Making disciples 2: trellis and vine ministry

Twelve months ago, as we were poised to set up the Hub as a base of operations for many ministries, I asked the question “What are we building?” This weekend our council are gathering for a small retreat to consider this important question for our future. I reflected on some of these matters in the following article, originally posted in jamesfourfifteen.com on 2 Jun 2014. Please read over this article again, and be praying for us as we take a ‘bigger picture’ look at where we are at and where we want to be heading?

What are we building?

Trellis and the VineAt Stromlo Christian Church we’ve taken a significant step. We’ve just leased a community centre that, God willing, will facilitate all sorts of ministries. As we launch into this new chapter, it’s important that we pause to keep things in perspective. We’ve just made a trellis decision, so as to help our vine growing. If you’re unfamiliar with this way of thinking, you can find it developed in a book by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne called The Trellis and the Vine. I’d like to take a few minutes to reflect on these ideas, as we consider the place of our new facility in the context of our ministry as a whole.

The two images of the trellis and the vine are used to describe two aspects of Christian ministry.

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 the vine grow, so Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It might not be much, but at very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group.  (p8)

The observation of the authors is that so often in our churches the trellis work takes over from the vine work. We get caught up in committees, structures, activities, fund raising, keeping the machinery ticking over, such that we lose site of the reason for the trellises – that is, to support the vine. Drawing on the great commission in Matthew 28, this book argues for vine-growing as disciple-making which should be the normal agenda and priority of every church and every Christian disciple (p13).

As churches move away from erecting and maintaining structures to growing disciple-making disciples, a radical mind-shift is required. These changes of outlook will include…

    • Building people rather than running programs
    • Training people rather than running events
    • Growing people rather than using them
    • Training new workers rather than filling gaps
    • Helping people make progress rather than solving problems
    • Developing teams rather than focusing all on paid ministry
    • Forging ministry partnerships rather than focusing on church polity
    • Establishing local training rather than relying only on training institutions
    • Looking at the long term picture rather than being constrained by immediate pressures
    • Engaging in ministry with people rather than being consumed by management
    • Prioritising gospel growth over specific church growth

Col and Tony ground their claim to the priority of the vine over the trellis in the Scriptures. They examine what God’s plan is for his world, what he has been doing, and what he is doing now after the finished work of Christ. God is saving souls through the Spirit-backed proclamation of the gospel and this has big implications. Our small ambitions need to be laid aside for the cause of Christ and his gospel. God is calling people to be born anew in Christ and to grow into maturity. And this growth happens by the power of God’s Spirit as he applies the word to people’s hearts. It’s evident that this has little to do with structures and organisations and much more to do with prayerful word ministry.

The Trellis and the Vine aims to show that every Christian is called to be a part of this vine work. Not everyone is gifted in the same way, but we are all called to the task of being and making disciples. The beauty of the body of Christ is we can support one another in this work. The common clergy-laity divide is broken down as leaders and congregations begin to work off the same game plan. Modelling and teaching from pastors, teachers, group leaders and others is focused on God’s agenda of proclaiming Christ and calling people to follow him. We read, discuss, and prayerfully apply the Scriptures together at church, in groups, one-on-one, in formal and informal contexts, with the same aim of growing into maturity as followers of Jesus.

Following the lead and language of the Book of Acts, the authors describe training as more concerned with gospel growth than particular church growth. This happens in the lives of people, not structures. It means we should be generous and willing to send off many whom we train for the sake of God’s church elsewhere. It requires us to see people as people, and not just cogs in the wheel for our own projects. As more and more people are trained in godliness and a good understanding of the truth, then we will find churches as they should be – growing in numbers and maturity, with people serving one another, encouraging and setting an example to each other.

For churches to adopt this radical mindset, it requires pastors and leaders to grasp the essential importance of training. It’s not sufficient to be the preacher, clergyman, CEO, or business manager. Leaders need to encourage their churches to become centres of training where disciple-making disciples are nurtured, equipped, and encouraged. In this way the opportunities for outreach, teaching, modelling, service and care are shared among the body of the church. Churches can grow in health as well as numbers and more and more people are mobilised. We would do well to conduct an honest audit of our congregational programs, structures and and activities and see how we measure up against this picture.

Training needs to be considered as part of the DNA of a healthy church. Not simply skills development, but the making of disciple-making disciples in response to the commission of Jesus. As churches grow it is easy to be consumed by organisation, structure, vision setting, strategic planning, and the like. We can lose sight of the people. We must remember that God is seeking people to be with him for eternity, not clever programs!

As we consider all that we are doing, and as we make plans for the future, let’s keep asking: ‘Are we occupied with a gospel work that will make a difference for eternity? Are people genuinely seeking to follow Jesus? Are we making disciples of one another, or are we sitting back assuming it will just happen automatically somehow?’

At Stromlo there is more to be done in erecting and clarifying our trellises, but the main game is to build the vine. Please pray that God will help us to utilise our trellises well, but ultimately that he will build people into his vine as we love one another and love our neighbour. We have been given a ministry of reconciliation. We’ve been entrusted with the message of reconciliation. Let’s pray that the message will ring forth from among us.

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