“I am the vine; you are the branches.”
My wife and I came to Christ in 1973, when we were twenty years old. It was during the Jesus People movement in Southern California when many young people were coming to the Lord.
By the time we were twenty-one, we were the worship leaders at our church. We quickly got involved as cell group leaders and were having weekly meetings in our home. I also volunteered to take care of the tape ministry for the pastor.
I preached my first message in 1975 and it was on John 15; the vine and the branches. I had no idea what I was talking about! (Back then, of course, I believed I was an expert on that text). In the next fifteen or so years, we were very busy doing Christian work. I served as a deacon, an elder, a worship leader, and a preacher.
I did evangelistic work with street preaching, door-to-door, and tract distribution. I worked helping the poor through World Vision, a local rescue mission, and sponsoring Cambodian refugees. We also traveled and shared our music ministry and ran a halfway house for wayward youth.
By the time we turned thirty-eight, we were exhausted! We left the institutional church because we really felt that there had to be something higher that God wanted.
It was then that we made a startling discovery. After all those years, we realized that we didn’t know our Lord very well at all. Oh, we knew a lot about Him. We knew the Scriptures (at least we knew them along certain lines). But what had we been giving those people to whom we had ministered? Had we given them Christ? Or had we given them doctrines, rules, regulations, and systems of self improvement? Since we ourselves had not experienced Christ in a deep way, how could we give Him to others in a deep way? There was no lasting fruit to show for those 17 years of hard work.
So we dropped all “ministry” at this point in our lives. We were determined to know Him and His church in a whole new way. During the next two years we discovered (by revelation) that we had an indwelling Lord. Christ lived in us and we lived in Christ. And we discovered that we could know and experience the Christ who lived within us in a much deeper way than we ever thought possible.
The Lord then began to give us a vision of His Church. One that was much more in line with what we saw in the New Testament. And it didn’t look anything like what we had seen around us. But we only had a vision. We had not actually experienced it yet. That would not come until several years later. But the one thing we did discover by experience was that:
“Root Must Come Before Fruit.”
The Current Scene
There are many groups of Christians today within the house church / simple church / emergent church movement that emphasize the mission of the church. These groups are filled with many people in their 20’s and 30’s. They are hungry for authentic Christianity. They are longing for spiritual reality.
Yet, as I see it, many of them are still putting the proverbial cart before the horse. They have placed mission and social action before a deep inward knowing of the Lord. They have placed the fruit before the root. And I can’t help but wonder if this “fruit” will last.
“Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:4, 5
The Tree of Life
What the Lord is talking about here is not missions, evangelism, or social action. He is talking about Life! God’s life. Divine life. Where there is life, there will be fruit (at least eventually). We love to focus on the fruit, but it seems to me that God focuses on the life. That is, the life of His dear Son. He knows that if life is flowing in the tree, fruit will be produced naturally, organically.
There is a very important reason why the Lord used the metaphor of a tree (or vine). He wanted to convey the idea of internal life being expressed. There is life flowing inside of the tree! Please don’t get the idea that there is nothing happening inside of that tree. Where there is life, there is motion. The sap is flowing; the bark and the branches are growing. Leaves and flowers are developing. But the fruit comes last.
What is Fruit?
In a word, you could say that a piece of fruit is a “life-pod.” It is a container (pod) that holds the excess life of the tree. This life-pod is for the benefit of others. It is eaten by other creatures for the purpose of providing energy and nourishment to them. Fruit does not benefit the tree itself.
“I have come that they may have life and may have it abundantly.” John 10:10b
The fruit contains the internal life of the tree. The fruit will reflect the quality of the internal life of the tree. But it takes time for the fruit to develop so that it is a true expression of the internal life of the tree. In other words, it takes a mature tree to develop fruit. This doesn’t happen overnight. However, if the tree is in the proper environment, and it is properly nourished and develops a strong root system, it will produce fruit much sooner.
Christianity has manufactured a huge “machine” which we call evangelicalism. This machine pumps out instant preachers, pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. This is the opposite of organic. It is mechanical. But what can be done to turn this tide? I would like to offer a two-fold solution.
1. Learn to know an indwelling Lord. Before you rush out to the mission field or to the inner city to “minister,” get to know the Christ who lives within you, experientially. Learn to touch Him and fellowship with Him in your spirit.
This is not doing nothing. This is not passivity. This is the tree developing a strong root system. The bark, branches, leaves and blossoms will display the life within as the tree matures. You will not be passively sitting around as the life grows because you are part of the Body of Christ.
How do you do this? First, you need some instruction. As an introduction, I would recommend the books on Spiritual Formation at www.HouseChurchResource.org. Second, you need to find a body of believers who are learning to live by Christ together. That’s the next point.
2. Learn to know your Lord in a shared-life community of believers. We learn to live by Christ by growing in Him together with a group of Christians who are all functioning under the headship of Christ in an organic way. Learn to be a brother/sister in an organic expression of the church where everyone serves one another. If you don’t know of a such a group where you live, then I would encourage you to fill out the “find an organic church” form at www.HouseChurchResource.org
Everyone who was sent out to work for the Lord in the first century was first trained by being a brother or sister in an organic church. Church life itself was their training ground. They were called, prepared, and then sent. Today, if someone feels called to “the ministry” they are immediately shipped off to Bible College. But God uses His church to prepare people for His work.
Now when I say “church,” it’s important that you understand that I mean a group of believers who are all functioning under the headship of Christ in a shared-life community. That’s the only “church” that the New Testament knows.
Our God strongly desires to have a living expression of His Son in every city in the world. This harvest is great, but the workers are few. Where are the men and women who are willing to actively pursue Him within the context of organic church life? Where are the men and women who are willing to learn Christ as non-leaders in a community of believers who are living and functioning under the vibrant headship of Jesus Christ?
God is raising up such young people in our day who want to know Him first before anything else. May He increase this work!