My Grandpa Thorstad was a wise guy and a tease. He usually had a twinkle in his eye and a trick up his sleave. After his daughter, my Aunt Evelyn, moved to California, she praised her newfound “land of milk and honey” ad nauseum. My gardening-fanatic grandfather was constantly beguiled with stories of California’s bounty.
At last my grandparents consented to take a mid-winter trip from northern Wisconsin to the Golden State. As they rounded the corner of Aunt Ev’s house into her backyard, they were amazed to see the trees covered with luscious fruit. My aunt Ev had purchased fake fruit and tied it to the branches.
At our worst we church leaders give our attendees a simulated experience of worship in exchange for a simulated experience of success.
This accomplishes nothing of eternal worth, and there’s no joy in it either.
In contrast to that sorry state of affairs, Jesus taught us – it’s found in John 15 – how to maximize our individual and congregational joy:
Make it all about fruit-bearing.
“I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and that your joy may be complete.” John 15:11
But what is this? You can track the references to fruit and come up with: character, conduct and converts (Gal. 5:22,23; Matt. 3:10; Matt. 7:17ff; Rom. 1:13), but I think it all boils down to one thing: being used by God. God’s grace in me. Eternally worthwhile work (ministry) done in or through me by God.
It is an exhilarating, joy-producing experience for the individual OR for the congregation.
There’s nothing like it. Fruit-bearing is “where it’s at.”
Before you get the wrong idea, let me clarify what I’m not saying:
Hard work is inconsequential
Leadership isn’t needed
Excellence is optional
Methods don’t matter
A spooky, spiritual one-upsmanship is desirable
Having said that, here’s a second important step toward maximizing our joy:
Make it all about abiding.
Jesus’ first condition for our fruit-bearing joy is abiding – “remaining” in the NIV.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me, and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
There’s no question that it involves really believing in the crucified, risen Savior and being “in Christ” and having Christ in us.
But from the context – some believers bearing little fruit and some bearing much fruit – abiding must mean more than that.
Here’s my understanding of what it means to abide.
As an individual it is pretty much synonymous with the Apostle Paul’s terms: walking in the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit or keeping in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-25; Eph. 5:18). A Spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed life of constant, dependent obedience.
As a church, abiding is the corporate expression of the life described above. Abiding as a church involves a patient, dependent, prayerful, Spirit-empowered obedience.
Again, I’m not talking about being so spooky-spiritual that we can’t choose a new brand of coffee without supernatural guidance.
But I am talking about a real passion for obeying and following the living Christ who – throughout the books of Acts – led His servants by His Spirit.
I’m talking about not attempting to do ministry without believing that God’s leadership inspired it and God’s Spirit is empowering it.
Proceeding with our new ideas without prevailing, “waiting on the Lord” prayer is a waste of time and effort.
That brings us to a third important step toward maximizing our joy:
Joyfully receive God’s pruning.
This is the part we’d rather bypass, in part, because it’s completely out of our control (and we love control!). Jesus doesn’t tell us to prune ourselves; this is the Vinedresser’s Sovereign work, and that scares us.
Again, we must discern the meaning of the word from the context of the entire New Testament (if not the entire Bible). That context tells me that pruning probably involves:
Disappointments, losses, “no” answers, downward mobility
Ministry initiatives that don’t work the way we would like them to
The re-direction of the Holy Spirit by way of circumstances or special revelation
The defection of those who were “among us but not of us” (I John 2:19)
For leaders, the experience of having our new ideas rejected by our followers