Are Small Churches Less Fruitful?
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.
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).
“Fruit is everything we do that can only be done by the power of Christ.”
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.”
“The very least we can say about the fruit Jesus’s disciples will produce is that they will love each other.”
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).
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).
“The decisive assessment of success in our ministry is whether we have been faithful, not the number of converts.”
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.