Most Active Does Not Equal Most Fruitful
Could it be that the most active members of your congregation are the least fruitful? Consider for a moment: in God’s sight, not all activity carries equal value. Not even all church activity. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul uses the image of a farmer to describe the process of planting a church. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (v. 6). Then as Paul transitions to the image of a builder to describe the growth of this church, it becomes clear that some church activity counts as worthless.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (3:10–15)
What a sobering picture. On the last day, God will reveal every action—even every word (Matt. 12:36)—for its true value. Despite the best of motives, some church activity will be judged as worthless.
In our churches, opportunities for wasted effort abound. Think of “fellowship” that is nothing more than virulent exchange of gossip. Think of people attending sermons and not listening. Think of endless rehearsals by a tone-deaf choir that, on further reckoning, merely distracts the congregation from worship. Think of cookbook sales, charity auctions, and 10km races that consume enormous time for relatively small spiritual gain. All these things—fellowship events, sermons, choirs, and fund-raisers—can bear real spiritual fruit. But sometimes they don’t.
Where can we invest to bring about eternally lasting fruit? We can invest in spiritually intentional relationships.
In fact, church activity may especially attract the least spiritual. If there are any in your congregation who, like the Galatians, began “with the Spirit” but now seek to be “perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3), they will likely be consumed with activity. What better shows that we are worthy of God’s affection than throwing ourselves into activity at church? The infrastructure and inner workings of your church offer more than sufficient cover for the works-focused person to take shelter from the gospel. In fact, some of the most active members of your church may in fact be the least spiritual.
Value in Relationships
So where can we invest to bring about eternally lasting fruit? We can invest in spiritually intentional relationships. Love for other Christians shows us to be true Christians (1 John 2:10–11). Love for other Christians demonstrates the power of the gospel to the watching world (John 13:35). Love for other Christians makes for an eternally rewarding investment (Luke 16:9). Love for other Christians is primarily how we live out the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23).
As a general rule, church activity that builds into relationships will last; activity that doesn’t, won’t. After all, people are eternal; everything else will pass away. Of course, exceptions exist: we can erect infrastructure that supports the relational work of the local church (managing church financial records, for example). But by and large, the lasting work of the church is the relational work of the church.
But not any relationships will do. The New Testament describes how Christians are to confront, to encourage, to discipline, to confess sin, and so forth. In the church, we want to see relationships where it is normal to talk about spiritual things. Not where conversation is never about football or kids or politics—but where a conversation with no spiritual grounding would be unusual.
How do we encourage this culture in our churches?
The Four Ps
As church leaders, it’s tempting to seek structural solutions to cultural problems. We see something we’d like to change about the basic instincts and habits of our church, and we look for the policy we can write to fix it all. For example, consider the example of a pastor desiring to instill a culture of discipling by assigning each church member to a mentoring relationship. Or a church that tries to instill a culture of intentional relationships by requiring each member to join a small group. Or a church that tries to become more neighborhood-focused by “outlawing” small groups outside a fixed geographic area. Sometimes a structural change can be a helpful companion when shifting culture. But if church policy is your main tool for promoting a culture of intentional relationships, I fear that whatever changes you see will be short-lived. Instead, consider four P’s that can lead to persistent cultural change.
Personal example. A culture change does not happen overnight; rather, it is a slow process trickling through the congregation. One person begins investing intentionally in the lives of a few others, who in turn catch the vision and begin living in the same way. Do not undervalue the long-term power of good examples. Select church leaders who model the type of church culture you want (1 Pet. 5:3). Hold up as examples those faithful church members who invest in relationships even though they don’t participate in many church programs. And encourage your own friends in the church to be good examples themselves.
Preaching. Remember, the best church policies in the world cannot change the hearts of your congregation. Where does supernatural change begin? It begins with a spark of faith, ignited as our people hear the Word of Christ. Do not undervalue the ability of faithful preaching to change church culture.
Prayer. Ask God to do this supernatural work in your own church. Many times, prayer is the most practical thing you “do” to encourage change.
Patience. Watching a culture of intentional relationships take root can feel like watching paint dry. We must have faith in the ordinary means of grace. As we preach faithfully, pray, and model godly relationships, change will often happen. But as Christ’s servants, our job is not to “effect change.” It is to be faithful. We work diligently to guide our churches in the right direction. And then as much as we long for change, we can rest content with whatever pace our Lord deems best. In fact, the richest harvest from our toil may only become visible long after our time on earth is finished. As Charles Bridges said so well, “The seed may lie under the clods till we lie there, and then spring up.”
- Why We Desperately Need the Body of Christ (Paul David Tripp)
- The True Test of a Gospel-Centered Church (Raymond C. Ortlund Jr.)
- Why the Church Is Vitally Important for Every Christian (Stephen J. Nichols)