This week’s episode comes at the end of my trip to the US, during which my buddy Marty Sweeney and I spent a couple of weeks talking with people about the ministry ideas of The Trellis and the Vine (hereafter T&V).
It’s been 14 years since that strangely influential little book was published, but people’s interest in discussing its implications seems undimmed. We ran workshops and seminars—some for pastors, some for congregations—in Ohio, Illinois, Iowa and Tennessee. It was tiring but fun. And on my final day in the US Marty and I sat down to look back over the previous ten days of ministry conversation and draw some inferences from it all.
Which aspects of the T&V approach to ministry still resonated most sharply with pastors and with Christians generally? What differences might exist between how US and Australian churches are struggling to do more ‘vinework’? And if I was going to change anything about the book, what would I add or subtract?
You can listen to the whole conversation (by clicking on the player above). Below is a quick summary of the key points in question and answer form.
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Lessons from a Trellis and Vine Road Trip
What aspects of the T&V philosophy did the congregation members we spoke with find most compelling?
They were excited by a vision of every Christian being a ‘vineworker’, because it was simultaneously stretching and liberating. It’s raises the bar, but also lowers the barrier to entry.
On one hand, it’s a stretching and challenging idea for many Christians to think of themselves as a ‘disciple-making disciple’—as someone who should seek to minister to everyone around them (Christian or non-Christian) through the word and prayer. It raises the bar in terms of priorities and expectations.
However, when we understand what ‘ministering to others through the word and prayer’ means, it lowers the barrier to entry. It doesn’t have to mean engaging in deep mentoring relationships, or preaching evangelistically on a soapbox in the local mall. It happens every time you take the trouble to speak to someone after church about the content of the sermon, or read the Bible at the dinner table with your family, or chat over the back fence with your neighbour and make some gospel-related comment about the affairs of the day. There are a thousand ways we can move the person next to us one step towards knowing and loving Christ, by the words we say and the prayers we offer (that those words would be effective).
This vision of what it means to be an ‘everyday vineworker’ changes almost everything about our involvement at church and the way we navigate our daily lives—from Bible study group discussions to casual chats in the car with our kids. In each circumstance, love for other people and a trust in the goodness and power of the word leads us to keep opening our mouths and speaking in whatever way we can, whether briefly or at length, whether with a Bible open or simply with Bible ideas on our lips. Every Christian should do it; any Christian can do it.
It’s an essential aspect of Christian maturity, because its heartbeat is love.
What challenges do US pastors have in thinking about equipping and mobilising congregation members for this kind of ‘vinework’?
This was one of the main issues that came up repeatedly and at length in our workshops. We noticed two things.
The first was that many pastors struggle to escape their prior assumptions about what it means to ‘equip’ or ‘train’ their people. From long habit, many think it involves either a deeper level of teaching (e.g. a book discussion group, an adult Sunday School that teaches theological topics), or training people for a particular practical task in church life (e.g. to be part the sound/tech team, or to be a welcomer).
What we mean in T&V by ‘equipping’—and building an ‘equipping’ or ‘training’ culture—is first of all the process of teaching and persuading Christians to a new conviction about themselves: that they are ‘vineworkers’ with the joy of ministering to others around them in whatever way they can through the word and prayer. And then providing them with ideas, skills and practice in sharing the word with other people in a range of ways, depending on their gifts and opportunities. And then mobilising them to practice that ministry in the various aspects of church and everyday life—as small group members or leaders; as members of the sound/tech team; as parents; as people who love to welcome others to church and speak with them; as everyday gospellers who chat with their friends about Christian things and invite them to take a step forward in learning about Christ.
The key point is that we’re equipping Christians to be loving, prayerful communicators of the word of Christ, in whatever way they can. This is the bedrock and essence of an ‘equipping’ or ‘training’ culture. And this is what many churches are still failing to devote appropriate time and resources towards.
The second big issue relates to evangelism. This is perhaps more of an American problem than an Australian one. Many (perhaps most) churches in Australia are only too aware of how non-Christian our culture is. We are a small island of salvation in a sea of lost people facing God’s judgement. We mightn’t always be good at it, but we are keen for evangelism and put effort and resources into it.
Strikingly, many of the US churches we spoke with do good work in engaging with the non-Christian community around them, but rarely take the next step of actually evangelizing people. Many of the pastors we spoke to had virtually no evangelistic strategy or approach for their church, apart from hoping that individual Christians would organically witness, or that nominal or barely churched people who came to church would be converted through regular attendance.
This led to some soul-searching conversations.
Specifically to TP: looking back at T&V, is there anything you would add or do differently?
I think maybe I would put the word ‘AND’ on the cover in bigger, bolder letters.
Depending on the assumptions and issues that you brought with you to the book, I think some readers almost read it as ‘The Trellis OR the Vine’—as if it was a choice between having trellises (programs, organization, strategy, structures) OR having a flourishing healthy vine.
For many readers, the really refreshing and helpful point of T&V was in diagnosing how a trellis-heavy or trellis-busy church could nevertheless be one in which the vine was withering. The structures and programs aren’t the life-giving elements that bring growth—it’s vinework that grows the vine, the work of all God’s people prayerfully and patiently speaking the word whenever and however they can.
In very programmatic and pragmatic churches this was a breath of fresh air. It named the thing that felt ‘off’ about the whole operation.
But this led quite a few people we’ve talked to over the past 14 years to think that trellises were almost a necessary evil; or that all that was needed to fix everything was to whack in a bit more people-focused vinework—to have more 121s, to run a few personal ministry focused courses in their programs, and so on.
However, unless we also radically reform our trellises—the worn out programs and events, the way staff are organized, and especially how we run our Sunday gatherings—then the cultural weight and inertia of our existing practices will quickly overwhelm and snuff out any new emphasis on ‘vinework’. (In many ways, this was what the follow-up book, The Vine Project, aimed to address—just how do you reform the whole culture of your church, the trellis and the vine, so as see gospel growth.)
Mind you, we still meet the opposite problem as well. People swing to the other side of things. They assume that they have the ‘vinework’ DNA all sorted out, and spend nearly all their time and energy on trellis reform, thinking that this will be the answer to everything. But they neglect the basics—the importance of building a thoroughly ‘vinework’ kind of culture, especially through equipping every Christian as a vineworker (in the way outline above).
Interestingly, I find this latter tendency cropping up more in Australian ministry circles (where the ‘vine’ ideas go back further and more familiar) than in my travels among US churches.
Perhaps we should have a ‘preface to the second edition’ entitled (in good American fashion), “It don’t matter which side of the horse you fall off of, you still end up on the ground”.
The ministry resources we ended up talking about most often during our workshops were The Course of Your Life and The Thing Is—a Bible study framework and short book (respectively) that help Christians think through and understand their role as everyday ‘vineworkers’.
There really isn’t much else I know of that addresses as clearly and directly the key issue of building an ‘equipping culture’—that is, the essential role of everyday Christians in ministering the word to one another and to the world. If you haven’t checked them out (or used them recently), they’re definitely worth a look.