Are you a missionary or minister who feels the pressure to produce?
Do you feel discouraged when you work hard but have little fruit to show for it?
I recently listened to Aileen Coleman speak at the Mobilizing Medical Missions Conference and since then I’ve wanted to share her words with you.
She has been a medical missionary in the Middle East for 60 years. She’s 85 years old now and still serving in Jordan with spunk—she’s amazing!
But after a lifetime of service, she said that she has little fruit to show for her efforts, that their gathering of believers is still very small.
Aileen’s life inspired me, in spite of “having little fruit to show for it”. As I listened to her story, I wondered how she did it. How did she persevere? As if she knew my questions, she interrupted my thoughts with her deliberate words to the crowd.
“God didn’t call us to be fruitful. He called us to be faithful.”
Most missionaries I know desire to be fruitful in their ministry. Helping others know Christ is the main motivation for going in the first place.
Somewhere along the way, the desire for fruitfulness transforms into a simmering pressure to produce. The pressure comes from within—the desire to validate oneself. But it can also come from others – supporting churches, sending agencies, or that best friend at home who is still wondering why you moved to the other side of the world.
When we have fruit to show for our labor, it’s easier to be faithful to the call…
- It affirms that the sacrifices are worth it, both ours and the sacrifices of our supporters.
- It reminds us that we’re making an eternal difference.
- It motivates us to keep working, and motivates our senders to keep supporting.
- And of course it makes for great newsletters.
But sometimes, there’s no fruit to show for the hard work. You till the ground. You plant the seed. You pray that God waters it with the conviction of his Spirit. But you still see no fruit.
It’s time to write another newsletter, and there’s no news to write about.
When there’s no fruit to show for a missionary’s work, it’s harder to be faithful to the call of ministry…
- Discouragement creeps into the soul—Is it worth it? What am I missing? Why did I come?
- Doubts surface—Am I doing enough? Am I doing it right? Do I have enough faith? Why isn’t God blessing our work?
- Satan accuses us—“You’re not good enough.” “Your God isn’t big enough.”
It’s living in this tension of wanting to see fruit, yet being faithful even when there isn’t any, that made Aileen’s words so meaningful.
This tension also made me spend some time thinking about the whole idea of fruitfulness. Missionaries seem to understand the first command about fruitfulness, “Be fruitful and multiply.” (We moved back to the states with 4 kids.) But there are other aspects of kingdom fruit that we may forget when we’re in the trenches.
- God produces the fruit. Not us. Jesus calls us to abide in him. (John 15) If we stay connected to him on the vine, His Spirit produces fruit in our lives and in the lives of those we serve. We may plant the seed or water it. But God makes it grow. (I Corinthians 3:6-7)
- God gets the glory for the fruit. It makes sense–he’s the one who produces it. We just forget its implications for the flip side. If we don’t take the glory for fruitfulness, then we shouldn’t take on shame when we don’t see fruit.
- There’s more than one kind of fruit. Think fruit salad in God’s kingdom. Since some fruit is easier to see—and they make good ministry reports–we tend to focus on those and forget about the others. We write home about record attendance, new conversions or a new Bible Study that began on the other side of town.Those things are great, but they aren’t the only fruit produced from a life connected to Christ. When we faithfully keep in step with the Spirit, he produces all kinds of fruit. Sometimes he yields a crop of conversions. Other times the growth happens beneath the surface. The fruit of his Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control–grows in us and in those we serve.
It’s hard to see that kind of fruitful growth. So it’s hard to remember that our lives are fruitful even if we can’t see it.
- Different types of soil yield fruit differently. (Matthew 13:1-23) Some cultures are fertile soil. They’re receptive to God’s word and yield fruit quickly. Other cultures need lots of slow deep watering before his word takes root and eventually produces fruit. Most of us know this, but we forget it on the heart level when we desire to be affirmed in our ministry by a large fruit basket of results.
These reminders about kingdom fruit make me think that Aileen’s life has been fruitful after all. Maybe her fruitfulness isn’t evident by a large Sunday gathering of believers. But it’s obvious that the Spirit lives fully in her. She faithfully lives connected to the vine and is obedient to her call. So God faithfully produces a harvest of love in her life that touches many.
So, missionary friend, if you doubt your ministry because you don’t see much fruit, I hope you will take courage from Aileen’s life and her words.
Faithfully abide in him. Faithfully walk in the Spirit. Faithfully obey your call.
Trust God to produce the fruit.
Share in the comments what you would add to this list about kingdom fruit.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5