By: Christa Meland
“Jesus said, ‘I want you to be fruitful’—and it begins with being faithful,” Rev. Jorge Acevedo told nearly 800 members of annual conference during two 90-minute teaching sessions Thursday . “God wants Pentecost to happen in your life and in your church.”
But we have to understand that faithfulness precedes fruitfulness, he said, citing John 15: 1-8. “Our lack of fruitfulness is the direct result of our lack of faithfulness. You cannot give what you do not have.”
Acevedo is lead pastor at Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation in Southwest Florida that has grown its weekend worship attendance from 400 to more than 2,600 over the past 19 years.
Faithfulness to God
He said faithfulness requires several things—one of which is community. Studies have found that pastors suffer from agonizing loneliness and despair, but ministry was meant to be lived in rich, deep community. Solitary confinement is the worst punishment you can give a prisoner, and yet, “sadly, many Christian leaders are living their Christian experience in solitary confinement.”
Acevedo said he’s been part of a covenant group for 24 years. The group meets twice a year, and they “pray hard and play hard.” But the group members also hold each other accountable when they’re not together.
“How are you doing at staying connected in rich, authentic relationships with other Christ-followers?” Acevedo asked attendees.
Faithfulness also requires abiding, he said. Too often, “we’re trying to be Christian instead of training to be Christian.” He cited a study that found that the No. 1 factor in helping people grow in relationship with God is regular Bible engagement.
Acevedo said people occasionally ask him why he does daily devotions. He gives four reasons: It helps him listen to God, it’s a way for him to “dethrone” himself, he often comes away with a word for someone else he encounters later in the day, and it helps him innovate in both life and ministry.
“How are you doing at staying connected in a rich, authentic relationship with Jesus?” Acevedo asked.
Third, faithfulness requires pruning—cutting those things in life that keep us from abundant fruitfulness and lifting up and cleaning off anything that keeps us from abundant fruitfulness. The easiest traps for idolatry for many maturing believers are things that are religious spiritual in nature, he said—like worshipping the superstar pastors in our denomination. These individuals teach us—but we should worship God and God alone.
Fruitfulness for God
“In creating a culture of discipleship in your church, the systems and strategies you create will determine the harvest you get,” Acevedo said. It matters where you plant seeds.
God is out there at work in the world and has an active presence that’s not dependent on human actions—a concept Methodism founder John Wesley called “prevenient grace.” In Wesley’s days, class meetings were a space for people to incubate their faith, Acevedo said. Just 20 percent of people have a “light switch” experience in coming to Christ; for the other 80 percent, it’s more of a “dimmer switch” experience—one that takes time to transform into who God intends them to be. Acevedo asked: “Where in your church is it safe to not be a Christian?”
He said Grace Church has tried to model its ministries around the movements of grace that Methodism founder John Wesley identified:
Reach ministries: Engage and invite unchurched people in our community to experience the love of Jesus through the body of Christ. One of Grace’s “Reach” ministries is its Exceptional Entrepreneurs program, which empowers people with special needs by inviting them to participate in worm farming (vermiculture) and gives them job training and life skills.
Connect ministries: Help people connect to Jesus and the Grace Church family. For Grace, these include hospitality—like greeting people at the parking lot and delivering a mug to the homes of first-time visitors—and membership classes and other opportunities for people to learn about the church.
Form ministries: Help people have a growing and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. For Grace, this means engaging people through small groups and training them through spiritual mentoring, a Walk to Emmaus experience, Bible engagement, and other avenues.
Send ministries: Release God’s people to make the realities of heaven the realities of earth. For example, Grace has an annual shoe ministry through which members demonstrate servant leadership by washing the feet of children in need, providing a message of hope, and supplying a new pair of shoes and school supplies.
Every community has people in need. “Find your niche” and use it to reach and connect, he said.
Acevedo said the evangelism question that leaders of Grace always ask when they are reaching and connecting is: How can we pray for you? Unchurched people often share some of themselves in response to that question. It’s critical to always connect the church’s good works to the reason for those good works, Acevedo said.
“Why would you give away a bag of groceries and not tell someone why you’re giving away that bag of groceries?” he asked.
He said we have to create an environment where the Holy Spirit can do what the Holy Spirit does best, which is grow people into Christ’s likeness.
“A vital congregation is one that creates incubator-like environments for the Holy Spirit to work God’s grace into people,” he explained.
Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the age. But we should be asking ourselves: “Am I with Jesus as He is on mission in this world?”
“There are 7.3 billion people on this planet who are crazy about Jesus, and about 5 billion of them don’t know it yet,” he added. “Spread throughout Minnesota are hundreds of thousands of [people] who are looking for God and they don’t even know it.”
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church