Sometimes church leaders are accused of running the church like a business and being too concerned about ‘numbers’, that is too focussed on attendance figures and not enough people. Together with this they may well also be accused of relying too much on strategies, programs, human ingenuity etc to make a ‘profit’, which in church terms is usually measured by numbers attending services, rather than having a more ‘spiritual’ approach and relying on God’s grace for growth. This is a criticism that is certainly warranted in some cases, however it can also be accompanied by a ‘throwing out of the baby with the bathwater’ as shown by an opposite attitude i.e. a significant lack of enthusiasm for and the downplaying of the importance of actively working for numbers in terms of new disciples of Christ.
The bible shows us however that, whether we are or not, God himself has always been interested in numbers, in ‘profit’ if you like i.e. fruit from His chosen people. We see this in the Song of the Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1,2) where there is a beautiful picture of God coming to his vineyard (people), in which he has invested greatly, looking for fruit, “a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit”. It is clear that God not only expects fruit, but good fruit at that.
Jesus too was clearly interested in numbers, his commission was and is for us to make new disciples which if it is actually happening will inevitably result in ‘profit’ as measured by increasing numbers of members in Christian communities, and more importantly in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus interest in ‘profit’, given the agricultural context he spoke in, was usually expressed in terms of greater fruit. Indeed he expressly linked God’s grace to individuals with the expectation of fruit, that is a Christian is chosen (by God’s grace) specifically FOR the production of fruit of the eternal variety (John 15:16). Some quotes from the New Testament further reinforce Jesus interest in maximum production from his ‘fruit farm’ namely the church.
• The well known parable of the sower reminds us that the Christian who is the ‘good soil’ will produce 100 times the investment God has made in them (Mark 4) when he purchased them at a great price through the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:20). Clearly God expects not just some but maximum fruit or profit from his investment.
• That is why we are instructed ‘not to cast our pearls before swine’ (Matthew 7:6) i.e. not to waste our God-given resources on people who will not fruitfully respond to the gospel, or ministries that do not produce fruit for the Kingdom of God.
• Similarly, Jesus reminds us that a good gardener will remove dead, and at least severely prune none fruitful branches attached to the ‘Vine’, that is the spiritual organism of the church. This is so that the church becomes more fruitful (John 15:16)
• Then in the parable of the ‘Tenants in the Vineyard’ (Luke 20:9-18), initially referring to the religious leadership of Israel, God shows his attitude to unfruitful recipients of his grace by saying they should be replaced. In today’s terms the Vineyard can now be seen as the church, God’s ‘chosen-to-be-fruitful’ people.
• And finally we see God’s condemnation of the unfruitful tree (i.e. his people) such that it should be “cut down and thrown into the fire” Luke 3:9. This idea of cutting down the unfruitful tree is repeated in Luke 13:6-9-6 Then he told this parable:
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? 8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
It cannot be denied that, like any investor, God is extremely concerned about the degree of profit (fruit) his investment makes. Does this not also apply to the fruitfulness of churches today? Why would we believe that God has so changed that he is now satisfied with the great unfruitfulness of so many local (western) churches? Can it be that he is content with the increasing number of shrivelling, small congregations that are “using up the soil”, incurring the ‘opportunity cost’ of NOT selling their unfruitful buildings, so to release funds to be used for fruitful ministries and activities. Yes certainly God is gracious and patient but not for ever, according to a (yes literalistic) reading of the parable, only three years or four, but it makes the point.
Is not this point a highly relevant one for the largely unfruitful ‘vineyard’ of our time, the church? The church has never been good at ‘shooting dead horses’ but maybe it is time, time for the ‘Axe factor’, if God is not applying it already, or at least the pruning shears?
Even if we are content with congregations that consistently produce little fruit, not just for ‘three years’ or so but often for decades, it is unlikely that God is. So given our knowledge of God’s deep concern for fruit from his investment in Jesus, does he not expect the severe pruning or even closing (chopping) down of fruitless churches that have been, often for many decades, just “using up the ground”. Such ‘gardening’ would ‘Unbind’ scarce resources currently being drained from life giving mission to prop up so many inflexible, unfruitful Christendom-model local churches, in order to embed networks of missional communities in the parallel universes where the pagans live.