Faithful and Fruitful

By Duane Brown –

The path to effective and enduring ministry begins with a healthy understanding about the relationship between faithfulness and fruitfulness.

This was never more pertinent to me than during my time as a young church planter in Canada.  Throughout that experience I wanted my church to be large and successful, although I lacked a clear vision of success from which to function. Achieving the results I had set, and what others set for me, led to unhealthy practices and an unbalanced life.

The Scriptures are replete with the terms fruitful and faithful. The New Testament has 49 references to “fruitful” or “fruit bearing”; for “faithfulness” or “faithful,” 87 references. One could immediately deduce that faithfulness is more important to God than fruitfulness. But that is a mistake. Those who say fruitfulness is what really matters believe it’s not about how well you tend to the garden; all that matters to God is what the garden produces. And that, too, is unbalanced.

Halfway through our church-planting experience, several of us church planters gathered together for two days of rest and refreshment. The first question the facilitator posed to launch the first session was: “How do you define success in church planting?” Everyone sat quietly, because we didn’t know. In those moments of silence that ensued, our supervisor passionately replied, with his fist pounding on the table, “It’s the numbers! It’s got to be about raw numbers!”

Focusing on numbers rarely tells the whole story. More or larger is not always better. Neither is less or smaller, for that matter. Looking deeper, and accounting for the history, the people involved, and the context, we often receive a much better understanding of the reality of success or failure.

Paul the Apostle, a prolific church planter in the Mediterranean world, wrote, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Corinthians 3: 6-7, New International Version). The story I now share might help to illustrate Paul’s teaching. Paul reminds us that God is responsible for the growth. Using today’s dashboards, we might concur that Paul wasn’t successful or fruitful.

Early on in our church planting journey we began a relationship with a young family living near us. We worked and prayed with the hope they would attend church and become Christ followers. The three girls attended Sunday school occasionally and Vacation Bible School during the summer. We developed a deeper relationship with the couple when my wife, Patty, began providing childcare for the girls. We ministered faithfully to the family during those years but never saw the fruit of conversion. We completed our church planting experience and moved to another church.

Jump ahead 20 years! In the fall of 2018 I received a Facebook message from the lead pastor of that church. He has served the church for two decades. The church is strong and maturing. Hundreds of believers now worship in a beautiful facility. A satellite congregation was recently launched and is growing. He contacted me to say that the mother of that family showed up at church, out of nowhere it seemed, in the summer and soon gave her life to Christ and was baptized. In one of her testimonials, she pointed back some 20 years to the relationship she had with us and how that impacted her decision to follow Christ and join the church. I am confident that God used others to plant the seeds of the gospel in her life. The faithfulness of many led to the seed of the Gospel taking root and bearing fruit in one life.   

Effective and enduring ministry begins with a healthy understanding about the relationship between faithfulness and fruitfulness. We must resist the temptation to pit faithfulness against fruitfulness, as competitors. Rather, we are wise to understand that both as necessary to maintain balance.

Scores of our TMS Global cross-cultural witnesses serve God faithfully in challenging contexts the world over. If they defined success solely by visible fruit, they might easily become discouraged and jettison God’s call to mission.

We are accountable for our faithfulness. Partnering faithfulness with fruitfulness will usually be a tension we manage and never a problem we solve. Only God knows how the small investments we make in others will turn out decades later to bear fruit.

Duane Brown is Senior Director of Church Culture for TMS Global (www.TMS-Global.org.)

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