Maximum Fruitfulness: A Statement of Aspirations

R. Fowler White

Is there any congregation of Christ’s church who doesn’t aspire to see maximum fruitfulness from her ministries? Seems doubtful, doesn’t it? Even those churches who don’t buy into goals of “big attendance, big budget, big building” want to see “maximum fruitfulness.” But, of course, if we don’t define fruitfulness in terms of bigness, how will we define it? Exactly what fruit are we looking for? With that last question in mind, what follows is a brief exposition of a working hypothesis about fruitfulness in local church ministry – a statement of aspirations, if you will.

So, where to start? I start with what I take to be a biblically faithful “purpose statement” for the congregations of Christ’s church. Granted that the chief end for which Christ’s church and all other things exist is to glorify God, I find a purpose statement for the church in WCF 25.3. There, according to the Assembly, the purpose for which Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God is this: “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” Understandably, we think of “gathering the saints” primarily in terms of evangelistic fruitfulness. And well we should. That’s not our focus here, however. Rather our attention is on “perfecting the saints.” Lest I misinterpret this “perfecting,” I look back to WCF 13, where I find that the term perfecting is virtually interchangeable with the process of sanctification, that is, with the saints’ “grow[th] in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (WCF 13.3). In that context, we recognize that the growth in view is that of the saints’ traits (qualities), not their number (quantity). Please note: that’s not to say that numerical growth (even “big attendance”) is irrelevant: it’s just to say that the number of gathered saints is not the Assembly’s point in their choice of the word perfecting. So, if you’re looking for a purpose statement for your congregation, here’s one: to gather and grow saints. Simple, brief, memorable.

But maybe too brief. It’s possible and desirable to describe the perfecting of the saints more fully. Surely, increasing holiness and decreasing worldliness in the individual saint’s life are in view. Again, however, we can say more. We can focus on the perfecting/growth of congregations as well as of individuals. It’s vital for us to look for the fruit of more holiness and less worldliness in our congregations. Yet we should not overlook other fruit in which “congregational sanctification” should be expressed. As far as I can tell, in addition to growth from evangelism that gathers the saints, Scripture points to three other categories of fruitfulness – three crops, if you will – yielded by congregations who grow the saints they’re gathering.

First, congregations are to grow in unity. It’s striking how frequently the NT authors address the duty not just to maintain unity (see Phil 1.27–2.2), but to attain it too. Eph 4.1-16 provides a sweeping overview of the two tasks. In 4.1-6 Paul makes an appeal to “maintain the unity” created by the one Spirit (4.1-3), an appeal based and expressed in seven unifying confessional acclamations (4.4-6). In 4.7‑16 Paul highlights how the diverse gifts bestowed on the church enable her members to “attain to the unity” of faith and knowledge. The context of Ephesians 4, then, sees the church moving from the unity of childhood (4.4‑6, 14) to the unity of adulthood (4.13, 15‑16). From the unifying articles of her immaturity (4.4‑6), through the “speaking the truth in love” of her maturation (4.15), to the unity of faith and knowledge in her maturity (4.13), confessional unity is at the heart of the church’s identity. In fact, as one commentator puts it, oneness is essential “to the very being and life of the church. She can only live as a confessing church.” And lest we think that Paul has only the universal visible church in mind in Eph 4.1-16, we should note that he speaks of “pastors and teachers” in 4.11, gifts whose ministries are associated primarily with local church contexts. Thus, maturation unto unity in the faith takes place in and through the local congregations of Christ’s universal visible church. Most notably for our purposes, however, maturation in the faith is conceived in terms of confessional unity (i.e., shared convictions and witness about what to believe and how to behave) at the congregational level.

Second, congregations are to grow in discernment. As the pillar and bulwark of the truth, the church is responsible to grow, corporately as well as individually, in her discernment of God’s revealed will (Rom 12.2; 16.17-19; Eph 4.13-16; Col 1.9-10; 2 Pet 3.18) and to bear public witness to that will in word and deed (1 Tim 3.15-16; Jude 3; 1 Pet 3.15; Eph 4.3-6, 13-16). To empower the church to fulfill these responsibilities, Christ gives her the Spirit of truth, thereby enabling and obliging her members to distinguish truth from error, right from wrong, good from evil (1 Cor 2.12–3.3; 12.1-3; Heb 5.11-14; 1 John 2.27; 4.1). Possessing the same Spirit, God’s household also possesses at least the seed of those saving graces necessary to make public confession even from its childhood. Yet congregations are expected to grow in discernment too, so that members are no longer little children in the faith (Eph 4.14). Accordingly, parents generally and fathers particularly are exhorted to instruct their families (Gen 18.19; Deut 6.7; Prov 1.8; 22.6; Eph 6.4). Moreover, through training and practice, some in God’s household will emerge to exercise saving graces more ably and fully than others, thus distinguishing themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5.14). In this light, we understand that a congregation’s maturation will be recognized in their increasingly shared discernment of what is true, right, and good.

Third, congregations are to grow in their stewardship of the gifts-for-ministry that the Spirit has distributed among His saints for their perfecting (1 Cor 12.11; 1 Pet 4.10-11). Out of love for neighbor (1 Cor 12.31–13.7), saints are exhorted to devote themselves to “the common good” (1 Cor 12.7) – in other words, to edifying one another (1 Cor 14.12). In that devotion, a division of labor emerges: both Paul and Peter teach us that some will minister in word; others in deed (Eph 4.11-12; 1 Peter 4.11). Whatever one’s gifts, the saints are told to remember that “each has received a gift,” and each is to “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 4.10; cf. 1 Cor 14.12). So, growth in the household of faith at the congregational level will find members with a justifiable conviction of what their gifts are (Rom 12.3) and also a spirit of accountability to employ those gifts for the common good (1 Pet 4.10).

So there you have it: a working hypothesis that, when it comes to perfecting the saints, the fruitfulness we’re looking for in local church ministry is that God would grant our congregations to be united, discerning, and good stewards of our gifts for ministry. Let me know where you agree or disagree, especially where I have wrong or incomplete information or where I reach wrong or incomplete conclusions.

R. Fowler White