Appearances Are Often Deceiving
In Mark 11:12-26, Jesus goes outside one morning. As he walks along the hot dusty road, a beautiful sight suddenly captures his eye. It is a magnificent fig tree. This tree is bright and beautiful. It is tall and looks very healthy. Jesus assumes that such a wonderful looking tree will provide him with a lot of delicious fruit, which will energize and refresh him during the arduous journey which lay ahead of him.
Jesus is thoroughly enticed by the outward appearance of the tree. He walks up to it fully expecting to find and pick a bunch of juicy figs. But Jesus is greatly disappointed by what he actually finds below the surface. After lifting some of the leaves to get the fruit he wants, Jesus discovers that there isn’t any fruit on the tree at all. It is pretty on the outside, but empty on the inside. Jesus is disappointed and angry. He curses the tree which looks so promising, but is really barren and useless. The tree withers from the roots up and dies.
The fig tree is a metaphor for the church. A lot of churches are magnificent to behold. Their buildings are bright and their facilities are beautiful. Their steeples are tall and their programs appear vibrant and healthy. They are full of children and their members always look happy. Such churches are attractive. They draw a lot of people to them. Why? Because many believe that only big attractive churches can actually provide them with the fruit they need to thrive. But is this assumption about big attractive churches always true? Does size and attractiveness really matter? Just what is the measure of a truly fruitful church?
To Get the Truth, Always Look Beneath the Surface
Churches which bear fruit for Jesus do not always look attractive on the outside. Sometimes their buildings are not bright and their facilities are not always beautiful. They might not even have steeples, and they may appear to have very few programs at all. They might not have many children and sometimes their members may not look very happy, especially as they survey the iniquity they so often see in the outside world. Fruitful churches do not always draw masses of people to them because, frankly, the cross and the cruciform way of life is not very attractive to most people in our society.
So, if superficial things like size and attractiveness do not always indicate the fruitfulness of a church, then what does?
Deeds Always Reveal the Truth
According to the scripture, fruitful churches (big or small, outwardly attractive or unattractive) are communities of faithful folks who dutifully apply the Word of God to every facet of their common life. They have unmovable faith in God. They are assemblies where prayer is always passionate and sincere. Fruitful churches come together to boldly and joyfully proclaim the gospel by calling the world to repentance for the forgiveness of its sins.
Fruitful churches never hold grudges. They always forgive one another. Why? Because they know that they are not forgiven unless they first forgive! And, as verses 15-19 illustrate, fruitful churches do not allow the propagation of their own social ideas and political agendas to masquerade as worship. What else does Jesus mean when in essence he declares, “My temple is not a marketplace you can use to further your own agendas and justify yourselves; it is a house of genuine unadulterated prayer.”
Fruitful churches do not segregate themselves from those who are different than they. They are not stratified along socio-economic or racial lines. They make room for everyone, rich and poor alike, in a fruitful church. What else does Jesus mean when he runs the money changers, the very people who were preventing the poor and marginalized from coming to worship, out of his temple?
Size and attractiveness are often superficial. They are often misleading measures of how fruitful a church really is. If you really want to be a fruitful church, then take a close look at the quality of your prayer, worship and service. Is your prayer passionate? Is your worship meaningful and enthusiastic? Do you preach only the gospel and call sinners to repentance, so that they may be forgiven? Do you strive to reconcile enemies and restore everyone to right relationship with God? Do you include everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, and genuinely love them? Do you give mercy first place and always practice forgiveness?
If you are a church which puts its faith into practice in these ways, only then will you will be a fruitful church, no matter how big or attractive you appear to be on the surface.