In late 2009, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne published The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything, providing a welcomed approach to discipleship that was embraced enthusiastically by pastors and ministry professionals across denominational lines. With a subtitle that suggests measurable change and with content that provided a robustly biblical approach to cultivating disciples, Marshall and Payne’s work proved successful almost immediately. On popular Christian blogs and through influential Christian conferences, The Trellis and the Vine became a go-to resource. Great books, however, often leave questions unanswered. This follow-up volume intends to provide answers to those readers convinced of Marshall and Payne’s convictions, yet unsure of how to strategize for change.
In The Trellis and the Vine, Marshall and Payne urged ministry leaders to structure their ministerial methodology around cultivating disciples (the Vine), while keeping the programmatic work (the Trellis) as an organizational necessity while not making it the ultimate priority. In other words, structure and administration must support but not overtake the main mission of discipleship. As ministry leaders embraced this counsel, the logical question of implementation emerged with frequency. The authors were asked, “How can I change the whole culture of our church in the direction of disciple-making?” (p. 13). In the end, the authors produce a resource that is not so much a book to read and place on the shelf, but a project manual ministry leaders keep near as they cultivate leaders and shape ministry. In their introductory remarks, Marshall and Payne urge readers to view this resource as a project and to assemble a small team “starting from wherever you happen to be, with whatever strengths and weaknesses you happen to have” (p. 18).
Faithful ministry leaders desiring to cultivate healthy vines (to continue the book’s metaphor), often choose to do so through one or more common methods: preaching a sermon series on disciple-making, utilizing one-to-one Bible reading plans, making better attempts to welcome new members, and even training Christians on how to share their faith (p. 30). While these activities are certainly beneficial in the life of a church, often ministry leaders grow impatient as they await discipleship growth from these activities alone. For whatever reason, the measureable change from these activities often falls below expectations. Marshall and Payne suggest this type of strategy resembles “trying to turn an ocean liner with a few strokes of an oar” (p. 30). The solution to this situation, according to Marshall and Payne, is to shift the direction of the church from a situational remedy to a process that cultivates disciples. Marshall and Payne suggest a five-step process to accomplish a culture of disciple making.
First, ministry leaders must sharpen convictions regarding the theological distinctives undergirding their ministry. In an effort to clarify discipleship, the authors believe theological constructs must be investigated because they will correlate to the shift this manual urges. It cannot be overstated how crucial phase one is for this discipleship methodology because theology drives ministry. Second, the authors urge readers to reform their personal culture to create consistency with their theological convictions. In other words, the readers must decide if their actions are consistent with their theological convictions. Third, readers are urged to undertake a loving, honest evaluation “of everything that happens in your church to see how well (or poorly) it accords with your convictions” (p. 37). This exercise exists to expose the strengths and weaknesses of the corporate body. Fourth, readers are urged to innovate and implement the action steps crucial to addressing the weaknesses discovered in process three. And in the fifth and final step of the process, Marshall and Payne suggest readers monitor and review the status of the project, and they give detailed instructions how to do this well.
There are numerous strengths to this volume, but this review will focus on three. First, while the authors are building off everything they articulated in The Trellis and the Vine, this volume is written in such a way that newcomers to this perspective can read only this volume. Reading the first volume could help, but this project successfully captures the intent of the first by weaving it through these five processes. Second, ministry leaders appreciate books seeking to provide actionable steps corresponding to the book’s argument. Marshall and Payne masterfully provide a workable manual, complete with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Additionally, this project begins with Marshall and Payne providing a strategy for how a leadership group can approach and integrate this work in their ministry setting. Third, throughout the work, there is a subtle challenge, a nudge from Marshall and Payne, that ministry leaders not get comfortable with mundane discipleship ministry. Theirs is a compelling strategy reorienting one’s attitude about the urgency and blessing of shepherding and shaping the church.
Finally, an additional strength of this project manual also lends to a critique. The authors intentionally wrote this volume to be adaptable to discipleship strategies in a local church or in a para-church ministry. Marshall and Payne wrote this for “any ministry that has the potential to have its culture changed in the direction of disciple-making” (p. 20). Thus, an established church or a new church plant will find this project beneficial, but so will parachurch ministries. The weakness emerging from this approach is that one will struggle to discern a robust ecclesiology in this text. Many ecclesiological questions are not asked or addressed, but that does not seem to be the aim of this work. Disciple-making must transcend many of the petty differences some ecclesiological distinctives create. Marshall and Payne are to be commended for this volume. Taking its processes seriously could lend to positive shifts toward healthy discipleship in and out of the church.