In 1741, the great Jonathan Edwards first published his now-classic book The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. In this important work, Edwards is analyzing and synthesizing all he’s experienced in the revivals of his day (chronicled most notably in A Narrative of Surprising Conversions and An Account of the Revival of Religion in Northampton 1740-1742). He wants to know — what are the signs that a genuine move of God is taking place?
What, in other words, are the true evidences of Spiritual fruitfulness?
I think we ought to apply Edwards’s strong reasoning to the ecclesiological landscape today. What are the signs of actual fruitfulness? How do we know our church is a growing part of something God is blessing? Here are five marks of a fruitful church.
1. A Growing Esteem for Jesus Christ
How do you measure this? How do you know if a church is focused on the glory of Jesus Christ? Well, I think you start with the most visible communications. In sermon and song, is Jesus the focal point? Are the sermons preached making Jesus a bit player, an add-on at invitation time, a quotable hero? Or do they promote his finished work as the only hope of mankind? Do the messages labor more intently in the Law or do they delight more intently in the gospel? Are people getting a steady dose of five things to do or are they walking away understanding that the essential message of Christianity is that the work of salvation is done?
Musically, is the church focused more on creating an experience or adoring the Creator? Do the songs tell the story of the gospel? Are people the star of the show, or is Jesus? Does the church speak in vague generalities about hope, peace, light, etc. without constantly making the connection that Jesus is the embodiment of these virtues?
Do the people of the church speak more highly of Jesus than simply doing good or knowing the right doctrine? Do the pastors exhibit high esteem of Jesus? Are they “Jesusy” people?
If the church is not ensuring Jesus is explicitly and persistently the point, it is not fruitful. And conversely, if a church is ensuring Jesus is explicitly and persistently the point, it is being fruitful, since ongoing worship of Jesus is a fruit of the new birth.
2. A Discernible Spirit of Repentance
Is the church, first, preaching the dangers and horrors of sin? And then, in its preaching of the gospel, are people responding to the Spirit’s conviction and comfort with repentance? Do people own and confess their sin? Is there an air of humility about the place or an air of swagger? Are the pastors bullies? Are the people narcissists? Is appropriate church discipline practiced, gentle but direct? Is there a spirit of gossip in the place or of transparency? Is the church programming built around production values or honest intimacy with the Lord?
Are the people good repenters? That’s a real sign of genuine fruitfulness.
3. A Dogged Devotion to the Word of God
A lot of churches say they are “Bible-based,” by which they mean they will quote some Bible verses in the sermon. Or you can take a look at their small group offerings and see most of them are built around special interests, hobbies, or personal demographics. But fruitful churches love God’s word. They preach from it as if doing so gives oxygen. They study it with determination and intensity. They believe the word of God is sufficient and powerful and authoritative. You might even see people carrying their Bibles to the worship gathering!
Edwards says that a mark of a true move of God is high esteem of the Scriptures. I fear this mark is much missing in too many evangelical churches that admittedly use the Bible but aren’t effectively esteeming it.
4. An Interest in Theology and Doctrine
Yes, knowledge apart from grace simply puffs up, but this does not make knowledge disposable. Edwards says that the people of God will love the things of God. They will search out his ways, following the trails of doctrine in the Scriptures straight to the throne. In our day, it is common to see emotion/experience set at odds with doctrine/theology, and so it is quite common to see churches that have devoted themselves to one while keeping the other at arm’s length. But just as unfruitful as a church that’s all head knowledge and no heart is a church that’s all feelings and no depth. Some pastors even publicly mock theology or denigrate Bible study. But the church has not endured for 2,000 years on “spiritual feelings.”
The Lord himself says that true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth. We cannot jettison the truth for a dominating “spirit.” And in fact, as Edwards says, the work of the true Spirit “operates as a spirit of truth, leading persons to truth, convincing them of those things that are true.”
5. An Evident Love for God and Love for Neighbor
Exactly as it sounds. True fruitfulness is evidenced chiefly in obedience to the commands of God, the greatest of which is loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. If a church appears to exist only for the sake of its own survival, only for the sake of its own enterprise, only for the sake of its own internal experiences, no matter how big it gets, it is not likely fruitful but more likely swollen.
Fruitful churches may or may not see steady conversions, packed pews, or overflowing parking lots, but they will have a steady outward heart of service and compassion for the Lord, each other, and the world outside their doors.