Distinguishing Marks of A Fruitful Church
Originally posted by Jared C Wilson
I follow the ongoing pastoral and missiological discussions about “faithfulness vs. fruitfulness” from a bemused distance. I do believe that a church’s faithfulness to the mission of God is itself success, regardless of the “results.” And I also believe that a faithful church will be a fruitful church. But when some begin defining fruitfulness in quantifiable ways — decisions, attendance, etc. — I see more pragmatism and less Bible.
Does this mean I don’t think we should look for results? No. It just means I think we should look differently for results. I think measuring a church’s fruitfulness is not as simple as how many hands get raised during an invitation or how many parking spots are filled.
In 1741, the great Jonathan Edwards first published his now-classic book The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In this important work, Edwards is analyzing and synthesizing all he’s experienced in the revivals of his day (chronicled most notably in A Narrative of Surprising Conversions and An Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton 1740-1742). He wants to know — what are the signs that a genuine move of God is taking place?
What, in other words, are the true evidences of Spiritual fruitfulness?
Interestingly enough, he prefaces his list of “distinguishing marks” with a list of things that may or may not be signs of a genuine move of God. It’s a curious collection — including things like charismatic experiences, the stirring up of emotions, and the fiery preaching of hell — and Edwards is saying that these things might be good things in many instances, but they do not themselves authenticate a work of God. A work of God may have charismatic experiences, stirring up of emotions, and the like, but it also may not. (He also lists some negative things — like errors and counterfeits — that he says do not necessarily disprove a work of God, since he reasons that a genuine move of God is likely to have Satan actively trying to derail it.)
I think we ought to apply Edwards’s strong reasoning to the ecclesiological landscape today. What are the signs of actual fruitfulness? How do we know our church is a growing part of something God is blessing?
Well, first, let’s look, as Edwards did, at some things that may or may not accompany a genuine move of God.
Marks of Neutrality – These May or May Not Authenticate a Church’s Fruitfulness
1. A steady accumulation of decisions or responses during Sunday invitations.
We have all seen the pastors touting their weekly catch on social media. Many people do hear the gospel and respond genuinely in this way. And yet, this kind of evangelistic strategy has been employed by evangelicals for the last 50 years, and we still face a discernible drought of mature Christianity in the West and a steady decline in evangelical numbers. The discipleship processes in so many of these “count the hands” churches seems to top out at the counting of the hands. Something isn’t adding up. Even Spurgeon commented on this practice, routine even in his day. No, what we can say is this — people coming to know Christ is always a good thing, no matter what kind of church they’re in, no matter the method by which they heard the gospel. But this does not itself sanctify methods. And a simple counting of “decisions” does not itself prove genuine fruitfulness because a (genuine) decision is itself only the first tiny bud of a life of fruit.
2. Large attendance.
It is wearying to need to repeat this, but American evangelicals love bigness, so we have to keep saying it: a lot of people is itself not a sign of faithfulness. It is another neutral sign. A lot of people coming to a church can be a good thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with a big church! But nor is there anything inherently right about it. One of the largest churches in North America is a church where Christ crucified is not routinely preached. Further, the Mormons have big churches. We need only look to the political realm for a fitting analogy: a lot of people supporting something does not mean that that something is doing something right!
3. Emotional experiences.
Here we track with Edwards again. Edwards rightly says that true worship often engages worshipers on an emotional level. It would be strange for a genuine love of Jesus not to make human beings feel something. But in many churches, the emphasis is on the emotional experience. This is why they advertise their music as “exciting,” “vibrant,” or the all-too-familiar “relevant.” These adjectives communicate that the worship is for the worshiper, which is another way of revealing that it is the worshiper the worshiper is worshiping. So it’s not a bad thing to get emotional in church. But it’s not in itself a sign that your church is doing something right.
So there we have 3 neutral signs, none of which are reliable indicators of genuine fruitfulness. A fruitful church may witness many conversions, growing attendance, and intense emotional engagement — or it may not. What, then, ought we to look for as signs of Spiritual fruitfulness? I happen to think Edwards’s “distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God” hold up rather well.
Distinguishing Marks of A Fruitful Church
1. A Growing Esteem for Jesus Christ
How do you measure this? How do you know if a church is focused on the glory of Jesus Christ? Well, I think you start with the most visible communications. In sermon and song, is Jesus the focal point? Are the sermons preached making Jesus a bit player, an add-on at invitation time, a quotable hero? Or do they promote his finished work as the only hope of mankind? Do the messages labor more intently in the Law or do they delight more intently in the gospel? Are people getting a steady dose of five things to do or are they walking away understanding that the essential message of Christianity is that the work of salvation is done?
Musically, is the church focused more on creating an experience or adoring the Creator? Do the songs tell the story of the gospel? Are people the star of the show, or is Jesus? Does the church speak in vague generalities about hope, peace, light, etc. without constantly making the connection that Jesus is the embodiment of these virtues?
Do the people of the church speak more highly of Jesus than simply doing good or knowing the right doctrine? Do the pastors exhibit high esteem of Jesus? Are they Jesusy people?
If the church is not ensuring Jesus is explicitly and persistently the point, it is not fruitful. And conversely, if a church is ensuring Jesus is explicitly and persistently the point, it is being fruitful, since ongoing worship of Jesus is a fruit of the new birth.
2. A Discernible Spirit of Repentance
Is the church, first, preaching the dangers and horrors of sin? And then, in its preaching of the gospel, are people responding to the Spirit’s conviction and comfort with repentance? Do people own and confess their sin? Is there an air of humility about the place or an air of swagger? Are the pastors bullies? Are the people narcissists? Is appropriate church discipline practiced, gentle but direct? Is there a spirit of gossip in the place or of transparency? Is the church programming built around production values or honest intimacy with the Lord?
Are the people good repenters? That’s a real sign of genuine fruitfulness.
3. A Dogged Devotion to the Word of God
A lot of churches say they are “Bible-based,” by which they mean they will quote some Bible verses in the sermon. Or you can take a look at their small group offerings and see most of them are built around special interests, hobbies, or personal demographics. But fruitful churches love God’s word. They preach from it as if doing so gives oxygen. They study it with determination and intensity. They believe the word of God is sufficient and powerful and authoritative. You might even see people carrying their Bibles to the worship gathering!
Edwards says that a mark of a true move of God is high esteem of the Scriptures. I fear this mark is much missing in too many evangelical churches that admittedly use the Bible but aren’t effectively esteeming it.
4. An Interest in Theology and Doctrine
Yes, knowledge apart from grace simply puffs up, but this does not make knowledge disposable. Edwards says that the people of God will love the things of God. They will search out his ways, following the trails of doctrine in the Scriptures straight to the throne. In our day, it is common to see emotion/experience set at odds with doctrine/theology, and so it is quite common to see churches that have devoted themselves to one while keeping the other at arm’s length. But just as unfruitful as a church that’s all head knowledge and no heart is a church that’s all feelings and no depth. Some pastors even publicly mock theology or denigrate Bible study. But the church has not endured for 2,000 years on “spiritual feelings.”
The Lord himself says that true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth. We cannot jettison the truth for a dominating “spirit.” And in fact, as Edwards says, the work of the true Spirit “operates as a spirit of truth, leading persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true.”
5. An Evident Love for God and Love for Neighbor
Exactly as it sounds. True fruitfulness is evidenced chiefly in obedience to the commands of God, the greatest of which is loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. If a church appears to exist only for the sake of its own survival, only for the sake of its own enterprise, only for the sake of its own internal experiences, no matter how big it gets, it is not likely fruitful but more likely swollen.
Fruitful churches may or may not see steady conversions but they will have a steady outward heart of service and compassion for the world outside their doors.
Measuring the Spirit
Obviously, these five things are harder to quantify than simply counting hands and bodies. I think this is why we (lazily?) tend to equate hands and bodies with fruitfulness. But I want to make the provocative claim that a church can be Spiritually fruitful without seeing many or frequent conversions, without bursting at the seams attendance-wise, without creating “worship experiences” that stir people emotionally and imaginatively. Seeing those things can be good when done from the right place. But they are not themselves indicators of genuine fruit.
Yes, the early church counted. It’s totally fine to count. But we don’t see the kind of emphasis on high attendance and decision-producing that exists today in the pages of the New Testament. We see faithfulness. And we see fruit (“in season”) and sometimes we don’t (“out of season”). The job of the church is not to succeed but to be faithful. If you are not seeing much evangelistic fruit, in other words, be careful that it is not because you are being evangelistically disobedient!
Here are some good diagnostic questions to help us go deeper in our church measurements. I have adapted them from my book The Prodigal Church:
1. Are those being baptized continuing to walk in the faith a year later? Two years? Three years?
2. How many of our people are being trained to personally disciple others?
3. What percentage of our weekend attendees are engaged in community groups? Evangelism? Community service?
4. How many of our people could articulate the biblical gospel?
5. What is the reputation of our church in the community?
6. Are our people graduating into other grades and classes demonstrating a growing understanding of theology and a growing walk with Christ?
In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts a list of bad behaviors with good qualities. The fruit of the Spirit. These are much harder to measure than an accumulation of good deeds, but they are a much better indicator of spiritual growth. One thing we keep seeing in the Scriptures is how character, disposition, quality, being is consistently emphasized over behavior, position, quantity, and doing. The former is much harder to measure, yes, but shouldn’t this make sense? The Holy Spirit is not so easily sized-up.