Yes, knowledge apart from grace simply puffs up, but this does not make knowledge disposable. Edwards says that the people of God will love the things of God. They will search out his ways, following the trails of doctrine in the Scriptures straight to the throne. In our day, it is common to see emotion/experience set at odds with doctrine/theology, and so it is quite common to see churches that have devoted themselves to one while keeping the other at arm’s length. But just as unfruitful as a church that’s all head knowledge and no heart is a church that’s all feelings and no depth. Some pastors even publicly mock theology or denigrate Bible study. But the church has not endured for 2,000 years on “spiritual feelings.”
I follow the ongoing pastoral and missiological discussions about “faithfulness vs. fruitfulness” from a bemused distance. I do believe that a church’s faithfulness to the mission of God is itself success, regardless of the “results.” And I also believe that a faithful church will be a fruitful church. But when some begin defining fruitfulness in quantifiable ways — decisions, attendance, etc. — I see more pragmatism and less Bible.
Does this mean I don’t think we should look for results? No. It just means I think we should look differently for results. I think measuring a church’s fruitfulness is not as simple as how many hands get raised during an invitation or how many parking spots are filled.
In 1741, the great Jonathan Edwards first published his now-classic book The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In this important work, Edwards is analyzing and synthesizing all he’s experienced in the revivals of his day (chronicled most notably in A Narrative of Surprising Conversions and An Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton 1740-1742). He wants to know — what are the signs that a genuine move of God is taking place?
What, in other words, are the true evidences of Spiritual fruitfulness?
Interestingly enough, he prefaces his list of “distinguishing marks” with a list of things that may or may not be signs of a genuine move of God. It’s a curious collection — including things like charismatic experiences, the stirring up of emotions, and the fiery preaching of hell — and Edwards is saying that these things might be good things in many instances, but they do not themselves authenticate a work of God. A work of God may have charismatic experiences, stirring up of emotions, and the like, but it also may not. (He also lists some negative things — like errors and counterfeits — that he says do not necessarily disprove a work of God, since he reasons that a genuine move of God is likely to have Satan actively trying to derail it.)
I think we ought to apply Edwards’s strong reasoning to the ecclesiological landscape today. What are the signs of actual fruitfulness? How do we know our church is a growing part of something God is blessing?
Well, first, let’s look, as Edwards did, at some things that may or may not accompany a genuine move of God.
Marks of Neutrality – These May or May Not Authenticate a Church’s Fruitfulness
1. A steady accumulation of decisions or responses during Sunday invitations.
We have all seen the pastors touting their weekly catch on social media. Many people do hear the gospel and respond genuinely in this way. And yet, this kind of evangelistic strategy has been employed by evangelicals for the last 50 years, and we still face a discernible drought of mature Christianity in the West and a steady decline in evangelical numbers. The discipleship processes in so many of these “count the hands” churches seems to top out at the counting of the hands. Something isn’t adding up. Even Spurgeon commented on this practice, routine even in his day. No, what we can say is this — people coming to know Christ is always a good thing, no matter what kind of church they’re in, no matter the method by which they heard the gospel. But this does not itself sanctify methods. And a simple counting of “decisions” does not itself prove genuine fruitfulness because a (genuine) decision is itself only the first tiny bud of a life of fruit.
2. Large attendance.
It is wearying to need to repeat this, but American evangelicals love bigness, so we have to keep saying it: a lot of people is itself not a sign of faithfulness. It is another neutral sign. A lot of people coming to a church can be a good thing. There is nothing inherently wrong with a big church! But nor is there anything inherently right about it. One of the largest churches in North America is a church where Christ crucified is not routinely preached. Further, the Mormons have big churches. We need only look to the political realm for a fitting analogy: a lot of people supporting something does not mean that that something is doing something right!
3. Emotional experiences.
Here we track with Edwards again. Edwards rightly says that true worship often engages worshipers on an emotional level. It would be strange for a genuine love of Jesus not to make human beings feel something. But in many churches, the emphasis is on the emotional experience. This is why they advertise their music as “exciting,” “vibrant,” or the all-too-familiar “relevant.” These adjectives communicate that the worship is for the worshiper, which is another way of revealing that it is the worshiper the worshiper is worshiping. So it’s not a bad thing to get emotional in church. But it’s not in itself a sign that your church is doing something right.
So there we have 3 neutral signs, none of which are reliable indicators of genuine fruitfulness. A fruitful church may witness many conversions, growing attendance, and intense emotional engagement — or it may not. What, then, ought we to look for as signs of Spiritual fruitfulness? I happen to think Edwards’s “distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God” hold up rather well.
Distinguishing Marks of A Fruitful Church
1. A Growing Esteem for Jesus Christ