If there’s one subject with which the mind of a minister is often engaged it is that which is framed by the question, “How do I know that I have been fruitful in ministry?” Fruitfulness in ministry is deeply important to those who have given their lives in service to Christ and for the sake of the gospel. The Apostle Paul revealed that he cared deeply about fruitfulness in ministry when he told the church in Philippi, “If I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor” (Phil. 1:22). But what determines the nature of a fruitful ministry? How does one measure fruitfulness? These are among some of the most challenging questions that a minister of the gospel faces. Thankfully, the Scriptures and church history provide us withfour ways by which we may define and measure our fruitfulness in ministry.
1. Fruitfulness is ultimately the work of God. We must never view fruitfulness in ministry the way in which a stock broker views his portfolio. We must resist the temptation to look at our ministry and say, “If I just do this today and this tomorrow, the result will be _____.” The Apostle, when defending his own ministry against the false apostles who had boasted in their own accomplishments, wrote: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127:1). The more we recognize this, the more readily we will commit ourselves to Him in such a way that we are willing to be used however He wishes. We will seek first His Kingdom and glory, rather than our own.
2. Diligence always results in fruitfulness. While it is true that God determines the fruitfulness of any given ministry, there is a subtle form of hyper-Calvinism that is ever seeking to creep into our thinking. We can start to think to ourselves (or even catch ourselves saying to others), “It’s not what we do. It’s God who brings the increase.” This is to deny what the Apostle says throughout the rest of his writing to the church in Corinth. While bringing the first defense of his ministry to a close, Paul wrote, “I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). In the Proverbs, Solomon taught that “the hand of the diligent will rule” (Prov. 12:24) and in Ecclesiastes he explained that if you “Cast your bread upon the waters, you will find it after many days” (Eccl. 11:1). Tim Keller helpfully sums up the reality of God’s sovereignty and the minister’s responsibility in ministry when he says, “You can do ministry with God’s help, so give it all you’ve got. You can’t do ministry without God’s help, so be at peace.”
3. Fruitfulness comes at unexpected times and seasons. The eminent Puritan pastor, Richard Greenham, was one of the most beloved of the Puritan theologians for his helping other Puritan ministers and their congregants. Certain Puritan pastors would send their more needy congregants to Greenham for pastoral counsel. He was the most celebrated of the Puritan pastors for his ability to help others work through cases of conscience. However, in his day, he saw very little fruitfulness among his own congregants. On one occasion, Greenham suggested that the only fruit that he saw in his ministry in Dry Drayton was an ornery man who was an instrument of his own personal sanctification. Reflecting on Greenham’s ministry in his own congregation, one Puritan wrote, “He had pastures green, but sheep full lean.” After his death, the congregation he pastored grew and thrived under the next minister’s pastorate in Dry Drayton. When someone asked his predecessor what he had done to see such growth, he responded by intimating that it was all the fruit of the labors of Greenham. We tend to try to measure fruitfulness by tangible numeric, or even spiritual, growth; when, in fact, we must realize that God may call a man to have a greater impact on other ministers and Christians not immediately entrusted in his care in a local congregation.
I have a dear friend who pastors an extremely small church plant in one of the most spiritually dark cities in America. While anyone looking on my friend’s ministry would suggest that there is not much fruitfulness there, the reality is that many–whose lives have been ravaged by sin–have heard the gospel through my friend’s faithful and diligent labors. Additionally, my friend has poured, both spiritually and theologically, into a number of ministers–who now have growing and thriving ministries–for many years. I am certain that, on Judgment Day, my friend will see the fruit of his diligent and faithful labors, though they may not be evident to, or applauded by, many here and now.
4. Fruitfulness is often seen in unexpected individuals. Over the past decade, I have heard many say, “If only he or she were a Christian! Can you imagine how useful they would be?” We tend to think of spiritual fruit in worldly terms. We want to see fruit in specific individuals who are naturally gifted, wealthy or influential. The Apostle Paul, however, tells us, that “not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Consider the fruit that the Apostle saw in his own ministry, while in prison–not in the conversion of Caesar, but in the conversion of some of Caesar’s prison guards. Consider the way in which the Lord used Paul in the life of a runaway slave, Onesimus, “who,” as Paul wrote to Philemon, “once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me” (Philemon 1:11; Col. 4:9). An unlikely an unexpected manifestation of God’s grace to a runaway slave shows that we cannot anticipate in whom our ministries will be blessed by God. This is often the case in the ministries of faithful and diligent ministers in our day as well.
In his 2002 lecture, “Ministry and Character,” Tim Keller summed up the biblical rationale for why fruitfulness, rather than mere faithfulness or success, is the “gauge of ministerial evaluation.” Keller insists that ministers who are godly, humble, diligent, and faithful should expect manifestations of fruitfulness in the realms of both conversions and spiritual growth when He writes:
“A more biblical gauge of ministerial evaluation than faithfulness or success is fruitfulness. From the depiction of the Hebrew nation as a vineyard to Jesus’ famous “abide in the vine” speech, it is hard to miss the analogy of fruitfulness in the Bible. More specifically to pastors, the apostle Paul outlined fruitfulness as the test for his emerging ministry:
First, there is the fruit of new converts to the gospel. Paul told the Roman Christians that he desired to come and preach in Rome “that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles” (Rom. 1:13).
Second, there is the fruit of godly character that a minister can see growing in Christians under his care. This character is called the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22). And good deeds such as mercy to the poor is called “fruit” (Rom. 15:25-27).
Biblical theology guarantees that God’s word and those who have been called to minister His Word will bear fruit. Why? The doctrine of election! In Acts 18:9-10, God told the apostle Paul that his ministry would be successful: “Keep on speaking… because I have many people in this city.” When Paul preached, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Many ministers of the gospel, however, have used the doctrine of election to rationalize the lack of fruit in their ministry. But actually, the doctrine of election assures fruit. “You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:16). If you are called to the ministry, then you will bear fruit, fruit guaranteed by the calling and election of God.”
As we constantly seek to examine our ministries to discover manifestations of fruitfulness, we must remember that fruitfulness is the work of God, that diligent ministers will have fruitful ministries, that fruitfulness comes at different times and seasons and that it comes in unexpected individuals. When we factor in all of these things, we will be able to rest knowing that God is sovereign and that our labors are not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58) because the Lord Jesus had died for His people and is risen from the dead. Ultimately, all of our fruitfulness comes from our union with Jesus Christ, the life-giving, fruit supplying vine.
This post first appeared at Nick’s blog and is posted here with permission.