A fruitless ministry

A Fruitless Ministry?

All church leaders wrestle with gospel fruitlessness from time to time, or even more often. How should we interrogate our barrenness in a godly and helpful way?

Here’s a summary of what that fruitlessness might look like, written by a well-known gospel author and pastor:

  • Nothing much seems to happen at our weekly services;
  • Most people around us continue in their ungodly state;
  • Many professing Christians don’t seem concerned about the honour of God;
  • There’s little appetite for the word of God;
  • The midweek meeting is poorly attended;
  • Not many conversions are recorded in our Sunday School;
  • Children of Christian parents choose the world rather than the gospel;
  • There are few conversions in total;
  • People don’t seem to take the Lord’s Supper seriously.

Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it?

Yet this is actually Charles Bridges writing in The Christian Ministry in the 1840s; perhaps what we might consider a ‘golden time’ for church life compared to now.

When the lockdown began, I invited some FIEC pastors to join me in an online reading group working our way through Bridges’ book, subtitled ‘an inquiry into the causes of its inefficiency.’ Little did I realise (it’s some years since I read it last) how encouraging and relevant it would prove.

Lack of Fruit

This week we got into the meat of his argument about “want of ministerial success” – lack of fruit to you and me. Bridge’s answer to this frustration (which he felt too, as the description above proves) is somewhat surprising; or, as one of the participants put it to us, ”oddly encouraging.”

"The warrant of success is sure." Or to put it in more contemporary language - there's no such thing as fruitlessness.

It’s a surprising place to start but do not fret: Bridges explores all the searching answers we might come up with ourselves, all in the context of the sovereignty of God. Don’t panic, he says: this is a question those in ministry have always asked - and asked of Jesus himself. However, the first answer is always the same: there is no lack of fruit.

Bridges, like us, would want to hold in tension the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. So he is not afraid to ask difficult questions about our dependence on God, our prayer life, our study, our preparation, the work of Satan, and the effect of unregenerate hearts. But neither does he set sovereignty and responsibility against one another in a kind of Star Wars duality.

Divine sovereignty is a truth “to which we bow with the most implicit and adoring subjection…[and] is the righteous government of a faithful God.”

The Trouble with Success

The trouble with success, he argues, is threefold.

First, not all success is outward. It is not “limited to the work of conversion”. So, measuring fruit by conversions alone is missing the big picture. “Apparent must not be the measure of a real result.”

Second, “symptoms of success are frequently mistaken.” He calls these “at best doubtful signs” and, in a rebuke to all of us watching our YouTube statistics, he warns against reading too much into those who show “temporary interest in our message” or delighting in those who “crowd to hear the word”.

Third, we need to realise that fruitfulness may come after we are gone. “The seed may lie under the clod till we lie there, and then spring up.” Who knows what effect ministry will have 10, 20, 30, or even more years down the line?

Expectancy and Patience

What, therefore, is the answer to our frustration at a lack of fruit? Bridges argues that we need to discipline ourselves to see the big picture. We need to “learn to extend our views.”

Moreover, we must not let a proper view of God’s sovereignty make us into fatalists. “There must be expectancy as well as patience.”

Perhaps you feel particularly ineffective right now? Perhaps you long for more conversions and are frustrated at lack of fruit? Perhaps you would give almost anything to see members more committed to the work of the gospel?

There may be answers for you to wrestle with in terms of yourself, your ministry, your church, gifting, structures, programmes and so on. Such evaluation is healthy and necessary. But none are the starting place.

Instead, the starting place is to say to yourself, “there is no want of ministerial success.”

Isn’t that oddly encouraging?

The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges is available on 10ofthose.com for £13.65 (RRP £15).

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