A Seed Must Die to Bear Fruit

Albert J. Tricarico Jr. with DeLacy A. Andrews Jr.

New Horizons: March 2023

A Seed Must Die to Bear Fruit

Also in this issue

No Congregation an Island

Rev. Lacy Andrews has served the Presbytery of the Southeast as its regional home missionary since 2002. A number of years ago, he was talking with a friend about the church-planting model that sometimes operates under the name “Church Growth Movement.” Those who use the method set their focus on “seeker sensitive” worship and believe that unbelievers’ interests should take a prominent place in arranging services of worship. Andrews and his friend did not endorse this approach. But in the conversation, his friend asked a penetrating question that has remained with Andrews ever since: “When will they [those who promote the seeker sensitive approach] ever tell their people that they have to die?”

At a recent meeting of regional home missionaries, Andrews presented an insightful and convicting talk about mission work culture, drawn from John 12:20–26 and Matthew 20:1–16. To gain the most from this article, consult the biblical texts and their contexts along the way. Whether or not you participate in a mission work, you will gain from Andrews’s insights. What follows recaps his talk along with an audio version of a sermon he preached on the same theme.

Dying to Bear Fruit

The teaching of John 12:20–26 leads to the climax of Jesus’s ministry: his death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead. It is placed after the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’s triumphal entry, six days before the Passover. The anointing of Jesus by Mary (vv. 1–8) was preparing him for his burial. Jesus was headed to the cross, and his impending suffering and death was on his mind.

The passage begins, “Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks” (v. 20). The Greeks were probably God-fearers—Gentiles who believed in the Lord and participated in synagogue worship, but had not become part of the circumcised people of God. They went to Philip with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we wish to see Jesus” (v. 21). Philip told Andrew, and the two of them delivered the request to Jesus.

DeLacy Andrews

The Greeks are not mentioned again in this passage. Did they meet Jesus and listen to his teaching? We can infer that they did, though it is not mentioned explicitly in the text. The account follows an interesting statement of concern voiced by the Pharisees; “Look, the world has gone after him” (v. 19). The world’s interest is shown as these Gentiles seek the Lord Jesus. This is more than a hint that the atoning work of Jesus is not for the Jews only. It is for all peoples. The gospel is to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16).

Jesus answered Philip and Andrew, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v. 23). The hour in view is Jesus’s death. Jesus obeyed the will of his Father and gave his life for the redemption of the world. It is through death that fruit is produced—“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v. 24). This is a direct reference to Jesus’s own death and the salvation that results from it.

In a secondary sense, however, it refers to all of those who follow Jesus. Here is how Jesus put it:

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (vv. 25–26)

Jesus died for us. We must also die as we live for him. That is the idea. If we arrange congregational life and worship around the personal preferences of those we want to attract, then how will people who come learn that following Jesus means following him to the cross? How will they learn to hate life in this world to gain the life that is to come? Jesus is not teaching that we should despise God’s gift of life and look to destroy it. He is calling us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and live sacrificially for God and others. This is our daily calling (Luke 9:23). It is how Jesus lived. It is his will that we live in the same way. The Christian life is one in which we die every day.

Church planting is a spiritual work. It is a prayer-empowered work. It is a work done with much sacrifice as those who participate follow Jesus by dying to self. This is particularly evident at the beginning of a new work. There are many things to do and few people available to do them. Some of the work is tedious—setting up the worship room; breaking down in time; hauling hymnals, chairs, and instruments. Members are sometimes called to do things they would not otherwise choose to do or are not particularly gifted to do. And yet, those things need to be done. Precious brothers and sisters who participate early on gladly do those things.

There are other sacrifices that accompany participation in mission works. Members sacrifice time and money. They sacrifice the comfort and predictability of life that they once enjoyed in established congregations. They sacrifice other conveniences as they patiently wait for the work to develop over time. At times, they sacrifice their own preferences as they practice mutual submission in the church out of reverence for Jesus (Eph. 5:21).

We all need to examine ourselves to ensure that we are following Jesus when we make these sacrifices. Jesus gave his life without resentment. He did not insist on his own way or live to satisfy his personal dreams or feelings of comfort. He perfectly had the interest of others in his heart and proceeded to the cross with the joy of gospel fruit set before him (see Phil. 2:4; Heb. 12:2). Think about your own expressions of Christ-following death. Do your actions and your heart display the sacrificial love of your master?

Core or Seed?

Sometimes, at certain stages of a mission work, it becomes clear that this teaching of Jesus has not been well understood. Works begin with a group of interested and committed families. Ministry carries on and new people start coming to the church plant. At the right point, an organizing pastor is called to lead in the development of the work. Eventually, the work is organized as a particular congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

But the membership has changed. Many of the original families are no longer part of the congregation. This is not always the case, but too often original members of what we sometimes call the “core group” have decided to move on. What happened to them?

Sometimes people relocate. This is common and not at all surprising. Others leave this life for glory. But for many, a decision to leave a mission work is driven by disappointment. The work progresses in ways that are not to their liking. They feel, and may even say, “This is not the same church anymore.” Their dreams were not realized, and so they gradually step back in their participation until finally they give up. Interest fades, attendance lightens, and at some point they make the decision to join another church.

People may sacrifice. But do they die? Are they willing for their opinions and preferences to be buried for the sake of the fruit that God will produce through their self-denial and death? Are they ready to rejoice in all that God is doing when their views do not prevail? This is a great challenge. It is possible to think that because we are sacrificing time, money, and effort, we are dying, when in our hearts, we are not.

Our tradition is to call the beginnings of church plants “core groups”—inaugural members of what will develop into a mission work and then a congregation. This is the group that makes the first inquiries. These are the people who are deeply committed to doing what it takes to get a work going. They belong to the core, the center of mission work and life.

But the term carries a significant liability. If the “core” members of a mission work see themselves as the principal vision-drivers and decision-makers, and if they encounter alternative ideas as the group grows, there may develop a proprietary spirit that disregards those ideas. New people come. They offer some good contributions that relate to the culture of the church plant. Perfectly good thoughts, but different from those of the original families. And the earliest members feel entitled to shape the work because they are among the originals. They become a group within the group.

This spirit is not difficult to understand. But does it harmonize with Jesus’s teaching? Is it consistent with a Christian’s duty to die? Does the term “core group” say too much? Perhaps a better name is “seed group.” It contemplates both beginning efforts and the duty of every member to fall to the ground and die after the example of our master.

Scorching Heat and Equal Gifts

One of Jesus’s kingdom parables is recorded in Matthew 20. It is about a man who hired laborers to work in his vineyard. He employed a number of them throughout the day and, when the time came to pay them, he provided the same amount to each—one denarius, a day’s wage. They joined the crew at different times during the day, so they worked for different amounts of time. Some of them worked for only an hour. When those who worked the whole day saw that each man was paid the same, they complained:

These last worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. (v. 12)

Readers may feel sympathy for the full-day workers. The owner seems unjust in his treatment of his employees. But his decision to pay each man a day’s wage was not unjust. It was precisely in keeping with his promise. He owed no explanation for the decision he made, but he did respond.

“Friend,” he said, “I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (vv. 13–15)

God’s kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. All members of a church plant are equally valued by Jesus and ought to be equally valued by every other member of the group. God is saving his people and is equipping each one with gifts to be used to serve the whole. We don’t all have the same gifts, but we all have valuable contributions to make to the growth and well-being of the whole body. God is generous. His grace does not correspond to ordinary employer/worker relationships and merit-based earnings. God distributes his gifts as he sees fit, and we are all to enjoy what he has given—both to us and to our fellow disciples of Jesus Christ.

Every mission work has a beginning. Every mission work starts with gathered people who share a vision for what the church, by the grace of Christ, will one day be. Over time, others will come and be welcomed to the work. When a mission work is organized it will include full-day members who were there from the beginning and eleventh-hour members who began to serve at a later time. Jesus is building his church with all of them. Let us never undervalue the newly arrived member. Additionally, let us never fail to acknowledge the contributions of members who have been a part of the work from the beginning.

The parable ends with these words: “So the last will be first, and the first last” (v. 16). God’s grace turns everything around. Let’s all pray that God would produce in us a desire to fall and die for the sake of God’s glory manifested in worldwide gospel fruit. This is the path toward receiving honor from the Father (John 12:26). It is a lesson for all of God’s people and must be embraced by anyone interested in participating in a mission work of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  

Tricarico is associate general secretary for the Committee on Home Missions. Andrews is regional home missionary for the Presbytery of the Southeast. New Horizons, March 2023.

New Horizons: March 2023

A Seed Must Die to Bear Fruit

Also in this issue

No Congregation an Island

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