Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine
In the 2009 book The Trellis and the Vine, authors Colin Marshall (B.Th, MA) of Ministry Training Strategy and Tony Payne (B.Th) of Matthias Media have culled from 25 years of ministry experience to wisely and gently take to task models of church that have dominated discussions around the topic of church growth. Their clarity of thought and vision has garnered the attention of church leaders around the world. Yet the book itself, in some ways, is nothing special. It is little more than an extended explanation of its title’s metaphor: The Trellis and the Vine. In the metaphor the vine represents the spiritual growth of God’s people, growth that leads to the expansion of the gospel in believer’s lives and in the lives of those whom they disciple. The metaphorical trellis represents church structure. Structure can and must be used to support the growth of the vine. They write that they are arguing “that structures don’t grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ” (164).To articulate the contours of this shift away from erecting and maintaining structures the book uses a variety of methods. Among these methods are framing the discussion in biblical language, undermining popular notions of church leadership, and offering practical, hands-on kind of advice for beginning to implement this model
The Vocabulary of Scripture The vocabulary of scripture is a burst of something fresh into the often stale milieu of books somehow still floundering in the wake of the church growth movements of the last twenty years. Church growth is a modern obsession. Yet, write Marshall and Payne, “It’s interesting how little the New Testament talks about church growth and how often in talks about gospel growth or the increase of the ‘word’” (438).
Marshall and Payne have made a concerted attempt to ensure that their proposed vocabulary shift away from “church growth” and toward “gospel growth”, “word increase” or “vine growth” is more than a linguistic riposte. This emphasis on scriptural vocabulary allows the authors to weave throughout the book at least three crucial kinds of implications:
1) Implications for Church leaders: no longer aiming to create structures, leaders can be freed from the traps of numbers, attendance, and programs so beloved of older church growth models.
2) Implications about the kind of growth that should be sought: Growth of numbers is not an indicator of health. God is looking for growth in people, the formation of new creatures launching of new creation.
3) Implications about what causes growth: The kind of growth promoted in this book is a growth that happens through the power of God’s Spirit applying his word.
The authors sum up the ideal pattern of growth in the church like this: “A Christian brings a truth from God’s word to someone else, praying that God would make that word bear fruit through the inward working of his Spirit. That’s vine work. Everything else is trellis” (474-476).
Undermining Popular Views of Church Leadership Christians sharing the word with other Christians in a way that causes them to share it with others is essence of “vine work”. When our eyes have become adjusted to this way of seeing church growth, a recognition occurs of a truth that has been present since Jesus left, making disciples is the work of everyone in the church; it is not just for pastors. This leads to a welcome de-emphasis on ordained ministers and church staff being the primary focus of church leadership. “Ordinary” Christians are the ones who are doing the vine work. Likewise, Marshall and Payne emphasize the need to shift away from programs and events as strategies for church growth since, while they may not always be wrong, they often lead to the wrong kind of growth. The argument could be heard as an argument against all programs or events, but it is not that. It is against programs that do not aim at gospel growth.
Practical Examples The book is filled with practical examples that help to put some meat on the bones of the model they are articulating. One example of a practical example is found in a discussion of how churches sometimes prioritize “trellis” over “vine”. The authors note that church leaders sometimes have a tendency to have people who are growing and looking for ways to serve fill empty spots in the existing church structures and ministries rather than constantly reassessing the ministries and being willing to remove old roles and create new ones for new people. When old roles are filled unquestioningly structures are maintained but church leaders are not opening themselves up to see how people could be used by God according to their unique giftings and passions. Structures should be built around people and for the purpose of helping them to grow (207-215). When people are at the mercy of roles those roles are no longer serving the people.
Another great practical example is found in the chapter entitled “multiplying gospel growth through training co-workers”. In this chapter the authors use helpful charts to assist a potential disciple maker who is trying to figure out how to spend time in ministry. They suggest that it makes the most sense to spend the most time—or at least prioritize time for—discipling those who have aptitude to become ministry trainers themselves. These people will invest in others, who will invest in others. Leaders struggling to balance their time with the various members and needs of their churches could benefit from reading this section.
Audience The greatest weakness of the book has little to do with the authors’ metaphor or approach; rather it is in their perception of their audience. When they write, “most churches need to make a conscious shift—away from erecting and maintaining structures,” they are assuming that the majority of readers are in churches that need to focus more on vine growth. This may be true of the majority, but there is a growing minority leaving formal churches and opting for more informal meetings and house gatherings. The members of this formal church exodus might need to hear more about the importance of having a “trellis” in place than this book provides. In other words, too much focus on the vine leads to questions about the rationale of “trellis work”. For instance, a reader might ask, “Why have a weekly sermon at all if people can simply speak the word between one another informally and have the spirit move? Wouldn’t we be better served by some other kind of ‘trellis’?” There are undoubtedly fine answers to this question, but they are not found in this book. This book takes for granted that “the sermon is necessary” while assuming that its readers understand the reasons.
The Limitations of Metaphor One further caution involves a limitation that the authors acknowledge. As with all models, they are at times forced into reductionism for the sake of argument (1136). But they do not adequately prepare the readers to recognize some of the problems to which this could lead. For instance, in trying to implement some of these we quickly become aware that there is a large grey area very often between “trellis work” and “vine work”. An example: Is preparation of curriculum or other teaching materials vine work or trellis? On one hand, it is “vine work”, preparation to share the word with people so that the Spirit might make it take root and grow in their lives. On the other hand, if an overwhelming amount of time were taken up by a task like this one could easily see this becoming a formality, mere support role for gathering people, a way to keep the ministry wheels spinning. This would be a form of unhelpfully maintaining the trellis.
Marshall and Payne understand the limitations of their book both in terms of audience and the failure of metaphor to describe reality perfectly. Readers too should be aware of these limitations at the outset. Understanding these weaknesses would be helpful for those considering handing this book out to others with an interest in knowing more about how the church should function. In some instances it might be wise to consider recommending this book with a second book like Mark Dever’s Deliberate Church to help balance out the weaknesses found here.
Conclusion Overall, The Trellis and the Vine convincingly argues that churches—if they have not already—should make a conscious shift in goals and priorities from “trellis work” to “vine work”, which means in the end that it is to become a hub of disciples making disciples. The metaphor of vine to trellis powerfully shapes a mindset of ministry that is much more in keeping with the New Testament model than that of a business to CEO. The book is able to put legs on the metaphor by offering practical strategies for beginning to implement discipleship training in the local church. All in all, The Trellis and the Vine is a useful resource that would repay time spent soaking in its principles, particularly for those already involved in or interested in Church leadership.
by Isaac Barton Isaac is a pastoral ministry intern at Paramount Church in Columbus. He is currently pursuing an M.Div. degree through The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY.