It may be presumptuous to say that for over 1700 years the church has needed to change its understanding of its purpose. Be that as it may, I’m saying it. Without a doubt, there are things the church has done well over the centuries in accordance with the reign of God: developing education, advancing health care, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, enhancing disaster relief, and serving the poor are chief among these. Sometimes we’ve proclaimed the gospel with clarity and love. And sometimes God’s mercy and compassion are made real in the lives of many all over this planet because of the work of Christ’s church.
And yet with a history all of this for 20 centuries, the Christian church in America in recent decades continues to decline. What are we doing wrong? Where do we need to work harder? What do we need to improve? How can we do better?
The decline in numbers of American Christianity has nothing to do with inefficiency or laziness. Churches and church leaders are working harder and longer than ever before—to the point of rostered leaders burning out at an alarming rate (but that’s another book). Our numerical decline has little to do with our faith or faith practices. And it’s not because we aren’t teaching our children well enough, aren’t relevant enough, don’t have updated projection or sound systems in our worship areas, or don’t have enough programs for young adults. No, it’s much simpler and yet much deeper than all that. Simply put, we are being pruned. Jesus is speaking about us and to us when he said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-2, 5). The church in the United States is being pruned in order to bear more fruit.
As I’m sure you know (but just to be official), pruning is a horticultural practice where parts of a plant are removed to help improve or maintain health, reduce risk from falling branches, and to increase the yield or quality of flowers and fruits. Jesus says the branches that bear no fruit at all are removed, but those that bear fruit will be pruned in order to bear more. We can take some comfort in the fact that we are being pruned. That means that we, the church, the body of Christ continue to bear fruit, but God is preparing us to bear more.
Which begs the question, “Exactly what fruit is Jesus talking about?” That’s where we get into trouble. I think we’ve confused branches and fruit over the course of the last seventeen centuries or so. Branches are a permanent part of the plant. They grow from the vine and always stay in the vine. That’s the church, the people, the disciples. The fruit can be picked, eaten, used for sustenance, and it is where the seeds are. Those seeds are meant to be cast, planted, tossed into the world.
Our mistake is that we’ve come to believe that our purpose as the church is to get as many branches as possible—sometimes at the expense of the fruit. We’ve been so deliberate about gaining members in the church that we’ve put the main purpose of the vine—the fruit—on hold. We’ve become more concerned about our membership numbers than about revealing God’s mercy, compassion, love, forgiveness, and grace in the world. Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit to the Galatian churches, “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”(Galatians 5:22-23). This is the purpose of the church: to bear the fruit of the Spirit.
A vine that has too many branches isn’t healthy. It cannot effectively do what it was planted to do: bear fruit. In order to help the vine as a whole plant bear the fruit it is intended to bear, it must be pruned. As the vinegrower, God is pruning the church to restore our health and to allow us to be about God purpose in planting the vine in the first place. It’s much more about the fruit and a lot less about the branches. We’ve forgotten our purpose. We need the vinegrower to step in and restore us. We need pruning. And God is accomplishing it.