What is mission? Part 4: Mission and fruitfulness
Posted on: 14th November 2023
David Williams is the Director of Training and Development for CMS, based at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne, Australia. In the final part of this four-part series, he suggests how aiming for God’s glory (as the reason for mission) will help answer the question ‘what is fruitful mission?’
In the previous articles in this series, we explored the idea of mission as ‘virtuous practice’. I suggested that missionaries engage in mission for the ultimate purpose of glorifying God. This reminds us that both what we do and how we do it are very important. God is not glorified by coercive and bullying practices. We engage in the God-ordained activities of mission in ways that themselves glorify God. Practising mission activities should therefore grow virtue in us as mission practitioners.
Fruitfulness in mission
Another way to ensure that we practice mission virtuously is to think through what fruitfulness in Christian ministry and mission looks like. We commonly use the language of fruit almost as a synonym for people being converted. I have heard missionaries say, “I was in my location for ten years and I saw no fruit.” What they mean by this is that they saw nobody come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is then a short step to thinking ‘my ministry in that location was fruitless.’
I am not sure that the Bible uses the language of fruit and fruitfulness in this way. I suggest that in the New Testament we see ‘fruit’ language being used in a more nuanced fashion.
Fruit as growth of Christians
The language of fruit certainly is used to include a reference to people becoming Christians and churches growing and being planted. However, this language is used in a very particular way. In Colossians 1:6 we read that “the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world”. The growth that Colossians 1:6 refers to includes numerical and church growth, but it is wider than this and encompasses growth in godliness, as Colossians 1:10 makes clear.
This echoes what we saw in the first article in this series. In the book of Acts we read that the churches “grew daily in numbers” (see Acts 16:5) and that “the word of God continued to spread and flourish” (see Acts 12:24). A degree of separation is put in place between numerical growth and human agency. One exception to this is Romans 1:13, where Paul longs to have a harvest in Rome. The writers of the New Testament are careful to say that the gospel bears fruit—not that Paul bore fruit—when referring to people becoming Christians. All this is neatly summed up in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”
Fruit as abiding in Christ
When the language of fruit is applied to us as individuals, fruit typically refers to growth in righteousness. John 15 is a key passage that underpins the biological metaphor of fruitfulness. If we are followers of Jesus, we are branches who are connected to the vine. If we remain in him, we will bear much fruit. Apart from him we can do nothing. Therefore, to say that my life is entirely fruitless is to say that I’ve been cut off from the vine. Fruit in John 15 is especially focused on the fruit of loving each other.
We see the metaphor of John 15 developed in various places in the rest of the New Testament. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Philippians 1:11 and Ephesians 5:9 point us to the fruit of righteousness, echoing Galatians 5. Hebrews 12:11 reminds us that discipline is painful but produces the fruit of righteousness.
The experience of serving in mission
We face a further tension as we serve in mission—so much of what we do feels so frail. I often need to be reminded that there is no culture in human history where the cross of Christ has made sense. At a supra-cultural level, the message of the cross is weak and foolish in human eyes. Similarly, God has designed the praxis of Christian ministry and mission to be cross-shaped. God’s intention is that it will be clear to everyone that the power comes from him and not from us. Ministry feels like carrying around in our bodies the death of Jesus. But life is at work in those we serve!
In light of the way that the New Testament talks about the fruit of righteousness, Revelation 19:8 is a great encouragement. At the wedding feast of Christ and his bride, a beautiful wedding dress is revealed—fine linen, bright and pure. Then we are told “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people”. Righteous deeds empowered by God’s Holy Spirit endure to eternity.
We engage in mission in order to glorify God. Mission belongs to him, and he is at work throughout our world to bring honour to his name. Our calling is to do God’s work in God’s way. He will ensure that the gospel bears fruit and grows. So we engage in the activities of mission in ways that are virtuous, bearing fruit in every good work.
If you enjoyed reading this series by David Williams, you may also enjoy reading his series on ‘Disciple Making Movements’, his analysis of an influential approach within world mission.
Anderson, Stephen C. “Encouragement for the Small Church: Equipping Rectors for Fruitfulness in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.” Doctor of Ministry, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2021.
 I am looking forward to reading Stephen Anderson’s doctoral thesis, which includes a biblical theology of fruitfulness. Stephen C. Anderson, “Encouragement for the Small Church: Equipping Rectors for Fruitfulness in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney” (Doctor of Ministry Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 2021).
 2 Corinthians 4.