The trellis and the vine

Trellis and the VineFor some reason I’ve kept putting off reading The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It might be the familiarity breeds… thing. After all, I did a ministry apprenticeship with Col nearly 30 years ago, and I overlapped with Tony doing the same thing a year behind me. It could be that I thought I’d heard it all before. And I pretty much had! But it’s for this reason, and the passion and commitment of the authors, and the quality of the book, that I’m now keen to recommend it to others. I intend to provide an overview of the material, highlighting what I see as some key issues, share some ideas of how we are seeking to grapple with these things, and make some suggestions.

The two images of the trellis and the vine are used to describe two aspects of Christian ministry.

The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help the vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It might not be much, but at very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  (p8)

The observation of the authors is that so often in our churches the trellis work takes over from the vine work. We get caught up in committees, structures, activities, fund raising, keeping the machinery ticking over, such that we lose site of the reason for the trellises – that is, to support the vine. Drawing on the great commission in Matthew 28, this book argues for vine-growing as disciple-making which should be the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple (p13).

As churches move away from erecting and maintaining structures to growing disciple-making disciples, a radical mind-shift is required. These changes of outlook will include…

      1. Building people rather than running programs
      2. Training people rather than running events
      3. Growing people rather than using them
      4. Training new workers rather than filling gaps
      5. Helping people make progress rather than solving problems
      6. Developing teams rather than focusing all on ordained ministry
      7. Forging ministry partnerships rather than focusing on church polity
      8. Establishing local training rather than relying only on training institutions
      9. Looking at the long term picture rather than being constrained by immediate pressures
      10. Engaging in ministry with people rather than being consumed by management
      11. Prioritising gospel growth over specific church growth

Col and Tony ground their claim to the priority of the vine over the trellis in the Scriptures. They examine what God’s plan is for his world, what he has been doing, and what he is doing now after the finished work of Christ. God is saving souls through the Spirit-backed proclamation of the gospel and this has big implications. Our small ambitions need to be laid aside for the cause of Christ and his gospel. God is calling people to be born anew in Christ and to grow into maturity. And this growth happens by the power of God’s Spirit as he applies the word to people’s hearts. It’s evident that this has little to do with structures and organisations and much more to do with prayerful word ministry.

The Trellis and the Vine aims to show that every Christian is called to be a part of this vine work. Not everyone is gifted in the same way, but we are all called to the task of being and making disciples. The beauty of the body of Christ is we can support one another in this work. The common clergy-laity divide is broken down as leaders and congregations begin to work off the same game plan. Modelling and teaching from pastors, elders, teachers, group leaders and others is focused on God’s agenda of proclaiming Christ and calling people to follow him. We read, discuss, and prayerfully apply the Scriptures together at church, in groups, one-on-one, in formal and informal contexts, with the same aim of growing into maturity as followers of Jesus.

I especially appreciated the careful defining of ‘training’ in this book. They contrast our popular understanding of training as a focus on skills development and show from the New Testament that it should be more focused on Christian thinking and living.

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness.  (1 Timothy 4:7)

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Though training is not simply the imparting of information, the faithful passing on of sound teaching is essential.

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.  (2 Timothy 2:2)

Training is also modelling a way of life. It is caught as well as taught and we are called to set one another an example. The ultimate example is that of Jesus Christ himself.

Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God —  even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.  Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1)

Not that trainers will be perfect, but they are called to watch their lives and teaching carefully. They will impact others profoundly as their progress is seen.

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.  (1 Timothy 4:15-16)

This understanding from the Bible has led the authors to summarise the nature and goal of training by three Cs.

Through personal relationship, prayer, teaching, modelling and practical instruction, we want to see people grow in:

  • conviction – their knowledge of God and understanding of the Bible
  • character – the godly character and life that accords with sound doctrine
  • competency – the ability to prayerfully speak God’s word to others in a variety of ways.  (p78)

Following the lead and language of the Book of Acts, the authors describe training as more concerned with gospel growth than particular church growth. This happens in the lives of people, not structures. It means we should be generous and willing to send off many whom we train for the sake of God’s church elsewhere. It requires us to see people as people, and not just cogs in the wheel for our own projects. As more and more people are trained in godliness and a good understanding of the truth, then we will find churches as they should be – growing in numbers and maturity, with people serving one another, encouraging and setting an example to each other. In other words, a long way from the ‘professional minister with all of his clients approach’, which does little more than stifle gospel growth.

For churches to adopt this radical mindset, it requires pastors and leaders to grasp the essential importance of training. It’s not sufficient to be the preacher, clergyman, CEO, or business manager. Leaders need to encourage their churches to become centres of training where disciple-making disciples are nurtured, equipped, and encouraged. In this way the opportunities for outreach, teaching, modelling, service and care are shared among the body of the church. Churches can grow in health as well as numbers and more and more people are mobilised. We would do well to conduct an honest audit of our congregational programs, structures and and activities and see how we measure up against this picture.

Recruiting co-workers is key to promoting gospel growth, but there are mistakes to be avoided. Here are a few:

  • Don’t compromise on core beliefs and values.
  • Don’t be impressed by enthusiasm over substance.
  • Don’t ignore their track record.
  • Don’t choose people who aren’t good at relating to people.
  • Don’t recruit in desperation.
  • Don’t select unteachable co-workers.
  • Don’t simply choose ‘yes’ people.
  • Don’t just advertise for volunteers.

The best way to recruit co-workers according to convictions, character, and competence is to train them. Keep on the look out for people who might be suitable to share the load with you. Always be thinking about whom you could be training. Consider if there are one, two or more people that you could especially invest in. Make it happen. Share in their lives, work through the Scriptures together, pray with one another, open your heart to them, delight in their progress, be honest and speak the truth in love, as you encourage them to grow as a disciple-making disciple.

A chapter is devoted in this book to the Ministry Training Strategy. This isn’t surprising given that Col was one of the founders of this ministry and Tony was one of the early trainees. They have shaped and refined this ministry over three decades, and commend it as an excellent strategy for preparing new Christian leaders. It’s basically a two-year apprenticeship that gives people real opportunity to grow in gospel ministry, by doing ministry under the supervision and guidance of a suitable trainer. It’s often a precursor to more formal theological training and has the benefit of enabling a good assessment of a person’s suitability for ministry leadership before investing everything in 3 or 4 years at college. A good outcome is a wise and godly decision at the end of the apprenticeship. I’m an advocate for this training experience before formal theological training. I benefitted greatly from receiving it myself and have subsequently led more than 60 apprentices through a similar program.

So what have I learned from this book?

The big thing has been the reminder to see training as part of the DNA of a healthy church. Not simply skills development, but the making of disciple-making disciples in response to the commission of Jesus. As churches grow it is easy to be consumed by organisation, structure, vision setting, strategic planning, and the like. We can lose sight of the people. It’s been a good reminder that God is seeking people with him for eternity, not clever programs!

The Trellis and Vine has also encouraged me to be more purposeful in training workers for ministry throughout our church. Training is not simply for the ‘professionals’. It’s about being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, and that’s for all. We need to audit our Sunday meetings, growth groups, children’s and youth ministries, and ask the hard questions. Are we occupied with a gospel work that will make a difference for eternity? Are people genuinely seeking to follow Jesus? Are we making disciples of one another, or are we sitting back assuming it will just happen automatically somehow?

My current pastoral focus is particularly on ministry training and leadership development. I’ve begun to assess how we are travelling with equipping and supporting our growth group leaders. A quick analysis shows there are a number who would really appreciate some training. This book is a helpful resource as I seek to encourage the leaders to make growing disciple-making disciple a priority in their groups.

A couple of suggestions

Given that this book is called The Trellis and the Vine there is very little about trellises. The author’s main point is to get us focused on vine growing and not distracted by erecting and maintaining trellises. However, I would appreciate more on how to create helpful trellises for vine growing. A lack of trellis or the wrong type of trellis can become a serious impediment to vine growth. Disorganised strategies and structures can certainly prevent gospel growth in our churches, but the inverse can also be true. It seems to me that we need to find the right trellis that enables the vine to grow. More could be said on this.

However, and I’m not sure if this point is made explicitly in the book, The Trellis and the Vine is itself a helpful trellis! Here is a strategy with organisational advice to increase the disciple-making outcome in our churches. Chaos is affirmed in the book as an expected outcome when the focus is on vine growing, but sometimes the chaos is an indicator that some trellis work needs to be done to keep the vine growing healthily.

I also had a concern in the section on ‘people worth watching’. The call is to become ‘talent scouts’, looking for people with extraordinary gifts in leadership, communication and management; people with vision, energy, intelligence and entrepreneurial spirit; people who are good with people, and who can understand and articulate ideas persuasively. If these are also godly servants of Christ who long for his kingdom, then why not headhunt them for a life of ‘recognised gospel ministry’? (p140) My concern here is the order and emphasis. It’s too easy look on the surface, see the gifts and talents, and fail to look deeply at the life and character of the person. In a book that has highlighted this issue, it would have been more helpful to illustrate the things that might give evidence of godly character.

A similar concern is the limited mention of ‘love’ as a defining characteristic of the disciple and his or her life and ministry. Interestingly, the first FAQ in the appendix illustrates what makes a great sales person. The answer is love for the product and care for the people. When it comes to the gospel and Jesus and other people, this is so important. I think it’s a point that could have been much stronger and more up front in the book. 1 Corinthians 12-14 would have been an excellent starting point for a chapter on the importance of love in building the church and making disciples. I worry sometimes that our catch-cry of looking for FAT people (faithful, available, teachable) people is not enough. I used to add an S (self-starting or sacrificial), to make FAST people! Maybe we should add an L (loving) to make FLAT people instead!

Overall

This is a very helpful book. I commend it to pastors, ministry leaders, small group leaders and any Christian who is keen to make their life count for eternity.

6 thoughts on “The trellis and the vine”

  1. Also available in Spanish – and proving very popular, particularly because while topics like “training” and “discipleship” are popular words, the application of the words can be quite difficult in a context where the availability of good training resources and models is a bit more scarce.

  2. Yay, that worked (though I didn’t expect the block quote to also be in italics). OK, here’s the comment.

    To be more specific about what “their claim to the priority of the vine over the trellis” means, and to give the authors a little more credit, chapter 2 doesn’t present the eleven points as “X rather than Y” but (to quote page 17),

    We will be arguing 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. This may require some radical, and possibly painful, changes of mindset. Here are some examples of the mental shifts we might need to take . . . 1. From running programs to building people . . .

    And so on for the other 10 points. And the subsequent detailed explanations make it clear that they don’t simply mean “Instead of Y we now only do X”, but rather “Instead of only doing Y we now purposely try to do X, but we may (and probably will) still be doing some Y; we just shifted the balance.” (My paraphrases.)

    Where I have a “concern” (to use your word) is what seems to me to be an uneasy balance between wanting to include every Christian in the “vine-worker” class while still distinguishing certain people (e.g., to be encouraged into MTS). I say “balance”, because the authors do seem to want to do both, and I think I would have put the fulcrum in a different place.

    To push Paul’s “parts of the body” analogy (but only a little bit), why not simply acknowledge that a hand is nothing like an eye? Why not acknowledge that not everyone is a Timothy (let alone a Paul)? This acknowledgement does seem to be given on pages 112 and following: Paul had his “co-workers”, but not all Christians in his churches were his co-workers in this sense. And yet Chapter 4 quite clearly carves out a vision of “vine work” in which every Christian is a “co-worker” in this (or, at least, a very similar) sense. For example (pp. 48-49),

    We may all build (edify) in different ways, but we are all builders. We do not all have the same function, but we are all urged to abound in “the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). Interestingly, Paul uses exactly the same phrase just a few verses later to describe his own ministry and Timothy’s: “When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am (1 Cor 16:10)

    This use of 1 Corinthians seems to bypass one of the key undercurrents in this and a number of Paul’s other letters, i.e., his desire to get his apostolic authority respected. He is here distinguishing his (and Timothy’s) ministry in order to say it is special; he is not saying that everyone is doing the same thing. This use of 1 Corinthians also seems to bypass Paul’s own use of the “building” and “planting” language of 3:9: “For we [i.e., Paul, Timothy, Apollos] are co-workers in God’s service; you [i.e., the members of the Corinthian church] are God’s field, God’s building.”

    I want to be as generous to the authors as possible, but it sure seems like they don’t get this particular balance right.

    1. Richard, I agree they acknowledge that trellis and vine are not either/or, but I think some of us also need creative help in erecting suitable trellises. This is likely to be true of recently planted churches that aren’t necessarily struggling with ancient baggage of ‘we’ve always done things this way’.

      I also wonder on your other point, if the chapter on MTS hadn’t been included, would it have still felt unbalanced? Perhaps the MTS chapter could have been another appendix instead of feeling like the climax of the book – which I don’t think it is by the way?

      1. Completely agree about the “trellis” stuff. If doing the “vine” stuff is really so transformational (which, of course, I think it is), then surely the way we do “trellis” stuff must also be transformed. But “trellis” stuff will probably look quite different in different “church” contexts (e.g., on the denominational/parachurch axis, on the inner-city/suburbs/outback axis, etc. etc.), so perhaps they don’t want to be so prescriptive about that? Perhaps there needs to be separate companion books/booklets on “how to do trellis stuff in an outer suburbs church”, “how to do trellis stuff in a university ministry”, etc. Hmm, but maybe this applies to the “vine” stuff too.

        Also completely agree about the way MTS is handled in the book, and that the focus of the book is (and obviously must be) on the transformation of the individual members of the local “congregation”.

        For the record, I bought three copies of the book soon after it came out with the plan to give away two. I gave away one copy back then and would have given away the second a couple of weeks ago, but the intended recipient already owned a copy (which was a very pleasant surprise).

        As I tried to say before (but I think got lost in so many words), I say “amen” to the aims and direction of the book, but have (really only very) slight reservations about some aspects of the path taken.

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