Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine, by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine. Matthias Media, 2009. 196 pp. $14.99.
Everyone loves simple tasks. Daily life is often frustratingly complicated, so we welcome simplicity.
Many Christians tend think that Christian ministry is one of those complicated things in life. Yet, as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne assert, “Christian ministry is really not very complicated. It is simply the making and nurturing of genuine followers of the Lord Jesus Christ through prayerful, Spirit-backed proclamation of the word of God. It’s disciple-making” (151).
Their book The Trellis and the Vine is a straightforward and compelling appeal to pastors to bring about a mind-shift in the way they do ministry. Marshall and Payne argue that ministry simply requires more attention on the vine, and less on the trellis. But what’s with this talk of a trellis and vine? What does it have to do with ministry?
The trellis and the vine are a parable of Christian ministry. The vine represents the central, disciple-making work of Christian ministry: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit leading to conversion and spiritual growth. The trellis represents the structure and support gospel ministry needs to flourish and thrive. For instance, churches need somewhere to meet and some way to handle finances. In the terms of the parable, a growing vine needs some kind of trellis.
NEEDED: A MINISTRY MIND-SHIFT
So how’s the work going in your church? That is the pivotal question that the authors ask. Most churches fixate on the trellis to the detriment of the vine. And, unfortunately, “most of the trellis work…seems to fall to [the pastor] to organize—rosters, property and building issues, committees, finances, budgets, overseeing the church office, planning and running events” (9). The vine is therefore poorly tended because the most suitable vine-worker is exhausting himself on the trellis. “And that’s the thing about trellis work: it tends to take over from vine work” (9). Thus, Marshall and Payne contend that a mind-shift is required.
They begin their case by zeroing in on the Great Commission. They clearly demonstrate that the commission in Matthew 28:19 is fundamentally to “make disciples,” rather than to “go.” Thus, “It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple” (13). Churches must make “disciple-making” their main agenda. But sadly, traditionalism and pragmatism often sidetrack churches. The effect is a subtle one. It “is not always that some terrible error becomes entrenched; more often it is that our focus shifts away from our main task and agenda, which is disciple-making” (15, emphasis added).
So if the focus has become misdirected, then a mind-shift is necessary: “From running programs to building people”; “From using people to growing people”; and “From seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth” (17-25).
In a poignant example of how this shift will change one’s ministry, we are told to imagine a “reasonably solid Christian” who comes to you seeking to be more involved. The authors note that many pastors are inclined to immediately begin thinking of “some event or program,” or some “ministry that [the person] could join or support” (26). Instead, pastors should learn to instinctively direct this thoughtful Christian toward people work, or “the prayerful speaking of [God’s] word by one person to another” (27).
Having established this basic mindset of vine work—gospel-centered disciple-making—Marshall and Payne proceed to lay out their case in more detail. They argue that God’s main work in the world is “Spirit-backed gospel preaching leading to the salvation of souls” (35). Thus the New Testament emphasizes gospel growth and the “increase of the word” (see Col. 1:6) rather than church growth defined in terms of numbers attending or decisions made.
Clearly, vine work is not limited to pastors. Instead, “It’s the basic agenda for all disciples. To be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker” (43). Every disciple of Christ has the privilege and joy of “speaking the truth of God to other people in dependence on the Holy Spirit” (49). Thus vine work happens in the home, the congregation, and in the community, and it is essentially a “Bible-reading movement” (57).
Since all disciples are to be disciple-makers, it follows that all disciples will benefit from training on how to do so. Pastors must pass on the good deposit of the gospel (2 Tim. 2:2). This “passing on” includes modeling a gospel-centered way of life. Marshall and Payne identify four basic stages in gospel growth: outreach, follow-up, growth, and training. These labels help pastors categorize individuals, knowing then how to help those individuals in the disciple-making process. And even though the Sunday morning sermon is vital and non-negotiable, it cannot do all the work on its own. Instead, a Richard Baxter-like ministry is required, with an emphasis on “personal catechizing and instructing the flock” (105, quoting Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor). Vine work is inherently personal.
The remainder of the book includes a good deal of helpful and practical ideas on how to recruit and train gospel co-workers (ch. 9), how to keep an eye out for particularly gifted individuals to train (ch. 10), and the benefits of creating a ministry apprenticeship (ch. 11). The authors conclude with some final words on how to start moving a church toward more gospel focus and more vine work (ch. 12).
REFRESHING, BIBLICAL, INDISPENSABLE
This is a refreshing book. Its principles are gospel-centered and biblically shaped. I’ve got one suggestion that might have made a minor improvement to the book. The process of adjusting a church’s focus onto vine work could prove to be difficult. As any relatively seasoned pastor knows, traditionalism and pragmatism often rear their ugly heads in opposition to change, even really important ones like this. A move towards vine work unfortunately may involve conflict and strife, and the authors do not really address this reality. Such a move requires a great deal of preaching, patience, and prayer.
Nonetheless, The Trellis and the Vine is both clear and immensely helpful. It is indeed an indispensible read on the nature of church ministry.