As people entered the room, they were met with a curious sight: the chairs were arranged in a circle, handouts were in place on each chair… everything you might expect for people attending a session to determine whether or not they would like to join an organization. But that wasn’t the curious part.
In the center of the circle, there was a slim pedestal, topped by the most delicious-looking grapes on a white cloth. You know the kind; plump, juicy grapes, at that perfect stage of ripeness… water droplets perched atop, making them glisten in the light… each grape an explosion of sweetness waiting to happen.
The people took their seats, the session began, with eyes increasingly finding their way to check out the grapes, and minds imagining how good they would taste. After a half hour, someone in the group finally couldn’t take it any more.
“What’s with the grapes?” he said.
A Lesson in Grapes
I used to teach a new member class at church. This was my standard opening session for all who expressed an interest in joining the church. I was hoping to build anticipation and curiosity… and it usually worked!
Once the grapes got noticed, the conversation went something like this:
“Would you eat these grapes right now?” I would ask. That answer was easy, “Yes, of course!”
Then I would ask if anyone would be interested in coming back in 6 months and eating them then. Answers quickly changed to no.
“Why not?” I would ask. (This is the part where people looked at me as though I were a bit thick…). The answers usually boiled down to what the grape would be like after 6 months:
- No good
“How did that happen?” was my next line of questioning. We usually revisited the decay process, the impact of time, the lack of refrigeration, etc… But we weren’t done yet.
“What started all this? What was the root cause?” (Pun intended!). And we would eventually get to the realization that being separated from the vine was what started it all.
“But they were separated from the vine when you came in, and every one of you said you would eat them!” I would say. The group would then make the differentiation that what mattered was how recently the grapes had been connected to the vine. A little time away = still OK.
“Do you know what the problem is with these grapes?” I’d ask. “They look good, they taste good, and they are desirable…
but they’re dead… and they just don’t know it yet.”
So, what does this have to do with whether or not people joined our church? Stay with me, the answer may not be what you’re expecting!
I’d invite people to turn to John 15: 4-5, where Jesus describes himself as the vine.
“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4–5 NLT)
“Do you see any connections between the grapes and us?” I’d ask next. The answers usually boiled down to the need for a Jesus follower to be connected in order to keep from producing bitter, shriveled, no good former grapes.
Then came the capstone question: “What’s the point here?”
“That’s why you want us to join the church, so we can stay connected” was the typical answer. And I would smile at the group, and in my most gentle tone I would say,
“Actually… no. The connection you need… the connection that will produce fruit worthy of the vine, is your connection to Christ, not this church.”
Clearly, this is not what they were expecting!
But let me summarize the conversation that followed:
- Connect first and foremost to Christ, and you will produce much fruit
- Church is a place that can encourage, help, and provide outlets for that fruit, but it is never the source of your fruit production
- I believe that if you are well-connected to Christ, then you will join a group of believers (commonly referred to as “church”) but it must start with Christ!
I’m convinced that this is why some “churches” produce fruit that is rotten… and spoiled… and no good. And as people are on the outside looking in, that church is about as appealing as 6-month-old grapes.
People come and “connect” once a week (or once a month… or 6)…an attempt to gloss over the signs of decay in their lives. What’s the problem with these people? They’ve lost their connection to Christ.
They’re dead… and they just don’t know it yet.
They’ve connected to so many other things… or they’re looking at the church to be their connection… whatever the reason, they have become separated from the true vine that is Christ.
But if a “church” consists of people who are first and foremost connected to Christ, onlookers will find a vineyard that produces plenty… an explosion of sweetness, waiting to happen. Imagine the impact a church like that could have on the world!
Which will you choose?
What needs to change in your life to make sure Christ is your first and most important connection? What’s your next step? What will you do with the fruit that is produced?