Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine

Marshall, Colin and Tony Payne. The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything. Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009. 196 pp.

trellis-and-vine

As someone who is not much of a gardener, the image of a trellis and a vine sounds like a lot of work. I get exhausted thinking about it. On the other hand, there is something familiar about the imagery. It leads me to recall parts of the Bible that are filled with agricultural imagery, and in particular the imagery of the vine (see John 15).

In chapter 1, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne introduce us to the trellis and the vine. For Marshall and Payne the trellis and the vine represent the work of the church. Vine work consists of such things as preaching the gospel in the power of the Spirit, seeing people converted, changed, and growing through the gospel. Essentially, vine work is Christian discipleship (8). Trellis work, one the other hand, is the necessary framework for vine work. It includes such things as where and when people will meet, a church’s leadership structure, and other aspects of a church’s infrastructure (i.e., finances) (8).

What Marshall and Payne astutely recognize is that churches tend to focus more often than not on trellis work. It takes priority in ministry because it can be most visibly seen and it is the more quantifiable of the two (9–10). However, the Great Commission (Matt 28:19–20), the mission of the church, prioritizes disciple making (i.e., vine work) (13). While vine work must be a priority and drive the mission of the church, this does not mean that trellis work is inconsequential. But where trellis work is found it must serve the vine work of the church.

In chapter 2 the authors present eleven “ministry mind-shifts.” All eleven are driven by the same purpose: the purpose of church structures and programs are to grow disciples in Jesus Christ to be disciple makers (17). One in particular that seems to be a constant struggle for churches is staffing positions for church ministries. Marshall and Payne desire for churches to place the emphasis though on developing and training new workers (20–21). Rather than develop programs that one thinks are necessary, one trains up disciples, who are equipped with certain gifts, to begin new ministries, one is trained and called to pursue. This approach also has the added benefit of recognizing potential candidates for “full-time word ministry” (21).

Chapter 3 features a short synopsis of redemption history up to the church age. The authors draw three implications from this story:

  1. “Abandon ourselves to the cause of Christ and his gospel” (38).
  2. “The growth God is looking for in our world is growth in people” (38).
  3. “People-growth happens only through the power of God’s Spirit as he applies his word to people’s hearts” (39).

These three implications reiterate the importance and primacy of vine work in the life of the church.

Chapter 4 serves as something of a mini biblical theology of discipleship in the New Testament. The authors start with the premise that the call to discipleship is a call for all Christians (42). They then define what they mean by the call to discipleship: “a call to confess our allegiance to Jesus in the face of a hostile world; to serve him and his mission, whatever the cost” and “to be a disciple-maker” (42, 43). Marshall and Payne go on to explain what it means to be a disciple-maker in the remainder of the chapter. A disciple of Jesus Christ makes disciples by prayerfully speaking God’s Word to others in any number of different ways and contexts (53). Disciple making is ministry of the Word.

In chapter 5 Marshall and Payne instruct the reader to consider that all disciples of Christ are partners in the gospel. This is part of normal Christian living. They seek to make their case from a brief walk through Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. The basis for the Christians call to partner with other believers in the gospel is their shared experience of God’s grace in Jesus Christ (Phil 1:7) (62). If they are partners in the gospel, what does this sort of partnership look like? Marshall and Payne draw four characteristics of Christian partnership from Paul’s letter:

  1. Believers actively pray for one another (Phil 1:19).
  2. Believers contribute financially to the needs of other Christians (Phil 4:14–19).
  3. Believers take part in personal ministry for one another (Phil 4:18; 2:19–30).
  4. Believers engage in discipling/mentoring relationships with one another (Phil 3:17–4:1) (66).

Chapter 6 is concerned with answering the question: “What is training according to the New Testament?” Through their interaction with mostly Paul’s letters, Marshall and Payne demonstrate that training in the New Testament church was “much more about Christian thinking and living than about particular skills or competencies” (70). The way in which one trains others is through imparting sound doctrine and presenting a godly example (70–71). This kind of training is highly relational and is seen in the example of the apostle Paul and his young protégé Timothy (72). Gospel training is not devoid of passing on particular skills or competencies though. However, such training “must never be separated from the gospel—from the truth of sound doctrine, and the godly character that accords with it” (78). Near the close of the chapter, the authors present a helpful summary of the nature and goal of training: “Through personal relationship, prayer, teaching, modeling, and practical instruction, we want to see people grow in: conviction, character, and competency” (78).

The goal of training highlighted at the end of chapter 6 is taken up and expanded on in chapter 7. Marshall and Payne note that growth, “gospel growth,” is something that takes place not only in individuals, but also includes the multiplication of churches (81). The idea that “the gospel produces growth” leads to three implications: (1) gospel growth happens in people not structures, (2) because of this, one must be willing to lose people to see the gospel planted and grow elsewhere, not just in one’s church, and (3) in order for this kind of growth to be a reality, one must invest in people and not structures or programs (82–83).

The authors then turn their attention to the four stages of gospel growth with the intention of making disciples. Step one is outreach. This is initially implanting God’s Word in the life of another. Step two is follow-up, that is teaching someone the basics of the faith. Step three is growth. The kind of growth envisioned is growth in one’s knowledge of God and godly character, which never ends. Step four is training. Training means to equip disciples to be sent out to minister effectively to others who may be at any one of the first three steps in gospel growth. Training is focused on conviction, character, and competency (83–85). Although all Christians are called to go through these four steps and to train others along the way, not all are gifted in the same way. Some will be teachers and preachers, while others will engage others in one-on-one discipleship (85). Once again (see chapter 6), the authors emphasize that the kind of training envisioned is not the impartation of skills and abilities, but instead focuses on training in sound doctrine and godly living (86).

In chapters 8 and 9 the authors look directly at the place of preaching in the training of others for gospel ministry. Powerful, prayerful, expositional preaching is absolutely necessary for gospel growth. Churches are weak and ineffectual without it. However, it is not enough in and of itself. Intentional training and discipleship making must take place outside of the 30–60 minutes one allows for preaching on a given Sunday (102). This something else that must take place alongside of expositional preaching is one-on-one training by the pastor. The ones who are already showing signs of growth are selected for more intimate and intentional training. These are the people most ready to train and disciple others (111). This kind of training is illustrated in the ministry of Paul who did not work alone in ministry, but had co-worker and ministers who served with him and on his behalf (112–114).

So who are these people that are ready to train and disciple others? What is one to look for in “people worth watching”? Marshall and Payne provide a brief list of characteristics to be on the lookout for in individuals in one’s church. They begin with what Scripture requires when it comes to selecting elders and deacons (see 1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9). From there, they add other qualities one often finds in gospel workers, as well as some questions to assess a person’s potential (141–142). Marshall and Payne are also quick to note that while external affirmation is necessary, so is God’s call on one’s life, particularly with respect to church offices (pastor and deacon). The internal call of God is to be affirmed by mature godly persons in an external call (127–128).

Chapter 11 discusses how one is to train these “people worth watching.” When an individual expresses an internal call to vocational ministry that is affirmed by other mature godly persons, how does one go about preparing them? While some may answer, send them to Bible college or seminary, Marshall and Payne present the idea of a two-year ministry apprenticeship (143). They see ministry apprenticeship as a practical application of 2 Timothy 2:2, “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” (NIV). The authors present several strengths of the ministry apprenticeship model (144–146), one of which is learning ministry in the real word (145–146). Now, one may be led to think the authors are against academic training. However, that could not be any further from the truth. They believe those who show promise following the apprenticeship should attend Bible college or seminary for further training. Only then have they been prepared to become pastors themselves who will be on the lookout for other “people worth watching” (147–148).

The final chapter includes a summation of the main principles of the book (152–158) and one plan for starting to reshape ministry around people and training (e.g. vine work) rather than programs (e.g. trellis work) (158–164). Marshall and Payne wisely provide the caveat that the plan offered in the book is but one way. One’s particular ministry and context will be the deciding factor in what this process will ultimately look like (164). The book also includes three appendixes.

The person who takes the time to pick up a copy of The Trellis and the Vine and contemplate its challenges to the status quo in gospel ministry will not be disappointed. It is biblically based and borne out of the years of the author’s personal time in ministry. It places the emphasis where it should have been in the church all along, on making disciples who are trained and prepared to go out and make more disciples. Even for someone who is not a pastor of a local congregation, one would still find the book to be quite useful. For instance, the one who may be wrestling with a call to vocational gospel ministry will find the lists regarding “people worth watching” helpful in evaluating said call. It also seems that the overall emphasis of the book on preparing and training people over maintaining systems will work in almost any context. It is a timely reminder about the importance of cultivating relationships, for the sake of the Kingdom with people beyond the hundreds of “friends” one has on Facebook. Anyone involved in discipleship will find this book useful.

Although the book displays a vision for doing ministry, it fails to offer concrete direction on how to develop a culture of disciple making in the local church. If one has a vision for the kind of ministry Marshall and Payne describe in The Trellis and the Vine, how does one lead the people God has entrusted in one’s care to also buy into the vision and join in on the ride? This question is answered in Marshall and Payne’s new book, The Vine Project (Matthias Media, 2016). I look forward to getting a copy of this book and reading what its authors have to say. If it is anything like their first book, it will be well worth the time.

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