The Trellis and the Vine: A Review from a Reformed Baptist Perspective (Part 1 of 2)

Book Reviews, The Church

Ours is a life of certain absolutes: water is wet, summer follows spring, and every year or so a new book will appear which will claim to be both revolutionary and definitive in regards to evangelical ministry.  The inability of most readers to recall the specific titles (let alone the content) of these voluminous offerings within five years of their appearance is telling.  Although its subtitle (The Ministry MindShift That Changes Everything, emphasis mine) might give the impression that The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne is just one more addition to the ministerial literature heap, this is the rare book which actually comes close to delivering on the promises of its own hype.   While it most likely won’t actually “change everything,” it certainly does push the humble reader committed to the principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda to consider significant “mind-shifts” in regards to the elements, emphasis, and evaluation of his ministry among the people of God.  This review will first summarize the content of the book and then, in a second post, offer three strengths, one weakness, and some final thoughts which it has occasioned in the mind of this reviewer.

Chapter one begins with an illustration which explains the relevance of this book’s unusual title to Christian ministry.  Two trellises are described, one which is well built and pleasing to look at yet totally devoid of any living vine to scale it’s perfectly proportioned latticework; and another which is so overtaken by an aggressive, thriving jasmine that the trellis itself is barely even visible.  Through these two trellises the reader is introduced to the picture which will be the constant backdrop of all that Marshall and Payne have to say regarding ministry in the Church.  They write

As I have sat on my back verandah and observed the two trellises, it has occurred to me more than once that most churches are a mixture of trellis and vine.  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 into maturity in that gospel.  That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help a vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support.  It may not be much, but at the very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  All Christian churches, fellowships or ministries have some kind of trellis that gives shape and support to the work (p. 8).

The fundamental distinction of the book is therefore between trellis work and vine work, and their respective focus and priority.  The heart of ministry is vine-work, the Spirit empowered proclamation of the gospel in a variety of setting and through a variety of means.  Trellis-work, while it is crucial to the support of the vine, should not be confused with or allowed to overshadow this “vine-centric” understanding of ministry and mission.  However, rather than being vine-tenders first and trellis-minders second, in many churches the pastor is consumed with the upkeep and management of the trellis at the expense of his time for the cultivation of a healthy and growing vine.

The authors seek to correct this tendency by returning to the fountainhead of Christian ministry during this current period from Pentecost to Parousia- the Great Commission.  Their exegesis of this text emphasizes the announcement of the absolute dominion of Christ (All authority in heaven and on Earth has been given to me –Matthew 28:18) and the primary mission the church is charged with- namely the making of disciples in all nations.  Marshall and Payne understand the Great Commission to be rooted in the total Lordship of Jesus over all creation, to be just as much local as global in its emphasis, and to be the particular responsibility and privilege of all Christians.  They write “It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple” (p. 13).  Indeed, the entire book can be summarized using that one word (albeit multiplied and inflected): disciples discipling disciples.  This theme is the true heart and soul of the book- a gospel centered vision for a culture of intentional discipleship to take root among the people of God.

Chapter two takes the fundamental trellis/vine distinction already established and lays out exactly what sort of “mind-shifts” the authors are proposing.  Eleven transitions are proposed, most of them encouraging a change in focus from more organizational and institutional (and therefore trellis related) activities and thought patterns to those more relational and organic (and therefore vine related).  For example, the first mind-shift listed is a shift “From running programs to building people” (p. 17).  Most of the mind-shifts proposed will simply encourage church leaders to reevaluate priorities and emphasis, but there are a few which are truly transformative to local church ministry.  The encouragements to shift “From clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership” (p. 22), “From focusing on church polity to forging ministry partnerships” (p. 23), and “From relying on training institutions to establishing local training” (p. 24) have the potential to radically change not just the way a pastor uses his time, but the nature of his ministry itself.

In Chapter three the authors seek to build a Biblical Theology structure to support the arguments they have been making.  They trace the redemptive historical patterns of creation, fall, and restoration from Eden to Israel to Calvary; and then they place the New Testament church into the process of God’s ongoing saga.  They write

 In fulfillment of his ancient plans, God has brought salvation by sending Christ to pass through suffering to glory.  He is now announcing this momentous news to the world by his Holy Spirit working through human evangelists, and by this method he is saving people, bringing them to new birth, and granting them an eternal, unshakable, incorruptible inheritance in his eternal kingdom… This is what God is now doing in this world: Spirit-backed gospel preaching leading to the salvation of souls (p. 35).

 By setting gospel ministry into this context Marshal and Payne effectively lift the readers head up from the stifling claustrophobia of not being able to see beyond your own patterns, traditions, and expectations; reminding us that our ministry is about what God is doing.  He is pleased to use weak vessels in the proclamation and propagation of His mission, but it is His power and His providence which is guiding the trajectory.  The reminder that this trajectory ends in glory and consummation is both liberating and invigorating.

Having presented their argument in broad terms and having couched their principles in the context of God’s redemptive plan, Marshall and Payne turn in the rest of the book to working through some of the details and particular challenges which accompany the implementation of this sort of vine-centric ministry in the local church.  In most offerings in the Practical Theology genre, this is the point where the well runs dry and the filler chapters begin; where books that should have been published as pamphlets get milked for an extra hundred pages or so.  Happily, this is not the case with The Trellis and the Vine.

Chapter four (Is every Christian a vine-worker?) deals with the issue of every member ministry and with the possible objections which could be raised by those who prefer to restrict the concept of ministry exclusively to the prevue of the ordained man of God. Ministry, it is sometimes said, is exclusively descriptive of what the Minister does, and then sometimes even restricted further to what that man does in his official capacity as Pastor from the pulpit on Sunday.  While it is true that the office of Pastor/Elder/Bishop carries unique responsibilities, the sort of hard line drawn between the pulpit and the pew which some men espouse in regards to ministry doesn’t stand up well to the Biblical arguments of Marshall and Payne.  Readers who take a more restrictive view of ministry will most likely be surprised that that Ephesians 4:12 is only mentioned briefly, and that the authors actually sound like they prefer the older reading (p. 44)!  Rather, their argument is based in the universal call of Christian discipleship (p. 42); copious examples of ministry among those other than the church’s official agents in the New Testament (pp. 44-9); and the radical, missionary nature of the gospel and conversion to Christ (pp. 49-53).  As the authors write on page 52, “The Christian without a missionary heart is an anomaly.”  Several examples are included to show what this may look like in practice, such as the example of Alison, who writes an encouraging letter to a friend emphasizing Biblical truth; and Geoff, who is intentional in conversations with co-workers to turn their talk to the gospel.  Skeptical readers who are wary of creeping egalitarianism in the church and the suspected degradation of the official means of grace would do well to read these examples (pp. 54-55).  They are hardly radical.  Every member ministry in The Trellis and the Vine is nothing more than trying to get Christians to understand what a Christian is, and then act like one- a cause to which all God’s people should say Amen.

An important addendum to the arguments previously stated is chapter 5, entitled “Guilt or grace?”  Here it is shown that this sort of vision for ministry among all the people of God is not the result of heavy handed guilt laid on them by their Pastors, it is the fruit of grace sweetly tasted and rightly understood.  Again, the authors run to Scripture and point out the utter normalcy of involvement in the work of the gospel among the Christians in the New Testament (p. 65).  This is a very short chapter, but its value proportionately outweighs its brevity.

Chapter six marks a transition from dealing with broader principles to laying out practical steps for implementing a ministry which shifts its focus from the upkeep of the trellis to the health and propagation of the vine.  This theme will dominate the rest of the book.  The authors spend the last six chapters developing in great detail a program of personal discipleship and training.  They are quite specific about both what sort of qualities ought to be prerequisite in the life of any potential trainee (p. 140-1), and what form this training should take.  They even provide a helpful chart of what a regular training session could entail (p. 121).

This review will not seek to summarize all that Marshall and Payne have to say about training, other than to simply note that it is both comprehensive and very helpful.  It is also worth noting that this second half of the book contains some material sure to raise those eyebrows not already raised by some of the authors’ earlier assertions and counsel.  They argue on pages 109-11 that rather than focus primarily on those most hurting in the congregation or those most ripe for evangelism, Pastors ought to pour the bulk of their time into equipping the more mature believers so that they can in turn minister to and evangelize others, thus multiplying gospel effectiveness.  Also, the title alone of chapter eight (Why Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient) is surly enough to make many readers double check the sterling list of men who have contributed blurbs of endorsement to the back of this book (Dever, Duncan, Mohler, et al)!  However, a bit of an open mind and charity in understanding will show that once again (no matter what their subtitle may say) Marshall and Payne aren’t actually out to change everything.  The chapter referenced above does after all explicitly state that sermons are necessary.  The authors are simply pointing out some of the ways our own traditions and assumptions have become the enemy of effective Biblical ministry, even when those traditions and assumptions are wrapped around  something as central and necessary as preaching.

Good books challenge our assumptions and make us think, an exercise never completely free from discomfort.  The Trellis and the Vine certainly fits this description.  It is well written, timely, and deeply challenging.  On a literary level, the only minor annoyance is the constant referencing of materials available for purchase from Mathias Media, which has a tendency to make certain points feel like sales pitches.  Even this sin can be forgiven because of the generally excellent nature of most of what Mathias Media offers (at least in this reviewers experience and estimation).  Marshall and Payne have written a work which is clear, Biblically grounded, balanced, and extremely practical.  This is a rare achievement, and the evangelical community is in their debt.

Click here to read part 2

(By: Nicolas Alford)

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