I’ve been thinking lately about the words “faithfulness” and “fruitfulness.” They are both important to understanding our life and ministry as the Church, as disciples of Jesus, and (for some of us) as pastors and Christian leaders. Here’s where I am right now. I may continue to think about this here on the blog and am open to some conversation here.
“Fruitfulness” is the word of the day in my Annual Conference. It’s a good word and one we’ve needed in our lexicon for some time. Without it, our ministry can (and has) lacked aim and focus. Fixing our eyes on the fruitfulness of our ministry can help us with stewardship of our resources–time, energy, money, etc.
“Faithfulness” is a key word as well. It is still around in conversation, but “fruitfulness” has been the focus. Not that these are antithetical. Indeed, sometimes faithfulness to the mission entails submitting ourselves to the rigors of what producing fruit demands: keeping the vision, mission, and values in clear view, telling the truth about how we’re doing, changing our methods and ministries as needed to remain faithful to the mission and vision.
The potential rub is in the focus on these two in isolation or out of balance with one another. “Fruitfulness” without faithfulness can degenerate into mere number-counting without a theologically and biblically grounded filter with which to interpret our growth: Are we producing disciples or merely consumers of religion? Are we being shaped into the Body of Christ for the sake of God’s world or are we merely a collection of individuals attending a public gathering for a spiritual pick-me-up? On the other hand, “faithfulness” without fruitfulness can degenerate into a “holy huddle” mentality. In terms of work for biblical justice, it can become prideful and isolating as we take our stands without the hard work necessary to help bridge people from where they are to where we are convicted that they need to be.
It seems to me that faithfulness and fruitfulness must be diligently held together in our tasks of discernment as a Church. Faithfulness might correspond with process while fruitfulness might correspond with outcome. In Christian ethics, both the process and the results must be resonate with the Truth. We cannot practice the process ad infinitum and be truly faithful; we cannot take any path the the results we have set as goals for ourselves and be truly fruitful.
True faithfulness demands that we produce fruit and true fruit demands that we are faithful to the biblical story. Otherwise our pictures of faithfulness and fruitfulness are illusions.
5 thoughts on “faithfulness and fruitfulness”
I think a couple other things come into play. First, we think of fruitfulness and faithfulness as somehow fitting with quantity and quality. The great thing about quantities is that we can measure them (or so we think). They are comfortably objective. The qualitative dimension is difficult to measure – if we can even figure out what it is. So, given our propensity to measure, we look for ways to reduce it to numbers.
Second, once we find a correlation between quantity and quality in the distinction between fruitfulness and faithfulness, we remember that we’re not supposed to judge. But lo, we’re not judging, at least as long as we stick to the nice objectivities of quantity, er, fruitfulness. Faithfulness? We’re not qualified to pass judgment, so we won’t.
Third, I pick up a habit of euphemizing. Where some talk of effectiveness, others speak of fruitfulness. The former is a secular word, the latter a biblical (spiritual) word. Judging? That’s bad. So instead of judging, we’ll DISCERN. Doesn’t say anywhere in the bible NOT to discern, does it?
But our euphemisms don’t hide that when we talk about fruitfulness/effectiveness we’re asking, “Are there any consequences? Does anything happen?” Or that when we DISCERN rather than JUDGE, some people still experience negative consequences.
Another thought. If anyone is our model, I’d say it’s Jesus. The NT uses plenty of faithful/fruitful language in relation to Jesus (though the fruitful part is more about us abiding in him and bearing fruit).
By our standards Jesus wasn’t very fruitful. “Ok, Rev. Jesus, you managed to plant a church and get up to twelve members. But you say they all ran away? All but the one who killed himself? I don’t think you can expect an appointment at the next Annual Conference, Jesus. Maybe we’ll arrange an exit interview with the BOM.”
Yes, I’ve wondered how Jesus would fare according to our definitions of fruitfulness. The quality/quantity stuff is helpful too. I’m afraid we’d be more impressed by Peter because he got such a great response to his first sermon at his new church start than with Jesus who spent 3 years with some folks who ended up being world changers only after consistently not getting it and then deserting him in his greatest time of need. Of course, that fruit didn’t ripen during his time of ministry with them, so…
One of the challenges with the faithfulness/fruitfulness tension that I think must be held together is that prophetic ministry is too easily judged as “effective” or “ineffective” with Monday morning quarterbacking. In other words, if the results pass snuff–aka, did it run off too many folks? I’m not just offering carte blanch for pastors to be inconsiderate jerks or unwise agenda-pushers, but at the same time sometimes people suffer for faithful ministry because what they do is unpopular.
‘prophetic ministry is too easily judged as “effective” or “ineffective”’
It also works the other way (as a defense mechanism) – we judge ineffective ministry to be “prophetic.” “I’m preaching/teaching/leading in such a prophetic manner that those sinners are offended and staying away.”
Absolutely. “I’m Prophetic” can merely be another way of announcing “I have no tact” or “I’m kind of a jerk.”
This is yet another reason, to my mind, that yoking these concepts of faithfulness and fruitfulness together as a packaged deal rather than speaking of one without the other.