People who know me know that I am very big on fruit: the outward and visible manifestations of the faith we profess. James says it all when he reminds us that faith without works is dead. Furthermore, it is not enough just to produce fruit because until it feeds somebody it hasn’t filled its purpose. Fruit must nourish. Fruit must strengthen. Fruit contains that which is essential for health. And the fruit that we produce as the church is not to be hoarded and enjoyed by us. We produce this fruit and bear it to a starving, malnourished world, bringing sweetness and succulence to an all-too-often dry and bitter existence. The fruits — peace, patience, love, joy, kindness, generosity, self-control, faithfulness, and gentleness — should be the very first qualities that come to mind when people hear the word “Christian.”
But, often they’re not. Many people outside the church feel that these expressions of God’s Spirit are conditional at best, absent at worst. Most people would love to experience the fruits of the spirit in their lives — they would love to believe that there is more love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and the rest in the world because of the church of Jesus Christ. And perhaps there is more of each, but at the same time we must acknowledge that the church produces such poison fruit as judgmentalism, intolerance, strife, exclusion, fear, and alienation. I sat with a pastor this week with tears in his eyes who wondered if it isn’t time to leave the church to do something else. He said,
I tried to get my church to reach out to the hispanics in the community, and they voted not to. I tried to get them to open their doors to the street people, and the Trustees told me it was too risky. I wanted to try to launch a ministry with students and young adults, but some of the older members didn’t like the way they dressed and looked, so they made them feel unwelcome. When I tried to continue the ministry off-site, people complained that I wasn’t ministering to them. I ripped down all our “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” banners and threw them in the trash five weeks ago, and no one has even noticed. I got my council to read “The Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations,” and our chairwoman had the nerve to say, “This describes our church perfectly! We’re a fruitful congregation.” The problem is, any fruit we produce, we keep for ourselves.
This is an excellent example of a “Fruit Loop” congregation — a congregation that does produce fruit, but doesn’t share it with others. We have a lot of fruit loop churches. They do good things. They worship. They have Sunday school. They hold friendly fellowship events for the members. They enjoy one another. They do all the ‘churchy’ things, but much of their fruit is wasted, because it doesn’t feed anyone beyond the chosen few.
A few years ago I met with some church leaders who proudly showed me their 3.5 million dollar endowment fund for “future” development. This church actively built this fund to ensure their future, but they couldn’t meet their current operating budget, the struggled with pastoral support, their parsonage was in disrepair, and they regularly only paid about 40% of their apportionments. Fruit loops.
A small church in an inner-city setting. Locked gates across the parking lot. Razor wire crowning a ten-foot chainlink fence around the property. Double deadbolt locks on every door. Bars on all the windows. An alarm system. $2,000 per month spent on advertising inviting people to come to their church. Fruit loops.
Large church with a deep commitment to Stephen’s Ministry (caregiving and visitation ministry). Many Stephen’s Ministers begin drifting away from the program because their were more ministers than people in need. The church made a rule: Stephen’s Ministers could only visit members of the church. Fruit loops.
A number of year’s ago I wrote a Bible study called FaithQuest. The premise of the study was that the central message of the gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts, the Letter to the Ephesians, and much of John Wesley’s teaching was simply this: the ministry of the church is in the world. I didn’t make this up. I felt fairly confident that Jesus, Paul, and John (and maybe even Ringo) were saying the same thing. And yet, the strongest criticism I received was that I was “imposing” my opinion on the Bible, making it say what I wanted it to. I got this letter shortly after the study came out:
We returned FaithQuest to Cokesbury for a refund, and we are sorry to see that this is what is being offered to the church. You have an obvious liberal bias, and you have not right to make churches feel guilty if they are not doing social work. We are the church and our ministry is to the church. We are here to pray, worship on Sunday, and teach our children the love of Christ. To say that the work of the church is in the world is ridiculous. We need the church because the world is filled with sin and hate and evil. The church is where we come to get away from all that. If you are going to call something a Bible study, it should be about the Bible, not your opinion.
Fruit loops — the fruit of the Spirit being grown, nurtured, harvested, and consumed behind closed doors. And it is so easy to break the loop, and let the fruit flow out where it can do even more good. I got this email a few days ago from one of my frequent blog readers:
We helped someone. We actually helped someone. Storms destroyed some homes in our community, so we prayed for the people who were affected on Sunday morning. But from our church, we could see a home that had collapsed. Some of us walked over. There were people — the family — picking through debris. They were crying. We started helping them. We started talking to them. We found out what their immediate needs were. We started getting things together. We began assisting them with all kinds of issues — clothing, bank account, school books, and transportation. We adopted them. They started coming to our church, and we started looking for other people to help. We started helping more people, and more people started coming to help. Our church has never had so much energy before. The church is full every Sunday, and something is going on every day of the week. We didn’t have to plan it. We didn’t have to approve anything. We just did it. Thank you for challenging us and reminding us how easy this could be.
Sharing our fruit costs very little. Sure, some of the fruit is for us, but God provides plenty for us and more than enough to share. And sharing kindness is simple: be a little more kind. Same for love: be a tad more loving. Patience? Ditto. This isn’t rocket science.
So why don’t we share more fruit? Probably because we’ve simply gotten out of the habit. We let our fruit grow wild instead of cultivating it. We think in terms of how much we’ll need, instead of how much we could produce. Perhaps it’s just that we don’t think much in terms of fruit and sharing. But the beautiful thing about fruit is that while we can come and enjoy it, there’s always more left over. We come seeking kindness, we leave with kindness to give away. We come seeking acceptance, we depart with the opportunity to be accepting of others. We come seeking forgiveness, we move into the world better able to forgive others. The abundance of the fruit of the Spirit means that it costs almost nothing to give it away.
Fruit Loops (the cereal) bears no resemblance to any fruit grown in nature. It’s fake. It’s chemical. And it offers virtually no nutritional value. But the fruits of the Spirit — the fruit that will last — is real. It’s organic. It’s good for you. The world doesn’t need more Fruit Loops, but it can use all the real, delicious, sweet, juicy, nutritious fruit it can get.