Have They Fruit?

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"Have they fruit?” John Wesley asked of his would-be preachers. Could those who were seeking ordination show anything for their service?

Note: This is the second post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina.  Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.July 11, 2010
Colossians 1:1-14 • So that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work.

"Have they fruit?” John Wesley asked of his would-be preachers. Could those who were seeking ordination show anything for their service? Was there at least one person who had found faith through the word they proclaimed? A single person whose spiritual practices had been enlivened by what they taught? A hungry person who found bread? A homeless person who found shelter? Was there any sign that the ministry exercised by this person was waking the world to the dream of God?

Have they fruit? It’s not a bad question for would-be preachers, and as a denomination, we’ve been asking it for more than two hundred years.

It’s also not a bad question for congregations to ask themselves. Imagine the discussion that would ensue at the next administrative board or church council meeting if the question were asked, “Have we fruit?” Imagine the conversation if the topic at the meeting became, “What evidence is there? What can we point to that demonstrates that the community in which we live is better, healthier, and more faithful because of the presence of our church? Are our ministries making any kind of difference to our neighbors? Is the Spirit, through us, actually changing lives, deepening faith, seeding hope in this neighborhood? Or are we just taking up space on a corner in town, an antiquated placeholder on this block?” I imagine a lively scene as a congregation deliberates and discusses its missional role in its own context, all the while answering the question, “Have we fruit?”

Cautionary tales of churches that can point to no fruit, churches that have lost their way and whose ministries have grown stagnant, are legion. One that has stayed with me since I first read it is in Mark Nepo’s book Surviving Has Made Me Crazy. He tells of a town in New England in which one church’s bells had rung to mark every hour of every day for generations. After decades of decline, that church was closed and eventually taken down. Years later, the farmers of that community were talking, and they all agreed – they missed the bells, not the church. While asking, “Have we fruit?” might not have prevented that church’s decline, it could have revealed that the church served no other role in their community than that of clock.

You know similar stories…

But if the cautionary tales linger in our imagination, so, too, should the exemplary communities of faith – the churches that are bearing much fruit and are themselves signs of hope in and for the world. In the beginning of the letter to First Church Colossae, the writers praise the church for its fidelity; the Church there had earned a reputation as the kind of place that bore good fruit: “We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints.” A few verses later, they go on: “just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it.” The writers are explicit – if the question was asked of the Colossians, “Have they fruit?” the answer would be a resounding and enthusiastic yes.

Which makes it all the more profound that, even as they praise, the writers of Colossians also pray for the community in powerful and passionate ways: “may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks.” This intercession is a subtle – and not so subtle – reminder of the fact that faith communities that today are bearing much fruit can quickly wither. We can abandon our best practices of compassionate ministry, forsake our disciplines of outreach, and turn inward again.

Here, an analogy to health and wellness seems somehow fitting. The health we enjoy today, the wellness we have worked hard to achieve, can be lost to us if our discipline falters. Our weight can creep back up if we ignore what we know about proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. It is the daily discipline of good choices and the long-term practices of self-care that bear the good fruit of wellness.

So it is in our faith journeys. If our congregations are to emulate the faithfulness of the Colossians, if we corporately and individually are to keep bearing fruit that is salutary for the communities and contexts of our ministries, then we must attend both to the daily disciplines and the long-term practices of the faith. In so doing, we are readying soil, planting seeds, pruning vines, and bearing much fruit.

And the promise of the Scriptures? That as we do so, saints here and saints above will be praying for us, celebrating our faithfulness, and rejoicing in the light of the love of God.

 
The Rev. Nathan E. Kirkpatrick is managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.


Questions to Consider

  • On October 2, 2006, Carl Roberts shot five young Amish girls in Nickel Mines, Pa., before taking his own life. The world watched in disbelief as the Amish brought the shooter’s family food, offered forgiveness, and – after attending their daughters’ funerals – joined the mourners as Roberts was laid to rest. Hell fears nothing so much as a proliferation of the Amish. Would it even notice if United Methodists were to double in number? What and where is our fruit?
  • Much church growth literature is derivative of secular culture in its measures of success. Fruit equals more and younger folk in the pews, more programs, and more money for mission. This model sometimes overlooks the purpose of fruit, which is to serve as a vehicle for the seed. Where is the evidence in American culture that the real seed of the Gospel is taking root? Would some clarity about genuine fruit be conducive to the health of our souls?

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