People are like trees, said Jesus – and so are churches. ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.’ (Luke 6:43-44) The bramble-picking season is over, but wouldn’t we love to walk through the frosty woods and find a bunch of grapes glistening in a heap of nettles or figs hanging between the thorns? I would love that. But Jesus says it’s not going to happen!
Picture a church where the preaching is less about who Jesus is and more about what kind of people or community we should be. The desire behind this, of course, is to grow healthy gospel Christians and a healthy gospel church. But do those fruits grow from preaching and teaching that stresses what the fruit should look like? Isn’t this like trying to tell a thistle it should be growing better grapes? How likely is the thistle ever to grow grapes simply by being told it should? We can tell people what kind of people they should be – and churches what sort of churches they should be – until we’re blue in the face. But here’s the twist: it won’t produce healthy gospel Christians or churches.
Where do healthy gospel fruits grow from? Jesus says, healthy gospel roots. The tree is a helpful analogy because while for human beings and churches this is counter-intuitive, this is simply how trees and plants work. We grew tomatoes in our garden last summer. Of course, the reason we grew them in the first place was for the taste of the fresh, fragrant, sun-ripened fruits. Sadly in Aberdeen, ‘sun-ripened’ was optimistic. The few we got to taste were astonishingly tasty. But when we went to water them, we didn’t pour the water on the green tomatoes. We didn’t feed the fruits. We fed and watered the roots so that the fruits would grow. That is how a plant works – we feed the roots, and the roots feed the fruits.
And that is also how a church works. We do not get healthy gospel fruits in our churches by pouring our focus primarily into the fruits themselves, whatever they are – welcoming community, warm hospitality, winsome evangelism, self-giving love, sacrificial generosity, spiritual vitality… these, and plenty others, are the good fruits God loves to grow in the life of his church by his Spirit. But they only grow when the roots of the church are being fed with the food God gives for growing churches – that is, his word.
Isaiah compares God’s word to rain and snow that water the earth, ‘making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater’ (Isaiah 55:10-11). It’s Scripture, read, preached, studied, shared, that gives life. When the church hears God’s voice, she bursts into flower and bears fruit. Whether it’s Genesis or Judges, John or Jude, God gives the growth as we water the church with his word, preach the gospel at the heart of his word, and hold out the One at the heart of the gospel – Jesus Christ. He is the one who turns thorn bushes into fig trees and thistles into vines.
So, a healthy gospel church feeds the roots. As the label suggests, the food of a healthy gospel church is a healthy gospel! And a healthy gospel church relishes the fruits of the gospel whenever, wherever and in whomever they grow, by God’s grace. This is why we do it after all, in the expectant hope of a harvest! But we don’t need to pour ourselves into the fruitless task of fruit-feeding. We focus on feeding the roots, and the roots will feed the fruits, and the fruits will bring glory to God.
The vision of the Free Church of Scotland is to see a “Healthy Gospel Church for Every Community in Scotland.”
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