Take a deep breath. Inhale. Welcome Week is over. The madness of the first two weeks of the fall semester are behind you. Exhale.
Aside from feeling positively exhausted, I’m guessing you are also feeling one of two things: encouragement or discouragement. If I had to guess again, I’d posit that at least some percentage of those feelings have to do with numbers: how many students attended your events. How many info cards you collected. How many came to know Christ. Am I wrong?
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the pervasive ministry prosperity gospel that falsely equates our ministry “success” with God’s blessing, our obedience, or confirmation of our calling. I challenged us to recalculate the kind of growth we’re pursuing, reexamine the source of our confidence in our calling, and redefine what we consider fruitfulness in our ministry.
As I discussed in that article, we often subtly come to believe that numeric or external results are indicative of fruit. They might be indicative of fruit, but is it the right fruit? That’s the question we less often stop to consider.
Before I go on, let me pause here and acknowledge: of course you want to reach a lot of students. Of course you care about growing your ministry because you want students to know Jesus. Of course you want your student leaders to multiply. Of course you aren’t satisfied with reaching 40 students when there are 10,000 on your campus who don’t know Christ. There’s nothing wrong with that “holy discontent” for reaching your campus. If we didn’t long for college students to experience the hope and peace of knowing Jesus, we wouldn’t do what we do.
But I just want us to consider for a moment that kind of fruit we’re bearing. It affects how we evaluate our ministry efforts, and it impacts whether we walk away encouraged or discouraged. From my experience of being a campus missionary’s wife for 13 years, there’s no better time to have this conversation than right now on the heels of Welcome Week.
The Kind of Fruit We’re Bearing
Have you considered that it’s actually quite possible your ministry could be growing numerically and seemingly thriving yet not be bearing the kind of fruit God wants? We can probably all think of an example of a “thriving” megachurch that’s rife with bad theology and leadership problems. Yet how often do we stop to evaluate if our own ministry is thriving for the right ones or the wrong ones?
And what about the reverse—have you considered that it’s actually quite possible your ministry could not be growing numerically yet it is bearing the kind of fruit God desires? Yet how often do we stop to evaluate if our ministry’s smallness might actually be because we’re faithfully striving for the right fruit?
Both are possible. Size can’t be the metric. We know this, and yet we don’t. Our definition of success is not always in line with God’s.
The Kind of Fruit God Desires
What kind of fruit, then, does God want? How do we define fruitfulness His way? What kind of fruit brings Him glory? Let’s look at the source of the fruit, the nature of the fruit, and the visibility of the fruit to answer that question.
The Source of Fruit
Bearing fruit happens when we abide in Christ (see John 15). In other words, it happens when we rest in who He is, what He’s done for us, and who He’s made us. It happens when He is our life source and satisfaction, when His truth fills the reservoir of our hearts and minds. Then God can bear fruit in and through us—the fruit He wants to bear, in the way He wants to bear it, in the time He chooses to bear it.
In Colossians 1:28 Paul also says he strives for fruitfulness with “HIS energy that powerfully works in me” (emphasis mine). Paul recognizes that he is merely a vessel for the Holy Spirit to work in and through. God is the source of any fruit that came from Paul’s labor, and He is the source of any fruit that comes from ours.
Action Step: Lead yourself and your leaders to be rooted in Jesus. Remind yourself and them that He is the source of the fruit. Trust Him with the fruit of your labors."Bearing fruit happens when we abide in Christ. In other words, it happens when we rest in who He is, what He's done for us, and who He's made us." -@BritneyLynHamm Bearing The Fruit God Wants Your College Ministry to Bear Click To Tweet
The Nature of Fruit
Bearing fruit happens according to the Spirit’s nature. It’s not hard, biblically speaking, to see what kind of fruit God wants us to bear personally and ministerially. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). That is literally the fruit of the Spirit. Less sin, more holiness. Less self, more Jesus.
Sometimes bearing this kind of fruit does lead to numeric growth. Sometimes it leads to sending out ¾ of our leadership team to do Kingdom work elsewhere while we rebuild from scratch. The ministry that grows numerically isn’t necessarily bearing Spirit fruit, and the ministry that shrinks and rebuilds isn’t necessarily not bearing Spirit fruit. God’s ways often don’t follow a linear pattern that’s sensible to our human pea brains. Mistaking numeric fruit for Spirit fruit is like mistaking a giant cantaloupe stapled to an apple tree for a tasty melon. It may look big and pretty, but give it a few days, and it will rot and turn brown because it’s not connected to the source, and it’s the wrong kind of fruit for that tree. The source of the fruit matters, and so does its nature.
This applies not just to the fruit you bear but the process you use for bearing it. In God’s Kingdom, the ends do not justify the means. Using means to grow your ministry that are out of alignment with His character does not glorify Him.
Action Step: Take time to assess what kind of fruit your ministry is bearing and how you are going about pursuing it. Where do you see fruit that flows from the Source and reflects the character of Christ? Celebrate that. Where do you see fruit that doesn’t? Cut it off.
The Visibility of Fruit
Bearing fruit also happens in ways we can’t always see. Sometimes we don’t learn how impactful something was on someone until later (or never at all). Some of the most fruitful discipleship interactions I have had seemed entirely unfruitful until years later when the person came back to me and said, “Remember that series of conversations we had? Well God really used that to change me. I know I didn’t get it at the time, but I have thought about it a lot since then and I get it now.”
Some of my “worst” days of ministry have ended up being the most “successful” at helping someone come to know Jesus or mature in Christ. Sometimes God is gracious enough to give us a glimpse into what He is doing. But much of the time, we don’t get to see the full and long-term impact of our ministry efforts. At any given time, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg, and we’re quick to judge ourselves and our ministry for that tiny sliver of the full picture.
We can’t judge the fruit of the ministry entirely by what we presently see (or don’t see). We need to look at the larger picture. God does not work on our time. We’re vessels of the seed, not the sower Himself. Sometimes we plant a tree whose first sprout we will never see, whose shade we will never get to sit under, whose branches we will never prune. But all it takes is one tiny seed to plant a forest.
So while the source and nature of the fruit do matter, we have to be careful using the visibility of the fruit as a metric. It is less reliable and can be misleading.
Action Step: Don’t just count the fruit you can see. Take time to write down the seeds that were planted or watered, even if there’s no visible growth yet. They matter.
The Kind of Fruit We Celebrate
As you debrief with your students from the first two weeks, you set the tone for how they perceive your ministry’s success or failure. Certainly assess what went well and what didn’t, what can be improved upon, and what you learned—that’s just part of being a faithful minister striving for excellence. If you are encouraged, share with them why you are encouraged. Compliment the fruit of the Spirit you saw in them as they ministered. Note the stories of transformation, no matter how small.
If you are discouraged, take time to seriously evaluate why. Is it because you and your students lacked faithfulness? Is it because you and your students lacked fruit of the Spirit? Or is it because you have been duped into looking for the wrong kind of fruit? Talk and pray through these things with your students. Confess before them the places where you are pursuing the approval of man or are failing to trust God with your ministry.
The Kind of Fruit We Will Bear
We have a decision to make: will we bear the ministry fruit God wants us to bear, knowing that we may not see it, others may not see it, and we may not look “successful”? Or will we chase after the kind of fruit that leaves us feeling good about our efforts and looking “successful” to others? We can only choose the former if Jesus is enough for us. If we don’t need the approval of others and the legacy of ministry success to justify us. If we are content with it being about Him and not about us.
2 Corinthians 3:6 tells us to put no confidence in ourselves, but to claim only the sufficiency that comes from God. He has made us ministers of a new covenant. He makes us sufficient to do what He calls us to do. He is in charge of the results. Let’s bear the fruit He wants us to bear: fruit that flows from being connected to Him, that reflects His nature, whether it’s visible right now or not. And let’s lead our students to do the same.