Book Review: “The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything” by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

the-trellis-and-the-vine2 The book The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything is a helpful book on local church ministry that encourages the pastor to make disciple-making disciples. They suggest that to be a Christian is to be a disciple-maker by speaking the word into one another’s lives. Their desire is to change the divide between pastors and the congregation by encouraging pastors to be not religious professionals or CEOs but trainers of disciplemakers.

Summary

In chapter one, the authors set out the image that forms the central image of the book: the trellis and the vine. The vine represents the spiritual life of the church, and the trellis represents the structures that are put in place to assure that the church grows well. Their central concern in the book is the fact that it is easy for the “trellis work” (maintaining the institutions) to take precedence over the vine work (spiritual growth of the church through making disciples). They encourage the reader to consider that the great commission of Matt. 28:18-20 is not primarily about “going,” but about “making disciples,” and that it applies as much in our local church as it does overseas.

Chapter two gives an overview of the emphasis of the book: that a shift in mindset needs to take place “away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ” (17, italics theirs). They list a number of ways in which our mindset has to change, but they all revolve around growing people rather than institutions.

Chapter three is called “What in the world is God doing?” This chapter gives a big picture view of God’s plan to make a people for Himself through Christ, beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation. It emphasizes that the New Testament, and especially the Acts record, never focuses on the institutions of the church, but on the growth of people (what they call “vine work”).

Chapter four emphasizes that ministry is what every Christian does as they speak the Word to one another. Really helpful is the statement on p. 58 that while the elders are “responsible for guarding and teaching the word and maintaining the gold standard of sound doctrine,” it is members who “do vine work themselves.” Chapter five emphasizes from the book of Philippians that a normal Christian life is one that is lived in partnership in the defense and proclamation of the gospel. In fact, they suggest that the term “partnership” is another term to describe membership in a local church (66-67).

Chapter six discusses training in the local church. The authors stress that training is a central part of local church ministry (1 Tim. 4:7; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). They insist that training has to do first with character qualities and sound doctrine. They also show how Paul demonstrated that training takes place as the one trained imitates the life of the trainer. There is both a relational aspect and a formal aspect to this training. Once the focus is on the mind and heart, the trainer may also help the trainee to develop ministry skills such as teaching and leading.

Chapter seven discusses the fact that gospel growth is growth of people in their walk with Christ. The authors discuss that this growth happens in stages: outreach (first hearing the gospel), follow-up (being established in the faith), growth (in knowledge and character) and training (being mobilized at each of the stages to serve one another). They discuss being aware of where particular people are in their growth so that they can be helped to the next stage of gospel growth. They also encourage pastors to consider pouring time into training those who are growing and gifted and then releasing them to serve those who are struggling. This avoids the pastor pouring all of his time into those who are struggling while neglecting those who could potentially become productive co-laborers with some training.

Chapter eight is a challenging look at the role of the pastor. Their main point in this chapter is that the pastor’s role is that of a trainer. They compare this role to the roles that have been traditionally given to a pastor – that of religious professional and CEO. They heartily affirm that the gospel as it is preached is sufficient to build up the congregation, but then also affirm that the Sunday sermon is not the only means that the gospel word can be delivered. They encourage the reader to consider Richard Baxter, who worked to instruct his congregation personally through pastoral visits.

Chapter nine picks up where chapter eight left off. If it is good to deliver the word in person-to-person conversations, then the pastor needs to have a team of co-workers to help him. The authors encourage the pastor of a church to focus on growing fellow-workers, not just serving those who are in desperate need. They want pastors to imitate Paul’s team mentality, and discuss how to train people to be co-workers.

Chapter ten focuses on discerning who will become full-time gospel workers. They helpfully state that it is the pastor’s job to see that the gospel ministry is continued by teaching others who can teach others. They first defend the idea that it is good to have some people set aside for the full-time gospel ministry, and then list some characteristics of people that pastors should be looking for.

Chapter eleven discusses ministry apprenticeship. The authors say that most of the time when a person pursues full-time gospel ministry, he goes to a seminary to be trained. They suggest that a good intermediate step should be apprenticeship, so that the person learns that ministry is about people, and is prepared to frame his theological education in terms of preparation to become a disciplemaker.

Chapter twelve is a summary chapter that discusses how to get started in church ministry in light of the main arguments of the book. First they revisit the main arguments of the book regarding the importance of making disciples, the fact that to be a disciple is to be a disciplemaker, the tendency towards institutionalization, the need to train more co-laborers, etc. Then the chapter gives suggestions regarding how to set the agenda, get people on board, and begin training co-laborers who are disciplemakers.

The last couple sections of the book are appendices. The first one is a list of frequently asked questions about the concept. They are, by and large, answering questions based on the main premises of the book. The second appendix is a list of resources from Matthias Media (the group that put together the book in the first place), and the third section is an interview of Phillip Jensen (someone who supports and is passionate about the ideas behind The Trellis and the Vine) about ministry apprenticeships.

Analysis

The Trellis and the Vine is a really helpful book overall for the pastor or those who desire to serve in pastoral ministry in the future. The main strength of the book is the correct appraisal of the institutional tendency of the church and biblical focus on healthy congregations of people who are “able to instruct one another” (Rom. 15:14) and “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It cannot be said enough that ministry is about people and helping people to grow in Christ, not about the structures of the church. They are so right when they talk about the structures existing to facilitate the growth of people, not vice versa. In this main point of the book, a hearty “amen” needs to be said.

Similarly, they did a good job of affirming the need for some people to be set aside for full-time gospel ministry. They framed it well in terms of the practical usefulness of particular people being set aside to dedicate their time to discipleship and leadership without trying to do it alongside a full-time job. They also helpfully affirmed the place of the church in recognizing the gifts and abilities of potential full-time workers, and then training them through apprenticeships.

One helpful quality of this book was the authors’ ability to nuance their arguments. For example, the section that discussed the role of pastor presented the pastor as religious professional, the pastor as CEO, and the pastor as trainer. It was encouraging to read that “of course these common approaches are stereotypes, and cannot reflect the multi-faceted reality of ministry in all its variety. All the same, we trust that you can recognize the structures and tendencies reflected in the descriptions…” (93). This kind of careful critique goes a long way to establishing the credibility of the authors and commending them to a broader audience, as opposed to those who already agree with them.

Something that was curious about the book was that they were reluctant to discuss actual issues of church polity. This is good in the sense that it freed them up to discuss their view of the church in a way that would fit with basically a church with any kind of polity. Many of the changes they advocate for are really changes of church culture, or the ethos of the church (attitudes rather than issues of polity). On the other hand, it is also hard to believe that the particular kind of government that a church has will have no effect on issues of who does discipleship and what the structures of a church are.

There were a few things that could have strengthened the book. It could have been helpful to discuss whether or not the trellis is even necessary at all. In this book, it is basically assumed. This reveals the target audience of the book: the majority of existing churches that are struggling with out-of-control trellises. While this is understandable, it neglects the conversation that is being had among those who would advocate for an “organic church” model which rejects the trellis altogether.

Finally, the book could talk a little more about the diversity of giftings in the body of Christ. It seems like the authors were so passionate about the fact that all disciples are to be disciple-makers that there was not much emphasis on the diversity of the church’s gifts. The controlling metaphor of the book was the church as a group of players on a team with some specialized to lead and train others and all there to play. But this is interesting in contrast with Paul’s metaphor for the church as a body with many parts that all have diverse functions – emphasizing both unity and diversity. This is not to deny their well-made point that each of us is to speak the Word to others and edify one another, but it is to ask how the diversity of giftings fits into this picture.

In conclusion this book is worth reading, especially if you are involved in or pursuing pastoral ministry. The authors helpfully affirm that the main thing to be concerned about in local church ministry is the growth of people in Christ, not institutional structures. They believe that all of the members of the church are to be active in disciplemaking by speaking the Word to one another, and that the pastor is to be a trainer who teaches all the people to be disciplemakers, and then gathers around himself godly men who are able to be co-laborers with him in training the congregation.

Bibliography

Marshall, Colin, and Tony Payne. The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything. Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2009.

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