The Trellis and the Vine: A Brief Review

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At the urging of my pastor, I picked up the book The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. Colin and Tony tackle the ever-important issue of ministry in the context of the local church.

The book opens with the metaphor of a trellis and a vine. A trellis is a structure that is designed to facilitate the growth of the vine. Though a trellis may be attractive in its own right, if it is not supporting the vine or if the vine on the trellis has wilted, withered, and died, then the trellis is obsolete.

Colin and Tony apply this rather simplistic concept to the way ministry is conducted within the church at present. The trellis represents the ministries the church provides: Awana, Upwards, Men’s Ministries, Women’s Ministries, College Class, Youth, Sunday School, Prayer Meetings, etc. The vine is composed of each and every individual within the church. The fundamental question for Colin and Tony is “Are the ministries of the church (trellis) supporting and facilitating the growth of its members (the vine)? Or is the trellis draining the life out of the vine?”

Colin and Tony recognize that programs can be excellent, even necessary. They have the advantage of reaching a vast number of individual at one time, individuals who would not otherwise be reached due to too few hours in the day. Yet, we must not rely on the trellis to grow the vine. A trellis cannot provide the nutrients that are found in soil or water. The trellis does not provide sunlight. The trellis allows the vine to spread out, to reach for the sun, to thrive. The same is true of church ministry.

If we rely on programs to grow the vine, congregants would be as malnourished as a vine without soil, water, and sun. The reason for this is that programs provide cookie cutter material, approaches, and solutions. They are not tailored to the individual. They are tailored to the perceived collective need.

Imagine you were having trouble with your computer. It won’t turn on. You called up a technician service. The technician runs through a list with you: Is the cord plugged in? Have you pressed the power button to turn it on? Is your monitor on? Is your monitor plugged in? etc. By the time he finishes with the list he has memorized, both you and he realize that the call was a waste of time because he has to pass you off to someone that actually knows what he is doing. This is often what happens with churches that are designed around the “program.” Sure, that list my have started a couple of computers, but not nearly all of them. The tragedy in ministry is that many are left wondering if the technician will ever touch on the issue he or she is having. What is needed is a movement away from programs as the primary means of training disciples. We need to be concerned about the individual.

If we are truly concerned about growing our churches, our focus is not on programs, the number of members that attend our church, or the number of people that were visitors last week. If we are truly concerned about growing our churches, our focus will shift to a concern about where each and every individual God has placed at our church is. (Remember, we are specifically talking about the horizontal aspect of ministry, i.e. person-to-person. Colin and Troy are not placing the individual above God, sound doctrine, preaching, the sacraments, etc.) We must get to know those who we serve beside. Where is each individual at in their spiritual, emotional, and intellectual development as disciples of Christ?

When we discover this, we can find those individuals who are in need of being discipled. Colin and Troy propose a counter-intuitive way of selecting candidates for discipleship. They believe that the pastors of churches should select a small number of already mature believers. In regular meetings, these men are sharpened and commissioned with the task of taking on disciples as well. Though the pastor should know his whole congregation (Colin and Troy are taking after Richard Baxter’s Reformed Pastor here), to disciple each individual in depth is impossible. We accomplish this task, though, through selection of disciples who disciple others who in turn disciple others.

Colin and Troy recognize that this “model” might not be received well. If the pastor disciples individuals to maturity, it is likely that they will leave to serve somewhere else. In that case, all he will have accomplished is depleting the forces within his own church. YES. PRECISELY. Many will leave. And in so doing, they will make more disciples. If our attitude is to perserve our resources instead of seeing the Gospel take root and grow to maturity, then we have no business in the ministry. The job of the minister is not to preserve the trellis, it is to grow the vine.

In short, I loved the book. Nothing in it was particularly earth-shattering, and yet, everything in it was earth-shattering. That is to say, this is the way that ministry should be done, and yet, it goes against the grain of every way we are taught to do ministry.

I do have one small criticism of the book. The authors include a rather extensive section on training for the ministry. As a matter of fact, this dominates about 1/4 of the book. There is no distinction between those selected by the pastor for discipleship and those selected for future ministry. They leave the impression that the only people mentored/discipled by the pastor are those who have potential as ministry candidates. They then suggest that those who have been selected should look for those same qualities when selecting who they should disciple. This seems to be another top heavy organizational approach. When do the immature Christians receive training? I realize this is not their intention; yet it is the impression that is left.

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