The Trellis and the Vine: The ministry mind-shift that changes everything
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
Matthias Media, Kingsford, 2009. 196pp.
Mark Dever must have been exaggerating. This is what I thought when I read his endorsement: “the best book I’ve read on the nature of church ministry”. Coming from Mark, that speaks volumes: he is a serious authority on ecclesiology.
Then came a short online video of Mark going on about how important this book is.1 Okay, Mark, I thought. I’m sceptical, but I guess I can’t speak ’til I read it myself. So read it I did—and I found The Trellis and the Vine to be one of the most important books I’ve come across in a long time.
Trellis work and vine work
Authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne don’t leave us in the dark about their overarching metaphor. The vine of Christian ministry is people; the trellis is the various organizational structures that exist for the health of the vine. So vine work is “the work of watering and planting and helping people to grow in Christ”, while trellis work has to do with “rosters, property and building issues, committees, finances, budgets, overseeing the church office, planning and running events” (p. 9). The warning the authors offer repeatedly is that our tendency in Christian ministry is to let the trellis work take over the vine work (p. 9).
Marshall and Payne add that the habit of many churches is maintaining and improving the trellis—to the point where this sort of work ends up eclipsing vine work. But our goal should be “to grow the vine, not the trellis” (p. 14). Furthermore, since “structures don’t grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines”, many of our churches need to make “a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ” (p. 17).
This leads us to “The ministry mind-shift that changes everything” referenced in the book’s subtitle. In sum, it amounts to thinking of ministry in terms of people, not programs, and attending mainly to the vine, not the trellis (p. 28). So “the real work of God is people work—the prayerful speaking of his word by one person to another” (p. 27), and to this end, most of us need to “[re-focus] our ministries around people” (p. 28).
Marshall and Payne argue that the heart of Christian ministry is disciples making disciples. They restate the Great Commission as “Jesus commissions his disciples to make disciples of all nations” (p. 12), pointing to the importance of reproducing “what Jesus himself has done with them” (p. 12). This is “a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple” (p. 13).
Is simply being a disciple enough? Not according to our authors—and they make a good case for saying not according to Jesus as well. The aim is to make disciples who make other disciples.
But this begs the question: what is discipleship? This brings us to the heart of what Marshall and Payne are after: discipleship is not simply classroom information-transfer; it’s life-on-life. It’s a mature Christian taking interest in and being intentional toward a younger believer to help him or her grow in the faith, and as they mature, directing them in discipling other younger believers. This ‘discipleship’ is irreducibly personal and relational, modelled on Jesus’ three-plus years of day in, day out investment in his 12 disciples chronicled through the Gospels.
God works in the world through “Spirit-backed gospel preaching leading to the salvation of souls” (p. 35). This means that “the growth God is looking for in our world is growth in people” (p. 38), and this people-growth happens “only through the power of God’s Spirit as he applies his word to people’s hearts” (p. 39). So vine work takes place as Christians speak the truth of God’s word to others, all the while praying that God would use his word to bring about fruit in those people’s lives. It happens person-to-person in everyday life—“over the back fence, over dinner, or over morning tea at church”—not only from the pulpit but also on the patio (p. 39).
But are Marshall and Payne just talking about pastors and elders, or is every Christian a vine worker? The book answers with a resounding “Yes, every Christian is!” The authors apply the Great Commission to all Christians, not just pastors (p. 43-44), and argue that this “ministry mind-shift” brings a continuity in ministry toward both the believing and the unbelieving:
It’s not as if we come to know Christ through the gospel word but then use a fundamentally different message to encourage each other as Christians. The ‘word of God’, the message that he has revealed in and through Christ by his Spirit—this is what converts us, and it is also what causes us to grow, bearing the fruit of godliness. (p. 53)
The final four chapters of the book turn our attention to raising up leaders. The authors warn that we must do more than crisis management since, if that is all we do, “Ministry becomes all about problems and counselling, and not about the gospel and growing in godliness” (p. 111).
You might be surprised when the authors point out that “Almost universally in the New Testament, the recognizing or ‘setting apart’ of gospel workers is done by other elders, leaders and pastors” such that the ministry call “is mediated through the human agency of existing recognized ministers” (p. 133). The upshot is that we shouldn’t “sit back and wait for people to ‘feel called’ to gospel work”; instead, “We should be proactive in seeking, challenging and testing suitable people to be set apart for gospel work” (p. 134). So pastors should be “talent scouts”, “constantly on the lookout” (p. 139). I found this frankness refreshing.
Finally, the book concludes with how to get things going. It’s this basic: “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.” (p. 151). Simple though it may be, the authors have this final warning: “Churches inevitably drift towards institutionalism and secularization. The focus shifts from the vine to the trellis—from seeing people grow as disciples to organizing and maintaining activities and programs” (p. 152). The continuing challenge is to keep your focus on vine work.
Marshall and Payne would no doubt agree that you can’t say it all in one book, but it may be worth noting here things that were absent that I would have found helpful. Firstly, the authors seem to jump back and forth between what they see to be ‘the word’ that God’s Spirit accompanies in the mouths of God’s people. At points, it is clearly the gospel word; at other points, it seems to be any particular biblical truth.
A helpful clarifier would have been for them to spell out how they see the truth of the biblical gospel relating to biblical truths in general. The unbelieving Jews in John 5 and the Judaizers in Galatians and Philippians understood quite a number of biblical truths without truly embracing the gospel. I agree that the disciple-making disciple should make use of the whole Bible in his discipleship—and he should endeavour to learn how biblical truths across the canon relate to the message of the whole, and apply those truths to himself and his disciples in that greater light.
Secondly, in addition to the brief section on the sermon (and its necessity but insufficiency), I would have liked to see how the authors integrate this ministry model into the community worship life of the church. I wasn’t able to find how they appropriate corporate and personal worship in the life of the growing disciple and veteran discipler. I find conscious, focused worship of the Saviour in private and in community to be essential to the life of the believer and to the warp and woof of discipleship. There are times when it’s appropriate to take the emphasis off training and put it squarely on being stunned by the magnificence of God and his redemption of us in his Son. In this way (and others!), worship plays an important role in discipling that I would have liked to see our authors incorporate.
I think you should engage with The Trellis and the Vine for yourself. Don’t expect ministry secrets; Marshall and Payne admit that they offer “no new special technique, no magic bullet, and no guaranteed path to ministry success and stardom” (p. 151).
But beware: this is a dangerous book. Experiencing this mind-shift may mean radical changes in your church (like closing down some long-beloved programmed ministry) in order to make time for discipleship: “It may mean a revolution in the way the church staff see their ministry—not as service-providers, or managers, but as trainers” (p. 156).
In conclusion, Marshall and Payne’s key principle can be summed up as simply “do a deep work in the lives of a few” (p. 161). By this, Marshall and Payne don’t mean that your church has to be small; in fact, if this kind of multiplication is done well, the size of your community may explode. A few leaders each investing in a few in depth can become many in God’s good timing.