The Ministry Shift that Changes Everything

What if there was a shift you could make in ministry that would change everything? Authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne think there is one, and that it’s the most foundational idea in the Christian faith — discipleship. This is the theme running throughout their book The Trellis and The Vine.

What “the trellis and the vine” means

The problem, according to the authors, is that too many within the church have overlooked that foundation in search of “better” methods and programs. This is where the metaphor of the “trellis and the vine” comes in:

“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 to 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. As the ministry grows, the trellis also needs attention. Management, finances, infrastructure, organization, governance—these all become more important and more complex as the vine grows.”

What happens in many churches is an overemphasis on the trellis work. It’s often flashier and more pressing. The problems are right in front of you and scream for your attention. Small groups needs leading, budgets need tightening, staff needs vision, and emails never stop coming. So we keep up with the trellis work, assuming the vine is taking care of itself.

The power of the trellis and vine metaphor is striking. Its ties to biblical references only seek to strengthen its prophetic witness. Perhaps that’s why this book is so powerful, and why it broke on the scene after its release in 2009. Not many books come out of Australia and penetrate the rest of the Christian world like The Trellis and The Vine has.

And that’s for good reason. This is a good book. A really good book. And, I’m starting to think, a foundational book for pastoral ministry.

Focus on disciple-making

Here’s why: The Trellis and The Vine focuses sharply on what disciple-making looks like in a pastor’s life and his church’s life.

Marshall and Payne start where most books on discipleship start, with the Great Commission. But then the book gets interesting and starts to challenge its readers assumptions, a pattern that’s continued throughout the book. The authors make a point that’s been made elsewhere, but that’s not often talked about — which part of the Great Commission is actually the command.

“Sometimes our translations may give the impression that ‘go’ is the emphasis of the command, but the main verb of the sentence is ‘make disciples’, with three subordinate participles hanging off it: going (or ‘as you go’), baptizing and teaching. ‘Baptizing’ and ‘teaching’ are the means by which the disciples are to be made.”

The more common way the Great Commission is understood is where “go” is the primary command and making disciples, baptism, and teaching flow from the “going.” But if churches have this understanding it can lead them to,

“think that they are obeying the Great Commission if they send money (and missionaries) overseas. But the emphasis of the sentence is not on ‘going’. In fact, the participle is probably better translated “when you go” or “as you go”. The commission is not fundamentally about mission out there somewhere else in another country. It’s a commission that makes disciple-making the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple.”

In just these few, pointed sentences they lay down the logic for why The Great Commission is for every Christian (and therefore every pastor and church). That means each Christ-follower and their churches must focus on disciple-making as the core of their mission. (Notice I’m using the term disciple-making. I’m implying, as are the authors, that the Great Commission is both evangelism and discipleship. Disciples are to be found (evangelism), then taught to obey Jesus’ commands (discipleship).)

More than a how-to manual

But this book isn’t a simple how-to manual. Far from it. Much of the middle of it spends time examining just what God is doing in this world, how He plans to carry it out, and what it means that we are saved by grace.

The rest of the book draws these ideas out, going through the pastor’s personal and professional life, and how this plays out in the church. The authors aren’t suggesting minor tweaks in a church’s programs, but a radical shift in how it does ministry and what those ministries are:

“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.”

By that, they mean churches need to shift some of their attention away from trellis work, and focus it on the vine where it belongs. And here’s what “vine work” means:

“This is what the growing vine really is: it is individual, born-again believers, grafted into Christ by his word and Spirit, and drawn into mutually edifying fellowship with one another.”

That has drastic implications for what pastors and churches focus on.

If God is at work making his gospel known throughout the world through disciple-making disciples of Jesus, then the pastor’s life and schedule should reflect that priority, and even come to emphasize it. This means a pastor might spend more time in one-on-one training and mentoring, or perhaps more time meeting with 3-4 men who are being trained to teach others the truth of the gospel.

It also means shifting our from making followers of our particular church or denomination to focus on making followers of Jesus. This implies shifting focus away from growing our particular churches to growing the Kingdom of God and its gospel-influence.

The heart of the shift in ministry

At the heart of this shift in ministry is a return to training. But this isn’t simply training Christians how to do certain things, such as reading their Bibles and having a quiet time (though those are obviously important). Instead, the authors say that,

“training is much more about Christian thinking and living than about particular skills or competencies.”

I like the dual emphasis on both the mind and the heart, because it echoes the Great Commandment to holistically love God.

The training section of this book is a goldmine of wisdom and practical information. Their goal is not to give you a blueprint of what to do, but convictions of what you should be doing.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s very helpful for pastors and church leaders, and foundational for church planters. At the same time, it’s for anyone in the church, because the call to make disciples doesn’t fall on pastors alone. The writing is concise, potent, and sage. If you’re looking for a book to help you understand discipleship and the implications of the Great Commission, this a great place to start.

Top quotes

  • “The first and most obvious is that if this is really what God is doing in our world then it is time to say goodbye to our small and self-oriented ambitions, and to abandon ourselves to the cause of Christ and his gospel.”
  • “The Christian without a missionary heart is an anomaly…We have to conclude that a Christian with no passion for the lost is in serious need of self-examination and repentance.”
  • “…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.”
  • “But our view of gospel work must be global as well as local: the goal isn’t church growth (in the sense of our local church expanding in numbers, budget, church-plants and reputation) but gospel growth. If we train and send 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.”
  • “But it’s interesting how little the New Testament talks about church growth, and how often it talks about ‘gospel growth’ or the increase of the ‘word’. The focus is on the progress of the Spirit-backed word of God as it makes its way in the world, according to God’s plan.”
  • “…people-growth happens only through the power of God’s Spirit as he applies his word to people’s hearts.”
  • “The radicalism of this demand often feels a world away from the ordinariness of our normal Christian habits and customs. We go to church, where we sing a few songs, try to concentrate on the prayers, and hear a sermon. We chat to people afterwards, and then go home for a normal week of work or study or whatever it is that we do, in time to come again next week. We might read our Bible and pray during the week. We may even attend a small group. But would someone observing from outside say: ‘Look: there is someone who has abandoned his life to Jesus Christ and his mission’?”
  • “The heart of training is not to impart a skill, but to impart sound doctrine. Paul uses the language of ‘training’ to refer to a lifelong process whereby Timothy and his congregation are taught by Scripture to reject false religion, and to conform their hearts and their lives to sound doctrine. Good biblical training results in a godly life based on sound, health-giving teaching.”
  • “…training is inescapably relational. It cannot be done in a classroom via the supposedly neutral transferral of information. The trainer is calling upon the trainee to adopt not only his teaching, but also the way of life that necessarily flows from that teaching.”
  • “A commitment to the growth of the gospel will mean that we train people towards maturity not for the benefit of our own churches or fellowships but for the benefit of Christ’s kingdom.”
  • “Christian discipleship is about sound doctrine and a godly life, and so to train or equip someone to minister to others means training and equipping them with godliness and right thinking, not just with a set of skills—because that in turn is how they will need to minister to others.”
  • “The Bible doesn’t speak of people being ‘called’ to be a doctor or a lawyer or a missionary or a pastor. God calls us to himself, to be Christian. Our ‘vocation’ (which comes from the Latin word ‘to call’) is to be Christ’s disciple and to obey everything that he commanded—including the commandment to make disciples of all nations. In that sense, all Christians are ‘ministers’, called and commissioned by God to give up their lives to his service, to walk before him in holiness and righteousness, and to speak the truth in love whenever and however they can.”

Buy The Trellis and The Vine on Amazon

Defining Success in Groups

The goal of being in community is never about numbers. If you’re a pastor or leader, it’s not about simply getting more people into groups. If you’re a member of a community group, the goal is not to check the boxes that you read your Bible, went to church, and attended your group for the week.

If we’re not careful though, those are exactly the things that end up defining success. But if those things aren’t the goal, what is?

The goal of living in community

In The Trellis and the Vine, authors Colin Marshall and Tony Payne make the following assertion:

“Our goal is not to make church members or members of our institution, but genuine disciples of Jesus.”

This makes sense when thinking through God’s character nature. He is, above all, holy. This means many things, but one crucial thing which flows from this is that He is to be the supreme object of our affections. He is not content to be another thing in our lives; He desires and deserves to be the main thing.

So when it comes to training disciples of Jesus, that’s precisely who we should be training them to be like — Jesus. But all too often we’re training them to wave the flag of our church, our denomination, or our “brand” of Christianity.

This is a dangerous place to be.

It will not be your particular church or denomination or movement which reaches the ends of the earth with the gospel. It will no doubt be a part of it, but it will not constitute the whole of it. God never intended it to.

It is in His name and to His glory that we make disciples. It is in His name and to His glory that we form community groups, serve our neighbors, and teach the Bible to our children.When the gospel is ushered into each people group and among every tongue and tribe and nation on this planet only one name will be exalted—the name of one man whose movement precedes all of ours and will outlast them all of time—the man Jesus Christ.

Defining success

“Success” is not simply getting more and more people into a community group or checking off all the right boxes, but loving obedience to the Great Commission and Great Commandments.

Every Christian is called to play a part in carrying out the Great Commission in their own lives and the lives of their church. At the same time, they are called to be a loving witness in action and in words to their brothers and sisters in Christ, and in the world around them. It could be summarized this way:

Make disciples. Love God. Love each other. Love the world.

This provides a framework for evaluating the success of our community groups, as well as any particular person we are discipling or training. Defining success, then, would look something like what you see below.

Goal

Our goal for members of our community group is to develop right relationships with:

God
  • Knows, loves and follows Christ
  • Empowered, filled and led by the Spirit
  • Studies and obeys God’s Word
People
  • Loves the church: Serves and encourages their brothers and sisters
  • Makes disciples: Tells others about Jesus and models His ways
  • Cares for others: Finds ways to practically show compassion to those in need
The world
  • Understands the brevity of life in light of eternity
  • Not in love with the things or ways of the world
  • Works hard and is content living simply

If those things are the goal and what you see above is what success looks like, then how do we plan to get there? Many, many things go into answering that question, but put simply, here is a plan for achieving the goals above.

Plan

Our plan to help members of our community group develop right relationships with God, people, and the world is to develop their:

Head
  • Classes
  • Mentoring
  • Personal study
  • Group discussions
Heart
  • Build relationships
  • Prayer
  • Attend worship services
  • Devotions
  • Discipleship
  • Family meals
  • Group activities
Hands
  • Serve the local community
  • Make disciples
  • Be the church
  • Develop good work ethic

Both the goals and plans mentioned speak to all the things you hope to see in the lives of each of the people in your community group at some point.

Defining success, however you choose to do that, is crucial to keeping your group on track and being sure everyone understands where they’re headed.

Why the Great Commission is for Every Christian

You will often hear that The Great Commission is for every follower of Christ, but you don’t always see that logic worked out. The immediate context of Matthew 28 shows us that Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples before ascending into heaven:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20 ESV, emphasis added)

If Jesus is speaking directly to his eleven disciples, then how is the Great Commission for every believer?

In The Trellis and The Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne work it out in just a few sentences:

“Jesus’ instruction to ‘make disciples’ in Matthew 28:19 is not just a specific word to the apostles gathered around him at the time of his final resurrection appearance. The first disciples were instructed to ‘make disciples’ of others. And because these newly-made disciples were under the universal lordship of Christ, and were to obey everything that Jesus had taught, they fell under exactly the same obligation as the original twelve to get on with the job of announcing the lordship of Christ; as did their hearers, and so on ‘to the end of the age.’”

So yes, the immediate object of Jesus’ command is his original disciples. But since all followers of Jesus are told to obey everything he has commanded us, all believers are called to take the Great Commission personally. Which means you are called to take it personally.

So, are you?

Are you taking it personally?

Are you looking at your life and thinking through how you can evangelize and teach those around you? Are you rearranging your life to serve your brothers and sisters in the church? Are you coming together with those same people to serve your community in the name of Jesus?

Are you taking the Great Commission personally?

Because it’s not a call for a select few. It’s the primary call on your life and the life of every follower of Jesus.