In Isaiah 5, a vineyard which for all intents and purposes should have been bearing some pretty good grapes ended up bearing bitter ones. They were probably those nasty little grapes that make you pucker when your big sister dares you to eat one. The consequences of this predicament are not pretty. The vineyard owner pretty much destroys the whole operation.
Images like this are used by churches all over the place to talk about how our ministries are fruitful, and usually a “fruitful” ministry is one where you can count something and the tabulation ends up being higher than a comparative total. For example, counting worship attendees and comparing them to the total last year at this time, or counting dollars and comparing them to other churches of similar size, or counting names on a membership list and comparing to ten years ago. In this mindset, increasing numbers is the equivalent of fruitful ministry.
I have a problem with this line of thinking. My consternation is located right there in Isaiah 5. If counting stuff was all that the vineyard owner was up to, there would have been no problem whatsoever. There would have simply been a tally of all the grapes (be they bitter or otherwise), and the vineyard would have been called “fruitful.” But the vineyard owner was concerned with more than just counting grapes. At issue was the quality of the grapes being counted.
A fruitful vineyard is one that produces good grapes, not a lot of grapes. Of course, what you’re going for is a lot of good grapes – best of both worlds. But it is pretty clear that the first thing the vineyard owner asks is whether or not we can eat the grapes, and only then asks how many there are.
Okay, translate that: A congregation that bears good fruit is one that is doing good stuff, not necessarily one that has a lot of people. Of course, what you’re going for is a lot of people doing good stuff – best of both worlds. But when we ask about congregational health, it seems to me we ought to ask first about the faithfulness and vitality of the ministries in which they are engaged, and only then ask questions about numbers.
One problem is that we prefer fast, simple assessment tools to the more difficult, deeper work of truly discerning the most faithful way to realize the reign of God. It is a lot simpler to ask, “How many people were in worship this weekend?” than to ask, “How does this ministry further God’s mission in the world?” Obviously, increasing numbers may result from fruitful ministry, but numbers do not equal fruitfulness. Bishop Schnase has a 144-page book about fruitful congregations; if fruitfulness was only counting heads and dollars, it would have been a pamphlet.
Last thought: the grapes belong to the vineyard owner, not to the vines. It ultimately matters not a bit what we think of the things we do, but what God thinks of them. And here I find my hopeful place. God has created us with fruit to bear, potential to fulfill, and the widely divergent ideas about what exactly that potential is are just evidence that all of us are mere branches of the vineyard. All we can do is stay connected to the vine and work to produce the best grapes we possibly can.