The Trellis & the Vine: a critical appraisal


You can purchase a copy of The Trellis & The Vine here

I have been away over Christmas and tried to avoid working, and blogging, and blogging about working. Did you miss me? No, didn’t think so.

Anyhoo, apparently reading is an acceptable form of work on my holidays. At least, that’s what my wife tells me. She may not say it in so many words but not telling me off for doing it amounts to the same thing. I suppose she doesn’t want to get drawn into defining acceptable kinds of holiday reading material e.g. Christian books are work whereas secular books are fine. I could read Bleak House without repercussion but perhaps not Reformed Dogmatics. I don’t know where that leaves fiction with a Christian bent, like the Chronicle of Narnia, or secular books that force one to consider them critically through the prism of a Christian worldview, such as Antony Flew’s There is a God. And non-Christian books that sounds Christian, like Atonement, just confuse it all further. We could have had a right row only to find, actually, it is decidedly non-Christian and therefore not work, thus deeming it acceptable (even if entirely unedifying). It seems nobody wanted to get bogged down in that whole legalistic hornets nest, so reading was on the agenda.

To that end, I worked my way through The Trellis and the Vine by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. It is the product of Moore College, Sydney Anglicans (such as that means anything to you and/or you care). The basic premise of the book is that church work usually falls into one of two categories. Either it is trellis work (supporting structures) or it is vine work (growth in people). The authors argue that, oftentimes, trellis work seems to take over in the church. We often end up focusing on structures and programmes instead of people. Whilst structures are important for growth, we often confuse trellis work for growth itself. The authors want to help us shift our mindset to focusing on people, how we can help them grow rather than thinking primarily in terms of structures and programmes to be filled and propped up.

The main thesis of the book is a fundamentally good one. It is clear the authors want us to see the value of ‘pew ministry’. That is what us Free Church folk have for years called ‘Every Member Ministry’ (EMM). The point is that church is not all about having services provided for the members by the pastor, elders or staff (such as is your setup). Rather it is a group of people growing together and encouraging one another to serve one another for kingdom growth. The aim is good, right and proper.

The book, however, was not without its flaws. Whilst I agree with the principle that the church is typically a mix of trellis and vine work, one felt the analogy was perhaps pressed a little too far. The thrust of the book was that trellis work = structures, vine work = people. Thus if you are thinking about programmes and structures you are not thinking about people (at least this is how it came across). But it seems to me that that whilst structures and programmes can unhelpfully take over – against which the book rightly cautions – it is not necessarily the case that thinking about structures and programmes means you aren’t thinking of people. Setup properly, structures serve people. So, to think about structures is to think about what is and isn’t working for the people you are serving.

This type of thinking may actually undermine the collective approach to ministry the authors are trying to foster. Instead of thinking about what serves the whole, what ministries are fruitful and how we may continue them, the book encourages a rather individualistic approach to ministry that makes my skills and desires the arbiter of where I serve. Though the book is clearly pushing towards an EMM approach, the point of EMM is to encourage every church member to be active in service. However, the book presses beyond just seeking to encourage every member to serve and instead ends up arguing that however every member wants to serve is the means of getting all members to serve. But this is to put individual desires and views of gifting ahead of any thought of existing works bearing fruit and benefit in doing ministry collectively. The heart of the issue is therefore missed. Pressed too far, this approach doesn’t encourage ministry for gospel gain but ministry that indulges personal, individualistic preferences.

The authors want us to move from an ‘event-based’ strategy towards a ‘training-based’ strategy. In effect, they say that instead of looking to plug gaps in each ministry, we should look at the people we have and ask ‘how might this person best be used’. In one sense, this is perfectly reasonable. There really is no point in forcing someone into a role they are utterly unable to fulfil. Likewise, and this seems to be a major (and valid) point of the book, there is no point simply plugging gaps in ministries that have had their day. Continuing to force people into an evangelistic Sunday School that takes in no non-Christian children and has dwindled from its heyday serving hundreds to now serving one or two. The authors rightly state ‘it takes guts to shoot a dead horse’.

However, the point is pressed too far. In terms of people, many do not know if they are gifted for a particular work until they get on and do it. Moreover, didn’t the apostle Paul boast in his weakness because through it the power of God was at work and made manifest (cf. 2 Cor 12:9)? If we are only ever serving out of our strengths, then we are not giving God room to work in us this way. If God’s grace is sufficient for us, it surely needs us to do that for which his grace is required. It also strikes me as a false view of gifting. Kenneth Berding, in his book What are Spiritual Gifts?, offers a helpful overview of Paul’s view of gifts. Berding encourages us to see gifts, not as special abilities we must discover, but as ministries God has given us to do. Our gifts are those works God gives to us to do for his glory and he will empower us to do them. If this is the case, we ought not to be looking first for special abilities and then fashioning ministry roles. Rather, we should be looking for the work that is fruitful and encouraging people to serve in it, seeking God to empower them for it.

Likewise, in terms of ministries themselves, of course it is right to shelve fruitless work. What is surely not right is to cancel fruit-bearing works because nobody is willing to serve in them. The issue is not that we don’t have the requisite abilities within the congregation, it is that individuals are unwilling to do work that serves the gospel. Moreover, what do we do when we run an English Class (which we do at our church) and a leadership gap opens up that needs to be filled in order for it to continue? If that work is seeing fruit – unbelievers coming to faith and those serving in it growing in their own faith – is it not perverse to cancel it because somebody determines they don’t feel led to that work but to another, as yet, unfounded ministry? Moreover, what does it say to those we are serving through those English Classes (a programme that is actively working for people, just not necessarily church people) if we close it down simply because nobody felt led to do it and we didn’t want to make programmes overtake people?

An event that is bearing fruit for the gospel and/or fruit in the lives of those running it is serving people. It seems perverse to refuse to ask ‘who might fill a leadership gap in a fruitful ministry?’ simply because nobody, as yet, feels led to serve in that way. Whilst we may be thinking about the one person who doesn’t want to fill the gap, we are specifically not thinking about the multiple other people being served by that ministry and who may be left high and dry simply because nobody wanted to continue that fruitful work. What does it say to the people we are serving in a particular work that is bearing fruit if we have a leadership gap and we simply close it down? We may well be saying to the person who wants to run a homeless outreach instead of a Sunday School that we value them and their particular skills, but we are also simultaneously telling those homeless people that they matter much less than that. Whatever ministry that happens to be bearing fruit in people’s lives, if we close it down because our congregation don’t see fit to do it, whether we like it or not we are making a decision about which people we want to say we value. So yes, closing structures and programmes that don’t serve our people might show that we value them more than we value the programme, it also shows the people we are reaching with gospel that we value them much less than the comfort and desires of our own.

The other concern about this idea is the shift from existing programmes to skills in the congregation. Once again, I accept the need to close fruitless works and the sense in encouraging those with a heart and ability for certain areas of ministry to do them. Unfortunately, the book gives the impression that any and every idea should be encouraged according to the whims of the church membership. This does not contend with the fact that not all ideas are valid. Of course, if a church member comes to you and says ‘I have a heart for Muslims and want to spend my time reaching them’, naturally most of us would praise God and send them to do exactly that. But there are those who do not feel led to serve in the existing ministries of the church because they have a heart to go house to house singing Christian songs whilst wearing a sandwich board with ‘turn or burn’ emblazoned on it. This, they are convinced, will lead to revival. We are rather left with the impression that such should be encouraged and blessed, or at the very least, we should not force this person away from that idea into a ministry to which they may consider themselves less suited. Whilst the authors may consider this part of their ‘chaotic strategy’, it doesn’t strike me as entirely conducive to the gospel.

Of course, I am taking a silly example which I am sure the writers wouldn’t endorse. They encourage training of members who go and train other members. This, again, is quite laudable. The problem exists for small churches such as ours that simply don’t have the people to be trained. In large, student-fed churches there is a steady stream of people coming in who are all able to be trained. Those who settle long-term may have further training, who in turn go and pour into others. Compare this with a tiny village church, or a church in a undesirable urban setting, with a number of elderly and infirm folk and no ongoing stream of people coming into the church. Does this mean we don’t bother training people? Of course not. It simply means that as models go, this isn’t necessarily all that replicable. There have to be a core of people ready to be trained in order to train them and send them to train others. The book sets itself up, not as a magic bullet, but as an easily replicable model that will foster church growth. And, in many settings, I can see that it would work nicely. It doesn’t seem to take account of different settings where its principles are perhaps not so easily rolled out.

Whilst I have been a bit critical here, there is a good core to the book. Pouring into people is far more important than maintaining structures. A point the book labours. Using people according to their skills is obviously sensible. Even giving people the freedom to begin new works, and being willing to close down existing works so that new things may begin, is clearly right a lot of the time. The emphasis on ‘pew ministry’ or Every Member Ministry was a good one. The desire to see every member of the church growing and serving is a right priority. My concern is that some of the principles were pressed too far. It almost became a dualistic approach that structures = bad, people = good. It didn’t seem to take account of fruitful works that also serve people. It didn’t seem to take account of the fact that people don’t necessarily know they are gifted until they serve. It didn’t seem to consider that we are called to serve out of our weaknesses. It didn’t seem to recognise that not everyone feels deeply called to particular work and many are happy to serve in any fruitful work. Though the core desire and thrust of the book is good and proper, some of its conclusions felt like they went too far and were perhaps applied a little too rigidly.