Review of the Trellis and the Vine

I it is a shame I never heard of this book before moving to Sydney. It is fantastic. It captures and clearly articulates many of the convictions about ministry I have developed over the last 12 years of theological studies and does so with the weight of ministry experience and tried and true practice behind it. The Trellis and the Vine captures the ministry perspective its authors, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, developed while working in the local church and with the Ministry Training Strategy (MTS). The premise of the book, illustrated with the image of a vine and a trellis, is that ministry work involves both administration (the trellis) and relational work (the vine), but more often than not, the trellis work takes over and eclipses the vine work. Ministries do need “some structure and support” (8), yet the goal of Christian ministry is fundamentally vine-work, “not to make church members or members of our institution, but genuine disciples of Jesus” (14). The authors are convicted that ministries often prioritise trellis work, “that’s the thing about trellis work: it tends to take over from vine work. Perhaps it’s because trellis work is easier and less personally threatening. Vine work is personal and requires much prayer…. Trellis work also often looks more impressive than vine work. It’s more visible and structural” (9). However, those of us in or entering ministry need to ask the hard question, no matter how beautiful and seamless our trellises are, “how much actual vine work is taking place?” (10).  The importance of person-centred ministry is, of course, not something new, but the author’s write from the conviction that well-meaning pastors who believe in the value of the vine over the trellis fail to reflect these priorities in practice. The book’s strength lies in its practical guidance; Marshall and Payne are not content to leave things at the level of theology, showing us that we must be vine-growers, but they lay forth a particular mandate for how that can and ought to be down, discipling leaders who will disciple leaders. The combination of lived wisdom, sound theology, and practical guidance (I am thinking “practical” in administratively) makes the book stand out from works that argue for a similarly person-oriented ministry (I am thinking of The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert E. Coleman, and to some extent Multiply, by Francis Chan). If I have one critique of The Trellis and the Vine, it is that the author’s do not press the practical vision of the book far enough—nevertheless, I desist.

The Trellis and the Vine is split into 12 Chapters, with three appendices. The First Chapter is the introduction, setting forth the analogy discussed above. Chapter Two lays out eleven ministry mind-shifts, from trellis-centred visions of ministry to vine-centred ones (e.g. “From running programs to building people”). Chapter Three challenges us in our understanding of God’s purpose in and through the local church, moving us away from building institutions to growing disciples. Chapter Four argues that though not all Christians are called to ordained/paid ministry, all Christians are vine-workers, are to be engaged in the work of discipleship: “The New Testament envisages that all Christian disciples will be prayerful speakers of God’s word, in multitude of different ways” (53). Chapter Five address some objections to the book thus far before the remaining seven chapters move in a more practical direction the church.

In Chapter Six, the author’s look at the concept of “training” as they see it. I am not convinced that the biblical “concept” of training they articulate actually exists in the Bible (which comes down to what mean by “concepts”), yet the authors nevertheless present a compelling argument for ministry training in the context of the local church. There is a “relational nature” to “training,” so training leaders for the church involves a sort of apprenticeship-style learning. They summarise the “Pauline model of ministry training” by saying “that it looks a lot like parenthood”:

  • It begins as someone is instrumental in brining someone else to new birth.
  • It is long term and loving.
  • It includes passing on knowledge, wisdom and practical instruction.
  • It involves modelling and imitation.
  • It forms not only beliefs and abilities, but also character and lifestyle. (75)

This sort of training is discipleship, but it has particular application for mentoring ministry leaders. The authors identify “three Cs” as the goal of ministry training, “conviction—their knowledge of God and understanding of the Bible”; “character—the godly character and life that accords with sound doctrine”; and “competency—the ability to prayerfully speak God’s word to others in a variety of ways” (78). The following chapter (#7) then looks at how training is “a ‘growth industry’” (81) and the consequences adopting a training culture will have on the local church, being “willing to lose people from our own congregation if that is better for the growth of the gospel” by sending them out, for instance (83). Chapter eight then argues that ministry is more than preaching, though not less than it. Chapter 9 looks at the training from the perspective of raising of Gospel co-workers; though it will be hard work and take sacrifice to train others in Gospel ministry, doing so will not only lighten the work the pastor is doing but also stand to increase the ministry capacity of the congregation. Like all the later chapters of the book, there is much practical direction in here. Chapter 10 and 11 then look at identifying and apprenticing future ministers or pastors, with Chapter 12 concluding with a summary and guide to starting the work of training vine-growers.

Though it makes sense within the Anglican context where the book was birthed, my only substantive critique is that the authors vision for training pastors goes something like this, begin training them in the local church, then send them off to theological college (e.g. p. 148-149). There are of course some things I found unpersuasive or unhelpful (e.g. the list at the top of p. 141), but this idea of training and sending to college cuts across the grain of the books argument. After showing that Paul’s pattern of growing and training disciple-makers, both lay person and ordained leaders, involves hands on, relational apprenticeship, where does theological education fit into the picture? That is, why is theological education a necessary step on the path from in-church training to vocational ministry? There are, of course, lots of traditional and contextual reasons for seeing theological education as necessary (e.g. denominational accreditation, the patterns of education in Western society). The list mentioned above on p. 141 implies that contemporary theological education is part of the ministry-preparation process, but why need this be the case? There is no Biblical mandate for formal theological training, so we at best can say that it results from the application of wisdom to the problem of how best to train leaders. However, if we follow the argument of the book, the authors show us is that the best way to train leaders is in the local-church context. They imply formal theological education is necessary to fill in holes in the knowledge or perhaps skills acquired under the apprenticeship model. However, if we concede that there is biblical warrant for and much reason for accepting the in-church training model, we should ask, can we fill these holes within that same context? It doesn’t take much creativity to answer that question with a resounding, Yes! So, given the costs of the send-to-college model (such as financial cost, the loss of support networks and long-term Gospel-centred relationships, the infeasibility of such institutions in much of the world, the tendency of such institutions to bias towards persons from a certain socio-economic status and with significant academic proficiency, etc.), it seems to me that the apprenticeship & college model is a unwieldy marriage that can be resolved into the former (see, for example, here and here).

I desist. This book is great, I highly recommend it.

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