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Atmosphere of law or atmosphere of grace: Are you too focused on fruit?

November 6, 2017

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to assume that we would all prefer to see tangible fruit produced in ministry than not see fruit, right?

I’ve never heard a campus minister cast vision for driving a movement into the ground, or passionately pray for hearts to be irrevocably hardened to the gospel.

Probably one reason most of us are in ministry is because we want to see fruit produced.

We want to see students experience forgiveness and healing and we want them to become leaders who make disciples for a lifetime. But there can be a real seductive nature to ministry success, can’t there?

What’s your goal?

Some of us are in a season of seeing amazing things happen, and some of us are in a place where we’re seeing very few tangible results of our labors.

Whether or not you’re in a season of fruitfulness, I think that everyone in ministry needs to confront the issue of ministry fruit and what they will do with it.

History is full of people who have gotten caught up in their fame and success and lost sight of their core values. Church history is no exception.

If that becomes our goal, it can have some disastrous consequences.

You end up pushing staff and student leaders harder and harder to produce results.

You lose sleep worrying about the next ministry event or outreach and how it will go.

Worry and anxiety consumes you.

You avoid trying new things or pioneering on new campuses because you won’t be able to handle it if it fails or doesn’t grow fast enough.

When there’s a lack of fruit, you allow that to steal your joy and passion and vision.

You find yourself threatened by others who are seeing more fruit than you. Instead of rejoicing in what the Lord is doing through them, you compare yourself to them.

You fail to take time away from ministry to develop your heart, because those internal things aren’t seen by others and don’t show up on ministry reports.

And you certainly never confess sin and struggles, because God forbid anyone discover that you’re actually human.

How do I know? Because I’ve experienced all of those things at one point or another in ministry.

I’ve made staff and students cry and I’ve made myself cry, all in the effort to produce more and more results.

Rejoice in grace, not success

One of the passages that the Lord has used to ground me and bring me back to a healthy way of operating is in Luke 10. You know the story. Jesus sends out 72 disciples and they see amazing things happen.

In verse 17 it says that the 72 returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” Sounds like a pretty good outreach to me!

But Jesus, knowing the human heart, knows the seduction of power and success.

Jesus acknowledges the success and affirms it, and then says something that has really been helpful to me as a missionary:

“However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I love this passage because it brings me back to my utter dependence on Him and my need for His grace and mercy.

It’s like Jesus is saying, “Don’t rejoice in success (and by the way who was it again who even gave you that authority to drive out demons?), but rejoice in your heavenly Father’s grace to you.”

A friend of mine recently wrote in a blog post:

“The gospel reminds us that God’s love is not based on what we do or how well we do it, but rather on the sovereign choice of God to love us.”

Even the next few verses seem to underscore that idea.

In verse 21 Jesus prays, saying, “I praise you father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children…”

If you were one of the disciples listening in, how would you respond? “What are you saying Jesus? We’re not wise and learned? We’re like little children?”

And then Jesus says in verse 22, “No one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Again, what did the disciples think as they heard this? “So you’re saying that it really has very little to do with me and it’s about you revealing the Father to people?”

And, if that were not enough, He says in verse 24, “I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

It’s like Jesus is saying, “Look fellas, you happened to be born at the right time to see all of this. It’s not that you’re any better than those prophets and kings, you just happen to be in the right place at the right time…Oh and by the way, I determine that.”

Jesus would tell His disciples in John 15, “I chose you…” reminding them that this was His mission, His call, His fruit to bear through them.

I’m so grateful to my first campus director who reminded me of this over and over as a new staff member.

He was constantly reminding me that ultimately a successful year is when we get to the end of that year and my name is still written in the Lamb’s Book of Life—which of course it would be!

Whether things were or weren’t going well, that truth freed me to remember this great commission thing is really God’s idea and it’s God’s work.

As a wise person once said,

“God never calls you to do what you can do; He calls you to do what only He can do.”

Bill Bright, the founder of Cru, was once asked by a reporter about some of the problems in the ministry. Bill’s response was, “I don’t have any problems.”

He went on to explain, “I am a slave of Christ and a slave only does what his master tells him to do. A slave doesn’t have problems—they are all his master’s problems.”

I love that because Bill understood that ministry flows from dependence on God and that our fruitfulness is ultimately about Him and His work, not our own.

As we consider our attitude and heart toward seeing fruit in ministry, whether we’re seeing it or not, let’s ultimately rejoice that our names are written in the Book of Life.

We need to realize that the most important things about us aren’t our gifts or our ministry results, but that we’re objects of God’s lavish grace and mercy.

How can you cultivate this atmosphere in your life and your campus ministry? Here are four ideas:

1. Take a long view.

Don’t feel the need to push for instant results. Change happens over time. Give yourself grace and give your ministry grace.

As a mentor of mine often said, “You’ll see less happen in one year than you’d ever think, but more in five than you’d ever dream.”

2. Give yourself 20 free screw-ups.

I got this idea from a talk by Benjamin Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic.

So much of our anxiety comes from thinking we can’t mess things up or not wanting people to mess things up. After all, that makes us look bad.

I say, who cares? Give yourself 20 free screw-ups, and if you use all those up, give yourself 20 more. And when those are gone, you guessed it—you get 20 more!

This kind of freedom actually makes people more willing to work harder than the law and performance ever could.

3. Kill the Phantom.

The “phantom” is the perfect version of you and your ministry. It’s the elusive unicorn of campus ministry.

If this is your goal, you will never be satisfied. The phantom doesn’t exist and never will.

Heck, even Jesus had one of His disciples bail on Him! Why should you expect any different?

4. Laugh. A lot.

To me, a healthy campus ministry is characterized by how much staff and students laugh with each other (not at each other).

Yes, what we’re doing is serious, so all the more reason to release some steam and have fun together.

Laughter is anti-law and pro-grace.

Reflection questions

How have you been seduced by success in ministry?

What does it look like in your life to not give yourself grace? How does that affect you?

What do your staff and students experience from you: law or grace?

Do you find yourself using law as a motivator? How might a focus on grace impact your movement? What about that scares you?