I believe that statement and have even taught it before. Especially in ministry, fruitfulness is not the ultimate goal, faithfulness is. At the end of my life, more than anything, I want to be found faithful. But does that mean that we should also desire to be fruitful? The parable of the talents seems like a pretty clear indication that God values fruitfulness as well, right?
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So what is it? Should we be fruitful in ministry or should we be faithful? I am suggesting we pursue both, while at the same time, understanding the dangers of pursuing just one. I believe that if we are faithful, God will provide the fruit He wants in our lives. Faithfulness leads to fruitfulness. I also believe that the only real fruit that is produced comes from a faithful heart. Fruitfulness thrives in faithfulness.
In Acts 20:24, Paul says “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.”
Think of all the fruit Paul had in his life. From what we know, Paul started more than a dozen churches, probably closer to twenty or more. He saw countless people put their faith in Jesus and be filled with the Holy Spirit. He wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven New Testament letters. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, and those are just the things we know of. Fruit defined the life of Paul. But according to him, all of his life, all of the fruit was worth nothing to him, unless he was faithful.
I’m all for seeing fruit in our lives but that can’t be our only focus. I’m all for being faithful with our lives, but I also think that should produce fruit. So what are the dangers of focusing on one over the other. There are many, but here are a few.
1. Choosing to focus on faithfulness can lead to faithless living! Laziness is often times masked by faithfulness. I know, ouch! Because we know how important faithfulness is, we often mask our laziness with it. We don’t work hard, take risks, put in the extra effort because, “Faithfulness is the ultimate goal.” As long as I don’t mess anything up, I’m good.
Sadly, that’s where many pastors and leaders live their lives. In an effort to be faithful they lead a life that is faithless. They don’t rock the boat and they don’t really try very hard to get anyone else in the boat. “The results are up to God.” Yes, they are, but He chooses to use us to get those results.
This statement has been attributed to a number of different people, but it’s true nonetheless. “Work like it depends on you and pray like it depends on God!” God does want us to be faithful, but He also wants to produce fruit in our lives.
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2. Choosing to focus on fruit can lead us to a fall! There are way too many stories of leaders who saw tons of fruit, only to come crashing down in a fall. If we are not as obsessed about faithfulness as we are the fruit we produce, we are setting ourselves up to fall. Paul said that all his fruit was worthless, unless he remained faithful to the Lord. Do I feel that way about the fruit our ministry produces? Nothing rots the fruit in our lives quicker than unfaithfulness. Yes, God has and does use unfaithful people, but the fruit He chooses to bring through us is expanded through our faithfulness.
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3. Choosing to focus on faithfulness can lead to false assumptions! I know lots of people who claim their lack of fruit is proof that they are faithful. I’m not sure how that works, but they use it. I’ve typically seen it in ministry settings that were stagnant, stale and unproductive. “We aren’t seeing fruit because we focus on being faithful.” Other phrases used are, “Our church focuses on discipleship so we don’t see lots of growth.” Again, I’m not saying that smaller churches aren’t fruitful, but being faithful isn’t always the answer to being fruitless either.
Unless I’m wrong, discipleship is about creating followers of Jesus who help create more followers of Jesus. Now, population, geography, political climates, cultural limitations can all play a factor in what kind of growth you see, but if your focus is discipleship, then shouldn’t new disciples be a part of that process? To say you focus on discipleship and that’s why you don’t see growth is like saying “I focus on lifting weights, that’s why my muscles are atrophied.” It doesn’t add up.
Fruitlessness is not the sign of faithfulness, and faithfulness does’t guarantee fruit, so you have to be very careful what your looking to as your proof! Faithfulness is “doing whatever God wants to reach as many as He wants.” Fruitfulness is born out of that. If there is not fruit we better look at our faith. If there is not faith, why would there be fruit.
4. Choosing to focus on fruitfulness can lead to fading out! I’m not sure of anything that wears a soul out more than pursuing fruit! When fruitfulness is my focus then my soul rises and falls on the latest offering, attendance or Facebook comments about my sermon. When the church is doing great, my soul is too. When the church is in a slump, guess where I am? Even the pursuit of fruit can be exhausting. One of the reasons so many of us burn out in ministry is the constant pursuit of fruit. A better sermon, bigger event, larger Sunday service. It’s exhausting.
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It doesn’t matter what size church you are in, or what kind of organization you lead, if you are focused on the fruit you will eventually fade out. Fruit only lasts while you can eat it, right? If I focus on the fruit and not the giver of it, my strength will continue to fade. I’ll need another fruit to keep me going. The Father is the source of the fruit, He needs to be my strength.
It’s a fine line for us to walk between fruitfulness and faithfulness. In a moment, we can easily go from one side to the other. I’ve been caught in the trap of fruitfulness too many times. It’s a constant temptation. I’ve also been lulled to sleep by faithfulness, and it’s just as dangerous.
Like Paul, I hope my life is filled with the fruit of my labor, but I also want to be faithful with my love for Christ. Fruitfulness is not the ultimate goal, faithfulness is, but if I’m truly faithful, God will bring the fruit.