WHEN THE BRANCHES ARE BARE

Truths to Encourage Us When We’re Despondent over Lack of Fruit in Ministry

 

*This is a longer-than-usual post.  But it’s an important one!  Whether you are a serious volunteer (lay Bible teacher, personal witnessing, etc.) or a vocational Christian leader, the following truths can massage a heart that’s discouraged about ministry, particularly if the issue is lack of apparent fruitfulness.

 

Tears streamed down Jerry’s red cheeks.  His chin quivered, making talk difficult.  “I feel like a failure,” he stammered.  “Did I waste those years in seminary?  I’m wondering if God called me into the ministry, after all.  Things just aren’t working out the way I’d planned.”

What spawns Jerry’s perplexity is the inability to land a ministry position since he graduated two years ago.  He interviewed with three churches and two parachurch organizations, but wasn’t hired.  He languishes in a low-level administrative job, frustrated because his potential remains untapped, his gifts dormant.  The rejections are siphoning off his confidence.  “I just want someone to want me,” he laments.

Discouragement over a period of barrenness in ministry affects laypersons as well as vocational workers.  In John 15, Jesus identified His followers as branches who are expected to bear fruit.  Yet it’s unsettling when the branches are bare, when God seems to withhold His blessings.

The branches appear bare to the Bible teacher who has labored for years without noticeable life change among his learners. To the lady whose recent attempts at evangelism met with a chilly reception.  To the mentor who met weekly with a young man for six months, only to see his protégé leave the church and shuck his commitment to Christ.  To the young mother whose speaking ministry was curtailed by the birth of a Down’s Syndrome child.

I’m no stranger to disillusionment in ministry. For 47 years I’ve served the Lord in a variety of roles: church staff member, seminar leader, Christian university professor, and writer.  Not every position has panned out as I’d hoped.  In my early years, I faced a couple of excruciating delays between jobs.  I’ve wanted to throw in the towel when I didn’t see results.  I’ve compared myself unfavorably to more popular faculty members, and envied authors whose success eclipses mine.  Out of sheer necessity, I’ve relied on Scripture to fuel my persistence.  If your branches are bare right now, perhaps the following insights will encourage and sustain you as well.

 

How Does God Measure “Success” In Ministry?

For 41 years, Jeremiah preached to the people of Judah without anything to show for it.  You can sense his frustration in these words: “I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened” (Jer. 25:3).  Their resistance and the impending judgment of God on the nation broke his heart.  “I weep, my eyes run down with water” (Lam. 1:16).  Members of his audience ridiculed and persecuted him.

God gave Ezekiel a similar message of repentance, but his call came with disheartening news: “The house of Israel is not willing to listen to you because they are not willing to listen to Me” (Ezek. 3:7).  God predicted a fruitless ministry, yet Ezekiel fulfilled his calling.  God held Ezekiel accountable for delivering the message, not for how the people responded to it (Ezek. 3:18-19).

The prophets were no less commendable to God because folks disregarded their message.  Their predicament unveils this discouragement-fighting perspective: God evaluates His servants on the basis of faithfulness to His call, not fruitfulness.  Normally faithfulness spawns effectiveness, but Jeremiah and Ezekiel were notable exceptions.  This insight reassures me because faithfulness is a factor I can control.

An incident in Numbers 20 also indicates that God is more concerned with how we carry out an assignment than with its results.  God directed Moses to speak to a rock to obtain water for the Israelites.  Instead, Moses struck the rock twice with his staff.  He succeeded.  Water gushed from the rock.  But God chastised Moses and banned him from the Promised Land.

In Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, Kent Hughes quotes Charles Colson:  “God’s call is to be faithful rather than successful.  We must continuously use the measure of our obedience to the guidelines of His Word as the real – – and only – – standard of our ‘success,’ not some more supposedly tangible or glamorous scale.”

Elevating faithfulness over success doesn’t excuse mediocrity.  Faithfulness demands diligence, evaluations of our ministry, and training to hone our skills.  Yet no matter how many seminars we attend or how-to books we read, we still don’t have final say over how people respond to us.

Nor should the emphasis on faithfulness preclude self-examination when we aren’t fruitful. Here are words from the late Robertson McQuilkin:  “If a formerly effective ministry is now barren, I determine if I’m still connected to the Vine (John 15:4).  Am I praying less about my service?  Am I compromising morally?  If a ministry has never yielded fruit, I ask: Am I sure God called me to it?  Am I gifted for it?  Should I try a different age-level or a new sphere of service altogether?”

Neither my shortcomings nor a poor fit may explain the drought, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ponder those questions from Robertson.

Faithfulness characterizes my friend Jerry.  He wonders why God has him on the shelf, yet he maintains a vibrant walk with the Lord.  Though uninspired, he gives his current employer his best effort.  His marriage is rock-solid.  He spends ample time with his four sons, even taking a college course with one of them as a way to invest in the relationship.  He’s living a significant life, if not the fruitful one he envisioned.  In God’s eyes, Jerry is anything but a failure.

 

Who Is Responsible for Results?

A theological perspective that bolsters me during a drought is this: fruit is ultimately God’s responsibility, not mine. The wording of Acts 16:14 beams a spotlight on God’s executive role in ministry success.  Paul shared the gospel with Lydia, but she didn’t owe her conversion merely to Paul’s proclamation: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message,” explained Luke (emphasis mine).  Though God employs human instruments, fruitbearing requires divine intervention.

Paul’s response to a faction in Corinth reinforces this principle.  Some church members boasted they were followers of Paul, others Apollos.  Paul put an end to their party spirit by reminding them who was really responsible for their life in Christ: “What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants through whom you came to believe – – as the Lord has assigned each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow” (1 Cor. 3:5-7, emphasis mine).

That outcomes hinge more on God’s sovereignty than on His ministers is also seen in the contrast between Jeremiah and Jonah.  Why did the disloyal prophet bear more fruit than the obedient one?  The answer remains a mystery.  We do know that we can’t explain one’s success and the other’s failure by the quality of their performances.  Similarly, my barrenness and another’s fruitfulness doesn’t necessarily mean God favors me less or that I’m doing something wrong.

Jesus’ call to bear fruit (John 15:16) included productive ministry.  But paradoxically, He calls us to bear fruit that only He can produce.  Knowing this, my preoccupation should be on “abiding in the vine” (John 15:4), which is a prerequisite for fruitfulness.

An awareness that God determines fruit also spurs me to pray more for my ministries.  I ask Him to illumine the minds of folks in my Bible study so they grasp the implications of doctrines we’re covering.  I plead for Him to prepare the heart of a relative with whom I plan to share the gospel.  I request strength and protection for a student I’m discipling who’s tempted by pornography.  Ironically, I’m never more fruitful than when I admit my limitations and appeal to God for results.

 

Why Is It Premature To Conclude That We Aren’t Bearing Fruit?

A fifteen-year-old boy heard a message that ended unconventionally.  Instead of pronouncing the usual benediction, the pastor said, “How can I dismiss you with a blessing, for many of you are cursed because you love not the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Eighty-five years later the 100-year-old remembered the appeal that had substituted for a benediction.  His recollection spurred him to give his life to Christ.  He demonstrated a positive testimony until his death three years later.

That extraordinary story form the pen of Charles Spurgeon illustrates another faith-boosting insight for barren times: we can’t accurately gauge the fruitfulness of current ministries. What looks like unproductive service may yield eternal dividends later on.

When we teach God’s Word, share the gospel, mentor or intercede for someone, we’re sowing seeds.  Months or years may pass before the Holy Spirit causes those seeds to sprout.  What we perceive as an unfruitful time may be a season of sowing that will yield a future harvest.  Or it may be an incubation period for seeds we planted at some point in the past.

The seed-sowing metaphor is especially applicable to Bible teaching.  Seldom does any given lesson radically transform a life.  Yet the cumulative effect of lessons over time deepens learners’ faith, shapes their values, and instills a more biblical worldview.  Just as every seed sown in a field becomes part of the crop, every Bible study we lead is an integral part of others’ spiritual development.

Another reason I keep a long-range perspective is the promises in Scripture.  When the branches are bare I cling to 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

I also absorb Paul’s application of the sow-reap principle in Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  Jesus’ emphasis on fruitbearing in John 15 wasn’t so much a command as it was a promise that buoys my spirit: “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit” (vs. 5).  The only condition is that I maintain a close relationship with Christ.

Even Jeremiah and Ezekiel bore fruit eventually.  Though their preaching failed, they became heroic figures to future generations of God’s people. And the books that bear their name continue to touch lives.

 

How Does God Use Delays?

In Embracing Brokenness, Alan Nelson makes a poignant observation: “Pain doesn’t seem quite so bad when it appears to serve a purpose.”  For me, what alleviates the pain of a drought in ministry is an awareness that God is at work, using it to facilitate my spiritual maturity or to prepare me for greater usefulness in the future.

Scripture illustrates how God uses delays and disappointments for developmental purposes.  Twenty-five years separated God’s promise of an heir to Abraham and the birth of Isaac.  Before his coronation, David spent years dodging Saul’s spears.  Unjustly accused, Joseph was imprisoned for two years before his promotion to an executive suite.  Three years of obscurity in Tarsus preceded the launch of Paul’s ministry in Antioch.

Yet their waiting wasn’t wasted.  That’s when Abraham learned to trust God in the face of impossible circumstances.  It’s when David wrote several comforting Psalms.  Joseph’s adversity is in part explained by Psalm 105:19: “The word of the Lord proved him true.”  The idea is one of refinement, of removing impurities.  Paul had three years to reexamine the Old Testament in light of the new revelation of Christ he received, preparing him for incisive preaching to Jews.

In my mid-20’s I joined a well-known evangelical leader in a new publishing venture. Six months later the funding for his renewal organization dried up.  My dreams of writing innovative curriculum materials and joining him on the seminar circuit evaporated.  About the time I received my final paycheck, my wife became pregnant.  I scrounged for work wherever I could find it.

Depression darkened my spirit.  I pleaded with God to help me make sense of the disappointing turn of events.  That’s when God’s Spirit exposed my pride, showing me that I was more interested in making a name for myself than in serving the Lord.  Tears of brokenness and confession replaced my weeping over unfulfilled aspirations.  The disillusionment gave the Holy Spirit an opportunity to purify my motives.

In The Disciplines of Life, Raymond Edman wrote, “Have you come to the discipline of delay?  Inactivity you have for activity, weakness for strength, silence for speaking, obscurity for opportunity?  Let the darkness of delay discipline your soul in the patience of the saints and in the promises of God…Delay never thwarts God’s purpose; rather, it polishes His instrument.”

 

What Is the Basis for My Identity?

I’ve experienced one other benefit of an unfruitful phase in ministry. It weans me from reliance on accomplishments as the source of my significance.

I tend to feel good about myself only when others compliment my teaching, or when an editor publishes my manuscript.  Sometimes I think I love the Lord’s work more than the Lord Himself, because it’s a means of proving my self-worth.  But when I’m unsuccessful, I’m forced to reevaluate the basis of my identity and joy.  Inactivity or unfruitfulness causes me to wonder: is my relationship with Jesus enough to satisfy me?

Seventy-two disciples returned from a tour of ministry with a glowing account of their success, even reporting that demons submitted to them.  Jesus’ reaction put their accomplishments in perspective: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). What gives me value isn’t what I do for the Lord, but what He has already done to give me eternal life.  He wants me to know that security and happiness are possible even when I’m not producing.

When the branches are bare, it’s reassuring to know that I can still please God with my faithfulness.  I rest in the realization that God is responsible for results, and ask Him to accomplish what I cannot.  I remember that it’s too soon to measure the effectiveness of current service, especially in view of God’s promises of eternal dividends.  I assume He’s testing or deepening my faith through the “discipline of delay.”  And I thank Him because my significance doesn’t depend on my achievements.

When He withdraws His blessings, I’m slowly discovering that He alone is enough.

 

Which biblical perspective encourages you most today? Why?

Do you know someone who’s discouraged in his or her ministry? Would the biblical insights in this article encourage him or her?  Send this aticle to him or her today.

 

Note:  This is a revision of an article that first appeared in Discipleship Journal  in 2005.

 

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