According to Luke (4:1-13), the devil did his utmost to sell his mission strategy to Jesus. Firstly, the devil recognised the legitimate fruits of Christian mission: satisfaction of hunger (1:53), the achievement of kingly power and glory (1:33), and divine protection (1:71, 74). Secondly, he constructs an easy-to-follow three-stage initiative to achieve these legitimate fruits: a quick miracle for one’s own benefit; a nifty piece of misplaced worship, and a pointless act of blind faith. And hey presto – fruit. He would have got away with it, had Christ not been so rooted in Scripture that he saw right through it.
An age that views the future as a birthright instead of a gift, where visionary leaders march boldly into the future to conquer it, where creeds have been replaced by mission statements, such an age is an opportune time for the devil to remarket his mission strategy to the body of Christ. And a church that is not rooted in Scripture will fail to perceive just who is behind such an initiative. After all, today we want the legitimate fruit of Church Growth, and the devil has a strategy on offer.
It is precisely the same strategy he offered to Jesus at the outset of his ministry. One that would appear biblical, because it aims at producing good fruit – but one that short-circuits the path of suffering and pain that Christ was destined to follow, in order to be Christ. In short, the devil invites Christians – as he invited Christ – to focus on the fruits of obedience instead of the path of obedience.
The temptation to adopt the devil’s strategy is more severe than ever when we hear warnings that the church is set to decline and may soon disappear. And the moment we act like an ecclesial Dad’s Army, panicking that we must do something about this, we have already adopted the devil’s agenda. We have presumed that producing fruit is our business instead of God’s. And to say that God is sovereign is no cop-out made by evangelistic couch potatoes. The recognition of the sovereignty of God requires urgent action – the sort of urgency that doesn’t only rear its head in response to nervous predictions.
Unfortunately, it is the sort of action that is painful. Not the sort of action that many visionary-minded, positive-thinking, fruit-producing, church-growth pundits have in mind. It is the sort of pain that inevitably accompanies obedience, for Jesus as for the Church.
For us today, it is the pain that is necessarily experienced in real relationships in the body of Christ, the pain of worshipping God in such a way that the great idols that captivate our church (survival being one of them) are dethroned, the pain of adopting a truly counter-cultural lifestyle. Only as we become members of one another in Christ, do we receive ourselves back as transformed believers; only as our favourite idols are dethroned can we claim that our worship is transforming; only as our lifestyles bear out the truth claims we make can we be a transforming presence in the world. And let’s be clear – all of this hurts, even though it proves finally to be liberating and joyful.
Only by walking the painful path of obedience, can we even dare to expect the fruits of obedience. And please, let’s not have any glib claims that we are already being obedient in these ways – like the rich man who said ‘all these commandments I have kept since childhood’ (18:21). Our desire to solve God’s problems for him already demonstrates our disobedience. If we were serious about being obedient, the church would be infinitely more attractive than ever it will if it simply intensifies evangelistic hyperactivity in step with the prevailing idolatries of our age. That is, our desire to solve God’s church attendance problems is an attempt to be like God, to make him grateful for the fruits of our action. It is human pride at its worst. If this is what our church has become, then we can be grateful that we are in decline.
Ironically, it was by rejecting the devil’s strategy for producing fruit that Jesus himself saw those three fruits spring forth naturally. Within a few verses of Luke’s temptation story we read of the proper setting for a miraculous feeding of the hungry (4:25-6), we see Jesus glorified (4:15), and we hear of miraculous divine protection (4:29-30). And if there is to be a strategy for producing fruit, then it is in allowing God’s word to take root within us – not in lazy, inactive, interest, but to take root in such a way that we ‘yield fruit in season’ (see Psalm 1), at God’s timing, not our planning.
Can we stop wasting precious resources over stemming the tide of church decline? This preoccupation is destined to promote church decline – by taking our eyes off the Giver and focussing instead on gifts. Ultimately, the question of whether we can halt church decline is the question of whether we can attach artificial fruit to a rootless tree.
(Published in the Baptist Times, Nov 10, 2005)