Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

Paper or plastic? That’s the question we are sometimes asked in the grocery store. Today, the question I often ask myself is, people or paper?

You see, organizing one’s time between spending time on “paper” (studying and lesson preparation, church administration, etc.) and “people” (the human element of ministry, discipling, etc.) is a constant battle. Both are necessary and both can sometimes seem to compete with one another. I often wonder if there is a philosophy of ministry that will help me think about both aspects of my ministry in a better way.

Which is why I am thankful that in our weekly ministry staff meetings we are reading through Marshall and Payne’s excellent, The Trellis and the Vine.

The Trellis and the Vine is a metaphor the authors use to introduce a mind-shift in ministry that they insist will change everything. In the world of ministry, that is no small claim. A trellis, of course, is a structure that is used to support, to hold up, a vine. In this metaphor the “trellis” refers to the administrative work within a church, those tasks that, though important, are not actually directly related to discipling people. “Vine” work, on the other hand, is those tasks of working with the vine, drawing people into the kingdom through evangelism and then training them to grow in their knowledge of God and their obedience to him.

As the authors argue, 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.

The problem, though, is that trellis work tends to take over from vine work. Perhaps it’s because trellis work is easier and less threatening; perhaps the trellis work looks more impressive. But for one reason or another, many Christians, and ministers in particular, soon find themselves consumed with trellis work, leaving them little time and attention for the vine. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that in many churches, maintaining and improving the trellis constantly takes over from tending the vine.

What Marshall and Payne suggest in this book is that most Christian churches need to undergo a radical re-evaluation of what Christian ministry really is. They need to go back to the very basics to understand the aims and goals of ministry, to learn how it proceeds and to see afresh the part we play in it. The authors argue 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.

They offer a list of 11 changes of mindset that may be necessary for churches:

  1. From running programs to building people

  2. From running events to training people

  3. From using people to growing people

  4. From filling gaps to training new workers

  5. From solving problems to helping people make progress

  6. From clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership

  7. From focusing on church polity to forging ministry partnerships

  8. From relying on training institutions to establishing local training

  9. From focusing on immediate pressures to aiming for long-term expansion

  10. From engaging in management to engaging in ministry

  11. From seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth

They begin their case by zeroing in on the Great Commission. They clearly demonstrate that the commission in Matt 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” (p. 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” (p. 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” (pp. 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 ministers are inclined to immediately begin thinking of “some event or program,” or some “ministry that [the person] could join or support” (p. 26). Instead, ministers should learn to instinctively direct this thoughtful Christian toward people work, or “the prayerful speaking of [God’s] word by one person to another” (p. 27).

Having done this, they show that every Christian is called to be a vine worker. This is not the exclusive domain of ministers or elders, but is the call of God upon all believers. Clearly, vine work is not limited to ministers. Instead, “It’s the basic agenda for all disciples. To be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker” (p. 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” (p. 49). Thus vine work happens in the home, the congregation, and in the community, and it is essentially a “Bible-reading movement” (p. 57).

Since all disciples are to be disciple-makers, it follows that all disciples will benefit from training on how to do so. Ministers 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 ministers 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 ministry is required with an emphasis on one-on-one teaching and instruction. In this way, 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).

Such shifts in mindset will necessarily impact just about every other aspect of church life, extending even to the preaching of the Word and the call of some Christians into full-time service for the gospel. The authors cover such topics within the book, even going so far as to (dangerously and maybe a little mischievously) title a chapter “Why Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient.”

The Trellis and the Vine has helped me to see, more clearly than ever I think, how much of what passes for ministry within a church is really “mere” trellis work. Of course such work is important but it can so easily take on undue prominence and become the heart of the church’s work. Meanwhile the vine, the people, suffer neglect. Perhaps this book will be a help for you too.

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