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When Jesus talks about fruitfulness, he is not afraid to throw around numbers — numbers like a hundredfold, sixtyfold, and thirtyfold. So does this mean pastoring a small church that is not growing is less fruitful than pastoring a large, growing church? It’s a question from a listener named Wilson, a discouraged pastor. “Dear Pastor John, I was told by a seminary professor that to bear fruit is to reach an increasing number of souls with the gospel. I think he gets this from Matthew 13:23. Basically, if you only serve a handful of people (a congregation of forty, for example), you are not bearing as much fruit as a larger church. God is investing in you and seeing less significant fruit in return. He wants big fruit measured in the hundred-folds. I believe many pastors, especially from small churches, struggle with the weight of this pressure. What is the fruit that Jesus meant when he says ‘bearing fruit?’ Is it number of converts? Is it personal holiness or repentance? And how did you define success and fruit in your own pastoral labor?”

Well, I sure want to be used by God at this moment to help the discouraged pastor keep his hand on the plow. When John the Baptist comes in preparation for Jesus, one huge part of his message is “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Luke goes on to record:

“Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:9–14)

In other words, what is completely clear is that bearing fruit as John the Baptist intends it is a new kind of love. It’s unselfish, it’s loving, it’s kind, it’s sacrificial, it’s generous, and it flows from a heart of repentance and trust in God.

Ripe Fruit

Jesus picks up the same language in Matthew 12 and says, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil?” If the tree is evil, it’s not going to bear good fruit. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:33–34).

So the specific fruit that Jesus has in mind here is language coming out of the mouth that is loving, kind, honest, gracious, helpful, or upbuilding rather than damning and condemning, putting people down.

“You will know them by their fruit” (see Matt 7:20) means there’s an internal condition of the heart that expresses itself in outward words and actions. Fruit for Jesus at this point, then, is new kinds of words and actions that accord with faith and repentance.

Then we come to John 15, which I think is probably the most important section on fruit. He is using the imagery of fruit and the vine being grafted into the vine. I think he’s talking about a transformed life of sacrificial love (but it probably also flows over into people being influenced by this and coming to do it themselves).

Here are the key verses: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So, fruit is the opposite of nothing. In other words, fruit is everything we do that can only be done by the power of Christ, which would include our entire moral transformation by the power of the Spirit flowing through Christ and the effect it has on other people.

Love One Another

Then he goes on in John 15:8 and says, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” This sounds a lot like Mathew 5:16, which says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

This would incline me to think he has in mind here a real, significant, transformed, visible, new kind of behavior. Then John goes on and says, “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15:9–10). Then he adds in John 15:12–13, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The paragraph ends with John 15:17: “These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”

The very least that we can say about the fruit that Jesus is saying will be produced by his disciples is that they love each other — they love people — which I think is confirmed in John 15:2, where it says, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he takes away.”

In other words, love is absolutely essential to confirm that we are truly abiding in the vine — truly born again. That’s exactly what John says in his epistle: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14).

Paul’s Take

Of course, when we turn to the apostle Paul, we find almost the same kind of thing as he uses the imagery of fruit-bearing over and over again, and it’s a transformed heart of love, joy, and peace.

For example, Galatians 5:22 says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace. . . .” Colossians 1:10 says, “Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work.” Ephesians 5:9 reminds us, “The fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Titus 3:14: “Let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.”

Not in Our Hands

Now, to what degree this kind of faith-filled, self-denying, fruit-bearing love and good deeds will lead to the conversion of sinners and grow a big church is decisively in God’s hands, not ours.

We pray for this. Of course, we want this to happen, and we strive for this. This is God’s intention. He says, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

There is no artificial disconnection between our bearing the fruit of love and others being moved by it — changed by it — but they are not identical. We don’t have ultimate control over the response of other people.

The decisive assessment of the success of our ministry (this is Wilson’s question) is whether we have been faithful, not the number of our converts.

What God will hold pastors accountable for (indeed all of us) is “Have we fought the good fight of faith? Have we put to death the evil deeds in our own hearts and bodies by the power of the Spirit? Have we walked in love? Have we preached the word with faithfulness and courage and without compromise?

“Have we maintained a life of earnest prayer for ourselves and for our people? Have we loved and pursued lost people? Have we been faithful with the ordinances of the church and with the right ordering of church discipline? Have we kept the global purposes of God in world missions and the Great Commission before us with concern and prayer and advocacy? Have we cared about suffering people inside and outside the church and done what we could in acts of compassion and justice?”

These are the things that we should devote ourselves to because we can do them by the power of the Spirit. For some, God blesses this faithfulness with many converts, for others fewer, but the joy of the Lord will be our strength. The triumph over sin and the loving of other people and faithfulness to God’s word rooted in the gospel — this will be our peace.

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Jeff Strite

commented on Sep 27, 2017

The following article is from my files. According to research, small churches are actually more productive per captita than larger churches. Both have their value, but large churches don't have the same advantages smaller ones do Neil Cole is the founder and executive director of Church Multiplication Associates. A global survey conducted by Christian Schwartz found that smaller churches consistently scored higher than large churches in seven out of eight qualitative characteristics of a healthy church. A more recent study of churches in America, conducted by Ed Stetzer and Life Way Ministries, revealed that churches of two hundred or less are four times more likely to plant a daughter church than churches of one thousand or more. The research seems to even indicate that the pattern continues—the smaller the size of the church, the more fertile they are in planting churches. The stats tell us that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish much more than one church of 1000. Christian Schwarz says: “The growth rate of churches decreased with increasing size. This fact in and of itself came as no great surprise, because in large churches, the percentages represent many more people. But when we converted the percentages into raw numbers, we were dumbfounded. Churches in the smallest size category (under 100 in attendance) had won an average of 32 new people over the past five years; churches with 100-200 in worship also won 32; churches between 200-300 average 39 new individuals; churches between 300-400 won 25. So a ‘small’ church wins just as many people for Christ as a ‘large’ one, and what’s more, two churches with 200 in worship on Sunday will win twice as many new people as one church with 400 in attendance.” Schwarz found that the average growth rate in smaller churches was 13% (over five years), whereas in larger churches it was a mere 3%. A small church in the NCD sample with an average attendance of fifty-one typically converted thirty-two persons in five years; megachurches in the NCD sample averaged 2,856 in attendance but converted only 112 new persons in five years. The same number of persons participating in fifty-six small churches averaging fifty-one in attendance would have produced 1,792 converts in five years.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Sep 27, 2022

Our Lord is more concerned about quality than quantity. He is more concerned whether the spirit of Earch Church (love for one another borne out of deep relationship with Him-Rom 12:15) seen in Home Churches of Aquilla and Priscilla, Philemon and Gauis is there or not.

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