Book Review: The Vine Project, by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Vine Project. Matthias Media, 2016. 355 pps. $24.95.
Sequels that don’t disappoint are few and far between, which makes The Vine Project something of a rarity. Tony Payne and Colin Marshal first introduced us to “the ministry mind-shift that changes everything” in their hugely popular book The Trellis and the Vine. Conscious of the tendency in Christian ministry to let maintaining ministry structures (trellis work) take over the prayerful proclamation of the God’s Word to people (vine work), the central argument of their original book was that “structures don’t grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ” (17).
This simple articulation of the biblical priority of vine work not only resonated among pastors and gospel workers around the world, but also ignited an ongoing conversation about the nature of the Christian life and ministry. Through it all, one key question has continually emerged: “How do you shift the culture of a church in the direction of disciple-making?” (31) That’s the big question this sequel tries to answer.
According to Payne and Marshall, you don’t change culture by focusing on culture itself but on its elements: beliefs, practices, shared language, and traditions (30–31). Uniting robust theological convictions with leadership skills and organizational wisdom drawn from the corporate world, Payne and Marshall map out a five-phase process designed to lead ministry teams toward cultural change and growth.
THE FIVE PHASES
The book is structured around these five phases, each packed with biblical content as well as practical suggestions, testimonies, tools, and discussion questions to help readers along the journey.
Sharpen Your Convictions
The first phase sharpens the reader’s convictions about the nature of disciple-making and ministry by concisely answering 5 key questions:
Why make disciples?
What is a disciple?
How are disciples made?
Who makes disciples?
Where are we to make disciples?
These questions take us to the heart of disciple-making. God has graciously and sovereignly determined to achieve his plan to glorify his beloved Son in the midst of a rescued and transformed people through the persevering and prayerful proclamation of his Word by his people (the four P’s, they call them). Payne and Marshall draw a compelling picture of every-member ministry in which all of God’s people seek to help others ‘take a step to the right.’ This journey toward Christ-likeness eventually goes through what they call the four E’s—Engage, Evangelise, Establish, Equip.
This presentation offers a sharper and more well-rounded articulation of the basic convictions laid out in The Trellis and the Vine. For example, those who wondered if The Trellis and the Vines’ emphasis on every-member ministry and training disciples could lead to a devaluing of expository preaching will be helped by fuller statements, like:
In our view, the word ministry of pastoral leadership (especially in expository preaching) takes on an even greater importance when it is seen in relation to a flourishing ‘every member word ministry’. For the sermon is not just one word ministry among many; it is the foundational word ministry that feeds and regulates and builds all the others… In his preaching, a pastor sounds the tuning fork so that the whole orchestra knows in what key to play. He teaches and guards the sound deposit of the gospel so that all may know it clearly and thoroughly (for how else will they speak it?). He shows them not only what the Bible says, but how they can read and speak that truth for themselves. He constantly teaches the sound doctrinal framework that shapes the Bible reading and speaking of the whole congregation. (p. 117)
Read phase one and you’ll not only get the nuts and bolts of The Trellis and the Vine, but you’ll also be blessed by some of the best material out there on the nature of the Christian life and ministry.
Reform Your Personal Culture
Next, Payne and Marshall make clear that real change in a church’s culture begins with real change in one’s own life. This brief but challenging phase lovingly calls readers to look in the mirror and assess how they’re doing with the prayerful proclamation of God’s Word in their own lives.
Loving, Honest Evaluation
Full of pastoral wisdom and sensitivity, the third phase helps readers implement their sharpened convictions in their own ministry context. Hindrances to honest appraisal—like the dangers of defensiveness and flattery—are addressed. Then Payne and Marshall guide the reader through a series of seven useful exercises that help evaluate the people and programs they lead.
Innovate and Implement
This is the longest and most challenging phase in the process of culture change. Payne and Marshall help readers devise and execute a strategic plan that focuses on four key areas: 1) the Sunday gathering; 2) the other programs, groups, and ministries of the church which help move people through the four E’s by use of the four P’s; 3) plans for growth; and 4) communication.
Throughout this section, they successfully navigate the difficult task of offering advice and counsel that is general enough to be widely applicable, yet specific enough to help readers plan for meaningful change (199–200). The result is a valuable guide that works more like a compass than a detailed map. It offers more than a vague suggestion in the right direction, but it stops short of mapping out every minutiae of the journey.
It’s likely in this phase that readers will find themselves wanting to tweak some suggestions and abandon others. At times, Marshall and Payne’s application of organizational wisdom left me feeling apprehensive, especially in focus areas 3 & 4. For example, a passion for gospel growth is great and planning for the future is necessary, but suggesting numerical goals for conversion made me uneasy and seemed unnecessarily dangerous. To be fair, Payne and Marshall list and acknowledge the dangers, but nonetheless encourage readers to go there anyway.
I would simply add that setting numerical goals subtly blurs the lines between faithfulness and fruitfulness, which is to say, between what we can control and what God alone controls. Of course, the authors are right to urge readers to think big for the gospel, strategically plan for the future, and crush any inclinations to “retreat into a loveless, inward-looking smallness that has no compassion on the lost multitudes all around us” (301). If churches are going to set numerical goals to help shape what they plan and do, then I’d be more inclined to encourage goals that firmly fall within the realm of our responsibility. This would avoid blurring the lines between God’s work and ours.
In other words, brother-pastors, drop the goal of 100 conversions and stick with the goal to meaningfully engage 300 non-Christians, pray like mad, and see what God does (298). Having said that, wrestling with the ideas Payne and Marshall propose is what this phase is designed to help pastors do—and despite my reservations, their suggestions helped me. What they offer is humble and based on decades of ministry experience, not laws to be slavishly followed and obeyed.
In the final phase, Payne and Marshall help readers maintain momentum and drive deep culture change by addressing any obstacles, challenges, and difficulties that hinder a persistent, flexible, and effective execution.
NO ORDINARY BOOK
If you didn’t pick it up from the title of the book, you’ll realise by now that The Vine Project is not like other ministry books. It’s a long-term project to work through and implement with others. It’s designed to be read and digested and implemented—and then re-read and re-implemented over the years.
As such, there’s something inadequate about reviewing it without having journeyed very far down its pathways. Nevertheless, I hope that The Vine Project is read widely by churches, planters, pastors, and ministry leaders alike. It faithfully guides its readers toward shaping the culture of the church around disciple-making.
Like its forerunner, it’s light on prescriptive ecclesiology, but deliberately so. Payne and Marshall winsomely encourage evangelical pastors and churches across denominational lines to take up the challenge of The Vine Project by adapting and applying its biblical vision of church life and ministry to suit any and all ministry contexts.