Readers of the Decablog probably assume we just forgot about the blog altogether, but we’ve actually been busy writing a book. In Praise of Old Guys will be released on April 20th at wrathandgrace.com or amazon.com.
I am writing from the Frankfurt, Germany airport on my way to Nigeria. This is my 4th trip to Nigeria, but a very different trip in many ways. If you would like to pray for us, I will share a few details:
- The first leg of my trip begins in Lagos, the southern port city and former capital of Nigeria. Lagos is the 10th largest city in the world. I will be meeting with the only 2 Reformed Baptist Pastors I know of in Nigeria. They have not met each other, so I really look forward to not only meeting them myself, but introducing them to one another. Nigeria is heavily dominated by charismatic teaching, the prosperity gospel, and various cults in addition to about 50% of the country being Muslim. These men have a very difficult time with Reformed doctrine in Nigeria, so I hope I am able to encourage them in their work.
- From Lagos I will travel to Egbe, which is South-Central Nigeria. This is the city I spend the majority of my time in each year. In the past I have preached at a pastor’s conference, but have been dissatisfied with the long term fruitfulness of the conference approach. Last year I decided it was time to start a more long-term training program for men who are considering pastoral ministry. Thankfully, Ephesus Church has raised a significant amount of money along with several other sister churches, and we have received tremendous support from the Reformed Baptist Seminary and were able to put together a 3 year training program very similar to a seminary education in the United States. This year we begin the Institute for Pastoral and Theological Training (IPTT) in Egbe, Nigeria. Each year I will teach a week-long intensive course, and provide the resources necessary for a year’s worth of classes (books, lectures, assignments). We are hand selecting 10 men who will interview for the program and begin classes next week. I will be delivering 24 lectures on the Doctrine of God.
- I praise God that 4 members of Ephesus Church will be coming at the end of this week to join me. They will be working on various projects in support of the ministry we partner with in Egbe, primarily focused on agricultural and educational work. Please pray for Josh, Tris, Melissa, and Jessie.
- At the end of the trip I will be in Abuja for a few days. Abuja is the capital city of Nigeria. We will have several meeting with denominational leaders and well as government officials. Nigeria is one of the most politically and religiously corrupt countries in the world, so wisdom and discernment are vey important in our interactions.
Overall, I will be gone for 3 weeks, which includes 2 Sundays out of the pulpit at Ephesus Church. I am thankful for the opportunity to serve the nations and pray that God would be glorified through our efforts. As I am able, I will post blog updates if you are interested in our efforts. Thank you for your prayers.
(By: Nick Kennicott)
The Apostle Paul often used illustrations drawn from the world around him to explain Biblical truth and apply it to the Christian life. This is particularly true when he writes about the church. Rather then a systematic and detailed Ecclesiology, the reader is treated to vivid word pictures and metaphors. The church is a human body (1 Cor 12), a carefully constructed building (1 Cor 3), and a pillar (1 Tim 3:15). Often these illustrations are military in nature- church members are soldiers and the church is an army, fighting under the banner of Christ and seeking to advance the cause of the Gospel throughout the world. These references are frequent in Paul’s writings, but are probably most explicit in Ephesians 6:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Ephesians 6:10-20)
With this illustration as the backdrop, let’s consider two ways to be an army. First, there are the NAVY SEALS. The SEALS are devoted to mastering techniques and methodologies which will equip them to be the most effective fighting force they can be. They are warriors on par with the best that any civilization have put forward. They train diligently and are faithful to carry out the directives of their commander. Although the essential core of their skill-set is universal and timeless, they are also students of each particular theater of engagement. A late night mission in the deserts of the Middle East is going to be executed quite differently than a covert operation in the jungles of Latin America. They are dedicated to applying their training to each and every situation they are called into, are faithful to their orders, and are legendary for their honor, loyalty, and courage. The NAVY SEALS are a model of diligent and intelligent modern warfare.
Second, we can consider Civil War Reenactors. Their mission is not to be modern or relevant. That’s not the point, and they feel that to allow in the trappings of today would be to betray the very point of their existence. Rather, they are concerned with remembering yesterday’s exploits and with the celebration of a by-gone era. They eschew modernity in favor of the clothing, language, mannerisms and equipment of a pined for yet distant memory. Although they live their daily lives with all the trappings of the 21st century, to join them when they gather for their corporate activities is to step back in time well over a hundred years, a reality which can be curious to observing eyes. They have guns, but they never really shoot them. It may look like war, but there is no real danger. No new ground ever really gets taken, because everyone is really just going through the motions of battles which have been settled long ago. It may be a fine hobby, but as far as real warfare goes, they’re not fooling anyone.
The church is called to be the Army of the Lord. Christians are called to be soldiers under the banner of Christ. The question is this: are we more like NAVY SEALS or Civil War Reenactors?
(by: Nicolas Alford)
Having summarized the content of the book, this review will now offer three strengths, one weakness, and then close with some final thoughts. In truth, much of the preceding summary has included various commendations and concerns already, but it is perhaps helpful to collate them here.
The first strength of The Trellis and the Vine is that it encourages Pastors away from unhelpful models of ministry and towards a more Biblical paradigm. A Pastor is not a “service-providing clergyman” or a “CEO” (p. 94-8). Marshall and Payne suggest that “trainer” is a better description (p. 99-102). While there are inherent problems with all one word summaries of Pastoral ministry it is difficult to argue that this is a Biblical corrective. Traditionalism and professionalism can both be the enemy of vital Christianity itself, let alone of fruitful ministry. For encouraging men to lay aside these unhealthy patterns and embrace the personal work of gospel centered discipleship the authors are to be commended.
Second, a significant strength is the manner in which Marshall and Payne unleash the power of the pew. Laying every aspect of ministry on the ordained leadership of a church alone is a recipe for personal burnout, evangelistic ineffectiveness, and congregational apathy. It is also not the New Testament vision of the church. One of the chief purposes of The Trellis and the Vine is to enable and encourage pastors to in turn equip the saints to be faithful participants in God’s unfolding plan of redemption. Even if it starts in small ways, it is thrilling to consider what the Lord might do with a congregation which is carefully equipped, faithfully supported, and motivated by grace to take up the cause of Christ as their own. Such a congregation might turn the world upside down. Our bookshelves are full of testimonies that this has happened before, so why not in our day as well?
The third and final strength to be noted is the general manner in which this book reestablishes Kingdom priorities. While few would say it out loud (at least in conservative evangelical circles), there is in most of our hearts a desire for a uniquely large and influential public ministry, characterized by dramatic mass conversions and attended with the security and accolades such success brings. If the Lord is pleased to give such things, and if the conversions are true works of grace, then may He do it; although men may find that which they pined for brings unexpected trials. Yet the question must be asked- what if the Lord saw fit to save just as many, and to use a man to bless as many as he would in the above scenario, but without the personal recognition and publicity? What if we are called to pour ourselves into other individuals, to building them up and then sending them out to in turn minister to others? What if God is calling us to work behind the scenes rather than on center stage? Marshall and Payne would have us embrace such a calling. They candidly state
We must be exporters of trained people instead of hoarders of trained people…The goal isn’t church growth… but gospel growth. If we train and send new workers into new fields (both local and global) our local ministry might not grow numerically but the gospel will advance through these new ministers of the word (pp. 25-6).
The struggle with this is that it robs us of personal glory, which our flesh craves. Trainer is not a glorious title. The Trellis and the Vine does not call men to glamorous ministry; it calls them to do hard, time consuming, behind the scenes labor. This is a much needed soli Deo gloria realignment, and it is perhaps the book’s signature strength.
It should be clear from what has already been written that this is a very positive review. It does however remain to point out one weakness, although it is not at all clear that this particular shortcoming could have been avoided. The Trellis and the Vine is a self-consciously broad book, in that it is written to be beneficial and applicable across various denominational lines and evangelical traditions. This is a laudable pursuit, but it is not without cost. The result is a general vagueness in regards to ecclesiology which leaves The Trellis and the Vine feeling somewhat incomplete. One quote is particularly representative:
Issues concerning how churches are governed often dominate local ministry. At one level this is to be expected, because all denominations are partially defined by their distinctive understanding of church government, and it’s important for a church to be faithful to its evangelical heritage. However, inflexible commitment to a particular polity can destroy training (pp. 23-4).
This quote raises legitimate concerns but fails to address them in a satisfactory manner. It is indeed important that polity disputes not monopolize local churches at the expense of gospel ministry. Such a situation is highly dysfunctional. However, Marshall and Payne are not particularly helpful at this point. Saying that “It’s important for a church to be faithful to its evangelical heritage,” and then to immediately qualify that statement by saying “However, inflexible commitment to a particular polity can destroy training” is extremely problematic. The phrase “evangelical heritage” used in this context is unsettling- it has the strong aroma of sepia-toned nostalgia and seems to imply that convictions regarding polity are really more about the traditions of men than the Word of God. The next sentence tells us that we must be “flexible” about polity or it can “destroy training.” Even read with great charity, it is hard not to take this as a low view of ecclesiology as it relates to ministry. This sort of counsel is likely to foster the very sort of thing the authors are trying to encourage their readers away from- clinging to unbiblical elements of the trellis for reasons of simple heritage and tradition.
The real issue may be that Marshall and Payne do not go far enough. It would be better to say that as we seek to be always more and more reformed in belief and practice to the Word of God, there will be elements of our evangelical heritage which we will have to give up. This can be an emotionally wrenching process (and should never be precipitous), but when our heritage and our Biblical convictions collide, God’s Word must win out. Faithfulness to an unbiblical heritage for heritage’s sake is rank traditionalism. Furthermore, the last sentence would read better if it said “inflexible commitment to unbiblical polity can destroy training.” If the principles of discipleship, evangelism, and training described by the authors are inseparable from faithfulness to the Great Commission, then any polity which is the enemy of these things needs to be reexamined. It was to the church that God gave His commission, and he was not silent about the polity of that church. God does care about His trellises also.
What is left to the reader then, is to take the principles of the book and to apply them to his own particular ministry context. Perhaps this is the intent of the authors, to be intentionally vague on the particulars of various denominational contexts so that their readers will be forced to do the work of specifically integrating these ideas into their own local church. Reformed Baptists, for whom issues of church polity are a key distinctive, are left with much to ponder. It would seem that the emphasis on plurality in leadership and lay-ministry which already exists in our confessional identity would make The Trellis and the Vine a natural extension of Reformed Baptist praxis (see the Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 26:8, 11). If a stronger commitment to personal discipleship and to Monday through Saturday ministry carried out by the church body could be incorporated into the current Reformed Baptist emphasis on the administration of the appointed means of grace on the Lord’s Day by the ordained officers, the fruit could be rich indeed.
Collin Marshall and Tony Payne have done the evangelical church a great service by writing The Trellis and the Vine. Even if not all of their reasoning is convincing (it isn’t) and not all of their ideas are fully developed (they aren’t), it is difficult to imagine anyone seriously disagreeing with the central themes of their book. Our churches are indeed a mixture of trellis and vine. Failure to recognize this distinction can lead to significant frustration and malaise. Furthermore, God is not silent in regards to how He would have us cultivate His vine. He would have us stand and preach the Word; He would have us break the bread, drink the wine, and submit to the waters of the sacraments; He would have us kneel together in prayer; He would have us make personal investments into people and equip them to minister to others; He would have us speak to our friends and neighbors about the hope of the gospel. He would have us do all these things and more, because He is busy accomplishing his plan of redemption- both locally and globally. Perhaps the highest praise which can be given to a book is that implementing the principles it lays out will be profitable towards that end. This praise is due to The Trellis and the Vine.
(By: Nicolas Alford)
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 Mind–Shift 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.
(By: Nicolas Alford)