This year, I am privileged to participate in co-mentoring a group of individuals considering God's call to ministry within the United Methodist Church. We had a gathering tonight, and I asked them several "curious questions" to provoke discussion.
The second question followed: "Explain your agreement or disagreement with the following: Fruit = Success. What does success look like?"
Finally, I asked this question: "Explain your agreement or disagreement with the following: Sacraments = Service. Describe your understanding of the Sacraments."
The resulting conversation was indeed stimulating, provocative and wide ranging. I thoroughly enjoyed the range of perspectives and varying agreement and disagreement of one's responses. I asked these questions because they are one way of articulating the quandary of the United Methodist Church. Particularly in the United States, United Methodists are trying to figure out how to measure fruitfulness and how to define success. More pressure is being placed on all levels of the church to expand membership, worship attendance, and offerings. We seem to be defaulting to an ideology that can be defined in a simplistic formula:
Service = Fruit; Fruit = Success
A church is deemed successful if it's growing. It is growing because it provides a service. From the opposite perspective, churches that aren't growing aren't providing service to their community.
While there are obviously churches that fall into the above patterns, I don't think we can lump ALL churches into one camp or the other. In fact, all attempts to do so are dangerously close to minimizing the gospel of Jesus Christ and maximizing a worldly perception of what makes success.
When we explore what Jesus did during his earthly ministry, he wasn't all about service and growth. Yes, he attracted huge crowds. Yes, he fed them - 5000 and 4000 at a time, according to Matthew. So there was service, and there was growth - but did those really express success?
According to John's gospel, the people followed Jesus looking for more bread after he fed the 5000: “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill." (John 6:26)
There was no success with that service because they hadn't really accepted Jesus' message. They only wanted more free food.
Going back to Matthew 13, we get a parable that better describes Jesus perspective on fruit and success:
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying:“A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
If we accept this parable as an analogy for our ministry efforts, then some service will never be fruitful, while other service will be exponentially fruitful. But the fruitfulness has very little to do with the one offering the service - the sower is sowing seed indiscriminately. The difference in fruitfulness is dependent upon the soil in which the seeds of service land. Therefore, my understanding of the service=fruit=success formula is based on what GOD does more than what I do.
So it's important to take measurements. That's how we know some fruit was 100x, 60x, or 30x what was sown, and that other seed bore no fruit. But even as we count, we must be careful not to become conceited or confused about the source of fruitfulness or lack thereof. Our faithful response to God is to sow everywhere and anywhere we can. But then allow God to take over from there!
Therefore, in this season of Lent, I pray that I can be a better seeder, and that I may also be better soil!
What do you think?