Bananas are not the only fruit
In 2015, a study was commissioned by the Church of England, Hope and the Evangelical Alliance to explore what most UK adults really think about Jesus and the Christians that follow him. The hope was that this study – the first of its kind – would be “a major catalyst for effective and focused evangelism in the years to come”.
Most of the media coverage of the study, in both the Christian and secular press, focused on some of the more challenging findings. For example, when asked about their reactions to an ‘evangelistic’ conversation, specifically one in which Jesus was mentioned, only one out of every five people said that they felt keen to know more about faith. Three in five said they actively did not want to know more and two in five said that the conversation actually made them glad they were not Christians! Understandably, those findings provoked more than a little despondency in Christian quarters.
However, the choice to focus on those particular responses perhaps shows us less about non-Christians and more about ourselves and our default approach to what it looks like to be fruitful disciples for Christ. Some of the most interesting and encouraging findings to come out of the study were not gleaned from the overtly evangelistic questions – they were findings that focused on relationships.
Just behind “growing up in a Christian home”, one of the most popular reasons for adult Christians coming to faith was “through a conversation with a Christian I know”; two in three people reported that they knew a practising Christian; and people were four times more likely to describe the Christians they knew in positive terms – using words like ‘caring’, ‘generous’ and ‘hopeful’ – rather than in negative ones.
These findings suggest that the best chance we have at helping people come to know Jesus for themselves is going to be relational – as we live our everyday lives amongst people at work, at the school gate, in the gym, at the supermarket, in a café. Yet we so rarely see these ordinary places and activities as opportunities for fruitfulness.
Just look at Elaine …
Elaine is a head teacher. She has turned around two failing primary schools in a tough area of Glasgow. She has transformed the lives of hundreds of children and their families, and indeed the communities they are in. She has brought hope and dignity and joy and opened up a different future for hundreds of people. Yet Elaine didn’t think she’d done anything for God in her job. Because, in her mind, fruitfulness had been confined to direct evangelism – if it didn’t involve a conversation about God, or a conversion, then it wasn’t fruit.
If you don’t think that anything other than evangelism matters to God, then at the end of an average day or an average week it’s pretty easy to feel that you aren’t doing anything significant for God. It’s easy to feel discouraged. But while evangelism is important, of course, it is not the only expression of fruitful living, any more than bananas are the only fruit. We need a richer picture of what fruitfulness in Christ looks like.
Throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms, the idea of ‘fruit’ is used as an overall metaphor for the outcomes of an obedient, godly life. Similarly, in the New Testament, John the Baptist, Paul and Jesus all explore the idea of fruitfulness and tend to contrast good fruit and bad fruit. All people will produce fruit – but what kind is determined by their true character, by who they follow and how closely?
Jesus looks at this most extensively in John 15, where he characterises himself as the true vine and the disciples as branches that he wants to see bearing abundant fruit. And how can they do that? By obeying him, loving him, leading a life dependent on him, seeking his wisdom and resources, praying, taking up their cross daily and following him wherever he leads.
So, ultimately, fruit can come in all shapes and sizes – it’s anything that pleases God and brings glory to him. And there is no evidence that any one type of fruit is more important to God than another. But how can we make sure our eyes are open to the possibilities? Well, here’s a framework that we’ve found helps Christians to spot practical ways they might nudge others towards God in some measure:
- Modelling Godly Character
- Making Good Work
- Ministering Grace and Love
- Moulding Culture
- Being a Mouthpiece for Truth and Justice
- Being a Messenger of the Gospel
After all, wherever we are, we all get to try to model godly character, to display the fruit of the Spirit in whatever circumstances (maybe idyllic, maybe nightmarish) we find ourselves in. What do love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control look like where you are?
We all have work to do, whether or not we are paid for it: dishes to wash, emails to write, shirts to iron, people to manage, shopping to do, calls to make, deals to broker. What difference might it make if we committed our ordinary daily tasks to God, asked him for help, consciously did it for his glory?
We all get to minister grace and love to people – offering a nugget of advice, looking out for a colleague, caring about the check-out person, taking the initiative on someone else’s behalf, going beyond what we have to. Even if we are housebound and living alone, there are still opportunities – the people that come to our door, the people who call us up, the people we write to.
We all get to make a contribution to the culture of the places we’re in, the way we do things in our family, our team, our club, our office, our church. And when we contribute to moulding a culture which better reflects God’s ways, which is more like his Kingdom culture, that’s fruit.
At some point too, we will all probably have an opportunity to speak up for truth and justice, whether for ourselves or for another – with the local council, with a boss, for a family member, for a person on the street. God loves justice and he loves to see it done.
And, by God’s grace and in his time, we all have opportunities, even if not as many as we would like, to be a messenger of the Gospel, to communicate the reason for the hope that we have in Jesus, to bring a biblical perspective to a conversation, or just to tell others the difference Jesus has made/is making to our lives.
All these 'M's work together: modelling godly character creates better soil for godly testimony; working hard to make other people’s lives better confirms that the Gospel is about joy in this life as well as joy in the next; serving others lovingly and graciously makes the message of a loving, gracious servant-king much more compelling; taking a risk to stand up against injustice makes the claim that God cares about justice much more persuasive.
Of course, these kinds of models can become oppressive. “Now I don’t just get to feel guilty about evangelism and my woeful failure to crowbar a Gospel presentation into a casual conversation about the weather. Now I’ve got to be a 6Ms disciple as well… Oh Lord! …” No. These 6Ms aren’t another set of holy ‘to-do’s’ – they are lenses to help us spot how God might already be at work in, and through, us in the places we already are.
Start off simply. As you go about your life this week, as you run to the corner shop for a pint of milk, as you chat with your book club, as you enjoy a glass of wine with friends, as you drop a child off at school, as you eat dinner with your family, as you hop on the train to work… who do you know who you would love to see discover Jesus for themselves? Pause. Think. Ask God – “Who shall I pray for? Who do you have in mind to take a next step towards you?” At work, in your neighbourhood, maybe even your own home. Now ask yourself – “What’s my relationship with them? What do they believe about God? What would a ‘next step’ look like for them?” Keep it simple. The question is not “How can I convert them?” but more achievably, more beautifully, “How can I show them something of your character this week?”
Evangelism, the sharing of the incredible hope we have in Jesus, is an amazing (albeit sometimes daunting) privilege and we know that God rejoices when someone comes to know him. How wonderful when we can be part of that kind of fruitfulness. But as tasty as bananas can be, don’t underestimate how much God cares about the whole fruit bowl. Let’s embrace every opportunity we have to show and share Christ in the ordinariness of our daily lives.
+ For more ideas, videos, a book and a small group resource on fruitful discipleship take a look at www.licc.org.uk/fruitfulness