The other day I wrote about whether or not a church can be successful by focusing on preaching the gospel, and a brother rightly pointed out that the conclusion was incredibly weak. In Monday’s post, after writing on preaching’s central place within the worship gathering, I said that faithful preaching bears fruit and that a successful church is a fruitful one.
Now there’s a sense in which that’s true; however, without some additional clarification on the relationship between fruitfulness and faithfulness, it’s woefully incomplete.
Fruit and Faithfulness
Are there times when the Word is preached and fails to do what God purposes? No.
In Isaiah 55:10-11, we read, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s Word will always do exactly what He intends it to do.
In Isaiah’s case, that meant spending years preaching to people whose hearts were increasingly hardened (Isa. 6:9-10). Still, Isaiah preached and was eventually murdered by his fellow Israelites for his trouble. The prophet Jeremiah also ministered to the people of Israel for many years, yet if you considered the idea of numerical growth as how you measure fruitfulness, he failed miserably.
He had two people listen to his calls of repentance: Baruch, his scribe (Jer. 32:12) and Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch who served King Zedekiah (Jer. 38:7-13).
Everyone else tried to kill him.
The same could be said for all of the Old Testament prophets, of John the Baptizer and of Jesus Himself. Each fearlessly proclaimed God’s Word, yet the hearts of their hearers were largely hardened.
Numerically their ministries were not fruitful, as we might consider fruitfulness. Yet we have to reconcile all of this with what Jesus Himself said. “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). Basically, what he’s saying is that your faith will bear fruit—either fruit that is bad and and sinful, or fruit that is good and God-honoring.
So what’s the fruit? In a word:
For some preachers, they see fruit numerically as people come to know, love and serve Jesus. But others don’t. For some preachers, they see their people growing deeper in their relationship with Jesus and as a result, their lives are bearing fruit in terms of a greater desire to know Jesus even better and an increasing desire to serve others as they become obedient to Scripture’s repeated commands to care for one another and for those outside the covenant community.
But for some preachers, the only place where they see fruit is in their own lives. They may be preaching to men and women whose hearts are dead. Yet that preacher’s character is being shaped by the Holy Spirit through the Word. That faithful obedience to preach the Word, in season and out of season, to do so even in the face of difficult circumstances, is, in a very real way, the bearing of fruit—if nowhere else, than in the preacher’s life.
And ultimately, faithful obedience is the only kind of fruit that matters. Again, as I wrote on Monday, anyone can draw a crowd; numbers are not a sign of faithfulness, nor a clear evidence of fruit. But faithful obedience to Christ—that’s the kind of fruit we should strive for. An obedient church—a faithful church—is a successful church, no matter how many people show up.