What’s the Turnaround Pastor’s greatest challenge, the one that outweighs all others?

Jesus’ disciples bear much fruit

Maybe you think it’s one of these:

  • Getting the church on a solid financial footing
  • Eliminating unproductive programs and activities
  • Renewing passion and vision in the church’s leaders
  • Resolving long running conflicts between members
  • Initiating church discipline against an errant saint
  • Discerning God’s vision
  • Revitalizing stale worship services

Yes, those are challenges. The Turnaround Pastor has to deal with each one of them They have to be resolved before new life will flow into stagnant and dying churches But none of those are “the big one.” You can solve all those problems and still fall short of the mark Jesus set for your ministry and for the church’s mission.

The single greatest challenge facing the Turnaround Pastor is the church’s failure to make disciples. And how do you know if your church and your ministry is getting it done? It’s very simple:

  • Is your church regularly sending laborers into the harvest? If not, you’re not making disciples.
  • Is your church engaged in sustained efforts to nurture spiritual maturity? If not, you’re not making disciples.
  • Do your members routinely, substantially and directly take part in evangelism (corporate and personal) and spiritual formation? If not, they aren’t disciples.

This is so because one indispensable characteristic of Jesus’ disciples is that they lead others to faith and nurture them to spiritual maturity. If they aren’t doing these things then they’re not disciples. If they aren’t doing these things, you’re not making disciples.

Argue with Jesus, not me.

8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples…  16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide… 27 And you also will bear witness… (Jn 15:8,16,27)

The plain meaning of this passage is painfully clear.

  • Premise 1: Jesus appointed his disciples to a mission.
  • Premise 2: That mission is to produce more disciples.
  • Premise 3: Those who don’t produce more disciples aren’t disciples.1
  • Conclusion: Churches that don’t produce disciples are failing Jesus’ mission.

The point is this: believers who aren’t substantially, directly and regularly involved in producing more disciples aren’t disciples.


Strong medicine. But four data points support this radical assertion.

  1. How Jesus identified his disciples.
  2. The grammar, syntax and semantic fields of John 15:16.
  3. The nature of election.
  4. Commentary support.

In this post I’ll develop the first two data points and touch the last two in a later post. I’ll also have a few remarks for the all important question, “What about those who labor in barren fields?”

1. How did Jesus identify his disciples?

A previous post sketched out seven traits that distinguish Jesus’ disciples from the rest of God’s people. Jesus identified those traits in three kinds of sayings.

  1. What his disciples must do.
  2. What his disciples must not do.
  3. How others recognize his disciples.

The seventh distinguishing characteristic identified in that post is this: disciples produce new disciples. This is an indispensable, “make or break” quality. If your disciple making process doesn’t result in people who make more disciples, then your process doesn’t work.

This brash assertion is based the meaning of the clause “that you should go and bear much fruit” in John 15:16. Teasing that meaning out gives me an opportunity to turn my inner geek loose.

2. Grammar, syntax and semantic fields

This gets a bit technical as it requires us to observe a few points of grammar, syntax and semantic fields in John 15:8, 16. I’m mindful that New Testament Greek is dark territory for some, so I’ll present those observations in English as much as possible.

First let’s look at the text of John 15:16; I’ll pull in items from verse 8 as needed. We’ll focus on the words in bold and italicized font.

Nestle-Aland 28 English Standard Version
á¼Î³á½¼ á¼Î¾ÎµÎ»ÎµÎ¾Î¬Î¼Î·Î½ ὑμᾶς καὶ ἔθηκα ὑμᾶς ἵνα ὑμεῖς á½‘πάγητε καὶ καÏπὸν φέÏητε καὶ ὠκαÏπὸς ὑμῶν μένῃ I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide

A. The purpose clause (Gr. ἵνα + subjunctives ὑπάγητε καὶ … φέÏητε)

“That you should go and bear fruit” is a purpose clause; it states the reason Jesus chose and appointed them. He had an objective in mind, which he set before them as a goal. Their mission hung on the execution of the action encapsulated in the verbs “go” and “bear (fruit).”2

Point: Jesus called us for a specific purpose – to bear much fruit. Believers who do not take part in that purpose are not disciples.

B. ὑπάγητε (“you should go”)

This verb moves along the deep missional currents that flow through John’s gospel. Kostenberger correctly notes that being sent is a core concept in the disciples mission within the Gospel of John.3 The significance of this image – of going from Jesus’ presence to find others to bring to him – is seen in the missional activity of those who first followed Jesus. “Going” is implicit when Andrew finds Simon (1:41) and Philip finds Nathanael (1:45).

In 15:16 the commission (cf. remarks on ἔθηκα below) to “go”is implicitly linked to Jesus’ mission. It becomes explicit in 17:18, “As you sent (from Gr. á¼Ï€Î¿ÏƒÏ„έλλω) me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Jesus embarked on his mission “that they might have life (10:10).” The disciples continue Jesus’ mission, in part, by “going.”4

Point: Jesus calls believers to go to unbelievers (1:41, 45; 17:18) to testify about him (15:27). Those who don’t are not his disciples.

C. bear fruit (καÏπὸν φέÏητε), bear much fruit (15:8)

There are two ways to angle into the proper identity of the fruit Jesus had in mind when he commissioned his disciples.

D. should abide (μένῃ)

“Abide” (fr. Gr. μá¼Î½Ï‰) is laden with meaning. The Fourth Gospel uses it to describe Jesus’ mission; it illuminates the distinctive qualities of Johannine discipleship; and in two instances it figuratively describes faith and eternal life It’s use in 15:6 signals the disciple’s mission to make more disciples.

Abiding is crucial to Jesus’ mission.5 It is first used when the Baptist testified of Jesus, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him… ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:32-33).'” The Spirit visibly “resting” upon Jesus identifies him as the Messiah, introducing him as the Agent who fulfills the Father’s promise to bless the nations, as he promised Abram (Genesis 12:1-3).6

As the Fourth Gospel unfolds this term gives deepening insight into the Trinitarian involvement in Jesus’ mission. We learn that those who believe Jesus have the Father’s testimony “abiding” upon them (5:38). The Father dwells in Jesus to such a degree that his works are seen and his words are heard in Jesus (14:10). Jesus, the obedient Son, abides in the Father (15:9), which serves a model for the disciples’ relationship with Jesus (15:10).

Abiding is essential for Johannine discipleship. The first words of Jesus’ first disciples (when they ask this they were still the Baptist’s  disciples) is a question,”where are you staying (1:38)?” They accept his invitation to “come and see”,”saw where he was staying, and stayed with him (1:39).” A hallmark distinction between believers and disciples is that the latter abide in his words (8:31). They abide in Jesus’ love because they keep his commandments, just as he abides in the Father’s love by keeping the Father’s commandments (15:9-10).

Although this won’t be apparent to the English only crowd, the command in verse 4, “abide in me,” (Gr Î¼ÎµÎ¯Î½Î±Ï„ε, is an aorist imperative) identifies a conditional aspect of the disciple’s relationship with Jesus. Our position in Christ isn’t in view; the source of our fruitfulness is. Those who abide in Christ will be fruitful. Those who don’t won’t be.

Finally, abiding also stands as a figure of speech for eternal life and for faith in Jesus. We read that the Son gives “the bread that endures (ESV), i.e., eternal life (6:27). Those who believe (“eat my flesh and drink my blood”) in Jesus abide in him (6:57).

When we bring these threads together the meaning of “abiding fruit” becomes clear: those who believe in Jesus (6:57) enter into eternal life (6:27). As a result of “living in the Word” (8:31) and sustained fellowship with Jesus (15:1-5), they become effective in producing more disciples.7 Their prayers in behalf of their mission are heard and answered (15:17).

Point: The disciple making program that doesn’t produce those who produce new disciples is a failure.

E. prove (γένησθε) to be my disciples (15:8)

This verb has a broad semantic field. Here one of two common meanings is probably intended (or perhaps both?):8 (1) “to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition, become;”9 and (2) “to come into a certain state or possess certain characteristics, to be, prove to be, turn out to be.”10

Both meanings – becoming and proving – fit here. Believers become disciples by engaging in evangelism (cf. Mark 1:17); Jesus molds and shapes our character when we heed his call to mission. The fruit of our evangelism proves an invisible truth: we are Jesus’ disciples indeed (cf. John 15:5)!11

Point: evangelism is a means by which we become and is the evidence that we are disciples. Believers not engaged in evangelism will not mature and offer no evidence that they are disciples.

Preliminary Conclusions

Although I’ve only developed two of the four data points that prove my thesis, I believe I am provisionally justified in stating it once again.

  • Premise 1: Jesus appointed his disciples to a mission.
  • Premise 2: That mission is to produce more disciples.
  • Premise 3: Those who don’t produce more disciples aren’t disciples.
  • Conclusion: Churches that don’t produce disciples are failing in the mission Jesus has given them.


Apple Computer was in serious trouble. The Mac, the product that would rescue the company and put it on the map was months overdue.

Steve Jobs entered the crowded meeting, strode to an easel at the front, and wrote three famous words. “Real artists ship.”

It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are, you’ve got to deliver the goods.

Dittos for the pastor. If your church isn’t producing new disciples, your disciple making process is a failure.

  1. The “radical” current flowing through some segments of the America Church compel what should be an unneeded clarification: the terms “disciple” and “believer” are not wholly synonymous terms. There are regenerate people, secure in Jesus’ promise of eternal life, who are not disciples. In Jesus’ day people Joseph or Arimethea, and various other priests and Rabbis who did not publicly declare their faith for fear of the authorities were in this category. In Jesus day there were also disciples who we not believers. Judas is an exemplar of people in this category. So, born again believers in this age who do not participate in corporate and personal evangelism are not disciples.  â†©
  2. This is technically a bit of an understatement. Statement of their mission does not hang on these two verbs alone. The introduction of their mission is found, in pregnant form, in chapter 1. It is restated, with growing clarity, at various critical junctures as the Gospel’s narrative unfolds.  â†©
  3. Andreas Kostenberger, “The Missions of Jesus and His Disciples”, 180. Barrett, p. 478, states that “ὑπάγητε refers to the mission of the apostles to the world.”  â†©
  4. Jesus said he “came” (from Gr. á¼”Ïχομαι), employing a synonym for the disciples’ “entering” (from Gr. εἰσέÏχομαι) a harvest for which they did not labor, (4:38).  â†©
  5. Of the 118 instances of μá¼Î½Ï‰ in the New Testament, 40 are found in Jn. and 24 in the Johannine Epistles. You can access an online concordance here.  â†©
  6. “Baptizing with the Spirit” refers to the New Covenant, the means by which the nations shall be blessed.  â†©
  7. The phrase “that your fruit should abide” (15:16) refers to new believers who also abide. The mission isn’t new believers per se, but productive disciples. This is similar to Matthew 28:18-20; the mission is to produce disciples, not believers. The “fruit” of (15:4,5,8,16) are those who believe the apostolic witness (15:27) and become effective agents who participate in the mission of Jesus.  â†©
  8. Interestingly enough, these two possibilities are found in manuscript variants. Those who practice the seemingly dark art of textual criticism agonize ove whether the future indicative γενήσεσθε or the aorist subjunctive γένησθε is more likely the original. It is hard to determine because the manuscript evidence is pretty easily split. This is why Metzger notes that this was an “exceedingly difficult” choice, but the committee settled on the aorist subjunctive in light of the age and diversity of its external support when they compiled the United Bible Society’s edition of the Greek New Testament.  â†©
  9. BDAG 3rd ed., p. 198.  â†©
  10. BDAG 3rd ed., p. 199.  â†©
  11. I find it curious that the argument about “the proof is in the fruit” – whether one’s faith is genuine or not – misses the point. The fruit to be inspected, if one is so inclined, is not the life of the professed believer but those she has led to Christ. Further, such fruit is not proof one is regenerate but that one is a disciple. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the two concepts (“believer” and “disciple”) are not synonymous; they are overlapping sets.  â†©