Posted by George Crowder, 23 Oct 2019
George Crowder suggests that we need to look again at the true nature of gospel fruit as we consider what counts as 'success' in ministry.
I have heard people say, “We used to put on an explorers’ course and people would just come.” Now we find we are working hard in what some would term the field of ‘pre-evangelism.’ No longer is it like planting a seed in soil; it’s more like trying to cultivate a patch of desert.
Our model of evangelism has changed from public rally to personal relationship, but this is no bad thing. In fact, it is a positive development. Altar call commitments can abate as quickly as they well up within the shallow tidal zone of human emotions. Conversational engagement and story-telling testimony are not only more effective at plumbing the depths of the heart, they hark back clearly to the example of Jesus and the Apostles.
Gospel fruit seems less abundant in this spiritual desert we live in, but what do we mean by gospel fruit? I am grateful for those who have put the spotlight on the expediency of our evangelistic model. Don’t we also need to carefully consider our success criteria?
Acts 14:21 records how the apostles preached the good news in Derbe and “won a large number of disciples.” A burgeoning city plant is surely the zenith of gospel fruitfulness. It gets one line in the whole chapter, almost in passing.
After that apparent success, you might imagine the apostles would target more great numbers and plant more churches in strategic city locations. Yet at this juncture, they go back to visit Lystra and Iconium; gospel-hostile places from which they had fled under a hail of stones. Their purpose, v.22, was “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” Their message was simple, “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Eventually, they returned to Antioch, “where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.” They stayed there a long time, v.29.
Admittedly, it is only a snapshot, but chapter 14 of Acts is taken up with responses of division, syncretism and stone-throwing, much more than spiritual conviction. We might ask why they concluded that the work was completed. We might also ask if the grace of God to which they were committed was active in anywhere but Derbe.
When the Jews poisoned the minds of the people of Iconium, Paul and Barnabas spent a considerable time there, v.3. God’s grace is directly referenced when the long-term bold preaching of the apostles is confirmed by miraculous signs. Grace is surely active in the faith and healing of the lame man in Lystra, v.9. God’s grace is not absent in these places, or in the work of the apostles.
If the burgeoning city plant of v.21 is the single criterion of success by which the rest of the mission is measured, then it would appear to have failed. Gathered in Antioch, the apostles do not draw that conclusion. Rather, “they reported all that God had done through them and opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”
Staying for a long time in a toxic situation is gospel fruit, v.3. Preaching boldly is gospel fruit, v.3. Teaching against false religion is gospel fruit, v.15. Faithfulness under fire is gospel fruit, vv.19-20. Winning a large number of disciples is gospel fruit, v.21. A strengthened church is gospel fruit, v.22. Patient, hopeful endurance is gospel fruit, v.22. Raising up leaders is gospel fruit, v.23. God’s grace is active in all of these things.
In chapter 16 of Acts, Paul connects with just a few new believers in an oppressive situation in Philippi. Luke’s account of these conversions is rich with detail and reveals the Lord powerfully at work breaking down every barrier to the gospel. This is a church with whom Paul rejoices because of their “partnership in the gospel,” Philippians 1:5. Strikingly, his prayer for them is for spiritual growth not numerical, 1:9, and that Christ is preached, 1:18.
Gospel fruitfulness is not specifically defined by number, wealth or strategic location. We must take account of the whole range of responses when the word of the Lord is preached and recognise that God’s grace is active.
George Crowder is vicar of St John's Over and Regional Director (North) of Church Society
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