He will bring growth as we abide in Him.