We measure maturity a lot of different ways in our churches. Sometimes it’s measured by church attendance. Other times it’s measured by Bible knowledge. But the biblical evidence of maturity is fruit. In Matthew 7:17-20 Jesus says, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit […], thus by their fruit you will recognize them.” Maturity is all about fruit.
How many times have you heard (or said) that “God doesn’t expect success. He just expects us to be faithful.” Pastor, that’s only half true. The Bible makes it very clear that God expects far more than faithfulness. He also expects fruitfulness. This is taught all throughout the New Testament. Many people will be surprised when they get to heaven and God says, “You didn’t bear any fruit?” Remember, Jesus cursed the fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit!
God expects fruitfulness in our lives as well. And he says it over and over and over again. But how do we help people bear spiritual fruit in their lives? How do we turn them into mature, mission-minded believers who minister to others? Let’s not answer that question with any buzzwords. I’m not interested in the modern way, the postmodern way, the emergent way, the missional way, the seeker way, the charasmatic way – or even the purpose driven way. I’m interested in how Jesus helped people become fruitful.
In Jesus’ prayer in John 17 he says, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” He hasn’t gone to the cross yet, so what work has he completed? It’s the finished work of Christ that most churches never understand – making disciples. How did he finish the task? His prayer in John 17 tells us.
He led them to salvation. Jesus prayed, “For you granted him authority over all men that he might give eternal life to all those you have given to him.” This should be obvious. Discipleship begins with evangelism. Of course, we want to disciple people who are already Christians. But remember, Jesus started with pagans. We’ve got to win people to Christ before we can train them. The spiritual birth always precedes spiritual growth.
He taught them the Word. Jesus taught his disciples the Word of God. There is no spiritual growth that’s not based on God’s Holy Scripture. In verse eight Jesus prays, “For I gave them the words that you gave me and they accepted them.” And in verse 14 he says, “I have given them your word.” The Word of God is the foundation for all discipleship. Want people to grow spiritually and be fruitful? Get them in the Word every day. Just listening to your sermons – no matter how good they are – won’t help your people be as fruitful as getting them into the Word for themselves.
He prayed for them. To see your people grow spiritually, you need to pray for them. That’s part of pastoring. You don’t just pray for your sermons or yourself; you pray for your people as well. Jesus said, “I pray for them. I’m not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). We need to pray with them and pray for them. Paul followed this example of Christ as well. In fact, he starts almost every letter in the New Testament he wrote with a prayer for the church.
He checked up on them. Jesus says, “While I was with them…” You can’t disciple somebody that you’re not with. Pastor, you’ve got to be with your people if you want them to grow spiritually. You’re not going to be able to personally check up and mentor everyone. But somehow your church needs a system for coaching in your church. You need small group leaders or others who will follow up on your people. Jesus protected his disciples from false teaching and kept them from backsliding. He guarded them. At the end of his ministry on earth, he says I haven’t lost a single one of them – except Judas to fulfill Scripture. If you want your people to grow, you need some sort of accountability in your ministry.
He sent them on mission. Then Jesus says, “As you sent me into the world I have sent them into the world.” Who do you think are the most mature people at our church? The thousands of people who’ve gone overseas on mission. It changes them. When they come back, they’re not thinking about diamond-crusted tennis bracelets anymore. Once you’ve served around the world, it changes your value system. You care more about people overseas, and you care about people in your own community, too. These short-term missionaries have come back and loved the poor, ministered to the addicts, and battled the sex trade right here in Orange County. That’s maturity.The goal of discipleship in any church must be ministry and mission. Maturity is never an end in itself. In fact, you can’t be mature until you’re ministering and living on mission. Jesus said “I didn’t come to be served. I came to serve and to give my life as a ransom.” The words give and serve define the Christian life. You want your people to be like Christ? Teach them to give and serve.
He expected reproduction. We know he expected reproduction because in verse 20 of this priestly prayer he says, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.” He not only sent the disciples out into the world, but he implied that he’s expecting reproduction. Did it work? Obviously. There are nearly two billion people who claim the name of Christ around the world.
He focused on character. Jesus didn’t simply expand the knowledge, perspective, skills, or conviction of the disciples. He focused on their character. Spiritual maturity is about character and conduct – not just content. We don’t want to just fill up people’s minds with facts and figures. Paul says, “I want to present every man perfect in Christ.” If, in the final analysis, the people I’m training aren’t more like Jesus after we’ve worked together, I’ve missed the point.
He loved them. Jesus said, “You sent me and I have loved them as you have loved me.” This is so typical of Jesus. All that Jesus did for his disciples was in a spirit of love. You must love those you train. If you don’t love them, it doesn’t count. If you don’t have a sincere abiding love for the people in your church, then do you know what discipleship is? It’s manipulation. You’re just manipulating them toward a goal.
Sometimes we forget that Jesus is the best model we have when it comes to ministry. No one in the history of the world discipled people more effectively. Jesus was able to say at the end of his ministry that he had finished his work. Pastor, I hope we can say that as well.