What is the secret to a fruitful ministry?
You are probably already scrolling down to find the 3-step answer. That is because we want a formula to be successful missionaries and church-planters, to be big-shots in the story of God’s Kingdom, to raise God-honoring children. And we always have another book or blog to read to hone our technique or another guru to listen to – that one who has planted 20 churches in 10 years. We have that enticing feeling that if we are pro-active like them, if we mimic their strategy, if we work hard, if we hone our expertise, the fruit will come.
But Jesus puts us in our place. He says:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
He is talking to 12 uneducated, nervous Jewish men, who had not read any books on church planting. That night they are headed out into a world of people and powers trying to eradicate them. And yet Jesus is predicting that their ministry will be so fruitful that through them God’s Kingdom will reach the ends of the earth. If, that is, they do one simple thing. If they remain in him.
The branch does not have a glamorous role. Ever looked at a grape vine? You notice the big, thick vine. You notice the juicy red or green grape bunches. But you do not notice those ‘branches’ which are just little conduits, making sure the vine’s nutrients are channeled into forming the juicy grapes. As long as those branches are plugged into that vine, they are going to find fruit coming out of them.
Yes, there is a secret to a fruitful ministry. It is to stay plugged into the one who is producing the fruit: Jesus. Not just loosely connected, but firmly grasped onto Him, so that the life of His Spirit flows through us. Jesus spells it out in verse 10: ‘If you keep my commands you’ll remain in my love, just as I’ve kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love’.
This is more than just checking off a set of devotional activities, like Bible reading, prayer or church attendance – as though we can ‘charge up’ on Jesus and then run on our own batteries (although all of those are a good starting point!). But Jesus means an attitude of the heart – living each hour under his authority, eager to obey his teaching. Fascinatingly, Jesus himself could do nothing – powerful preaching, healings, casting out demons – unless he lived with a similar attitude: staying lodged into the love of his Father, obeying his commands. He said it Himself, ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does’ (John 5:19).
But here is the big danger: we soon want to do what is disastrous for every branch: grow fruit on our own. We become so pre-occupied with the church we want to start, the new believer we want to disciple, the unreached people group we want to engage, the perfect family devotional, that we forget we are not the source…And suddenly we have ripped ourselves free from the vine.
Think of those tomatoes you buy at the grocery store that are still on the ‘vine’. You take them home and they continue to ripen, it is perfect. But of course they are not growing at all, they are on one of those little dislodged branches. Even if those tomatoes ripen, that plant is not going to produce anymore fruit. How many of our ministries have become like this? Snipping off our own little home projects, wanting to take the credit as the fruit ripens, when in fact we are cutting ourselves and those we are influencing off from a fruitful connection to Jesus.
Every day, we need to nestle ourselves more deeply into our Source of life. We need to re-learn the basics of being a branch.