I'll say it first....this is one of the best Christian books I've read in a while (and I've read many good ones).
Using the metaphor of a vine (discipling and building each other up in Christ) and a trellis (the structures such as administration, programs and rosters which enable discipleship to happen), the book seeks to demonstrate how often in churches, the trellis trumps the vine. We pour our energies into events without often evaluating whether people are growing in their faith. The Trellis and the Vine is not anti-events and programs. It just seeks to take an honest look at what the role of the church is and whether the events the church runs are helpful in this mission. If the mission of the church is to take the gospel to the world and disciple and build up those who are believers, then a really hard look needs to be taken at whether some church activities are a help or a hindrance (or a distraction).
Here are two stories which really sum up what the book is all about:
Take Sarah, for example, an elite sportswoman converted as an adult through sports ministry. Sarah was well-followed up and established in her faith, and her church provided a strong and edifying environment. What's more, Sarah had a passion for Christ and for evangelism, and had a large network of non-Christian friends, teammates and acquaintances with whom to share the gospel. However, instead of training and encouraging Sarah to pursue this evangelistic ministry, the church strongly urged her to become a member of the church management committee, because there was a gap and a need, and Sarah was enthusiastic and willing to help. The church was gap-filling, not building ministry around the gifts and opportunities of people. (pages 20-21)
A more positive example was Dave, a young man who suffered from schizophrenia. Dave was a very intelligent and able person who loved the Lord, but his illness meant that nearly every common avenue for ministry was closed to him. He didn't have the mental stability or strength to lead Bible studies or follow up new Christians or contribute to other church events and programs. However, in his lucid and rational periods, Dave had enormous potential for evangelism and ministry among his many friends and contacts who also suffered from mental or emotional disorders. His pastor trained and encouraged Dave in this ministry, and had other Christian friends support him, back him up, and help him with follow-up. It was a marvellous instance of seeing the ministry potential of a unique person, and helping and equipping him to make disciples. (page 21)
'Training' is a word that dominates the book. At first, this made me suspicious that it was going to be raving about new training programs and guilt-tripping people into signing up for them. I'm kind of a bit over people wanting to train and push me into ministries that I lack both the ability and the confidence for. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is not what the authors meant by 'training'. Training involves much more than teaching a course on how to lead a Bible study (although it could involve that). Training involves two or more people discipling one another in Christian character (in the power of the Holy Spirit, of course). It involves reading the Scriptures together, praying together, challenging each other in our daily walk and the life decisions we make. It doesn't matter how competent someone is in doing something out the front during church if they aren't concerned with their spiritual growth. Therefore, the book very much promotes one-to-one discipleship.
One of the most radical areas the book covers is seeing the pastor as a trainer. Many pastors are already burnt-out with overflowing diaries and more people to meet with that is humanly possible. In other words...the pastor is expected to do everything. What The Trellis and the Vine suggests is for the pastor to take a step back and choose a small group of people to meet with (either one-to-one or in a small group), and for the pastor to train those people to train others in how to meet with and disciple another Christian. Often in churches, the pastor finds himself meeting with those who appear to be the most needy (non-Christians, new Christians, those in a crisis etc). Instead, they should choose people who are mature, godly Christians who can then meet with new Christians or those who are struggling, creating a flow-on effect. It is very much about working with the people you have at your disposal and getting them to use their gifts accordingly, rather than squashing them into ministries which aren't a good fit for them. The result will, God-willing, be church members starting their own ministries which looks like a wild vine, weaving everywhere, unable to be kept track of. Scary, but exciting.
While reading this book, I was a bit worried that they were making one-to-one discipleship and training a new kind of measuring stick and that Christians who weren't involved would be made to feel guilty and useless. But to the authors' credit, they realise that this could be a trap and see to point back to the gospel of grace rather than any particular ministry model. There are quite a few plugs to Matthias Media products and they do heavily promote the Outreach - Follow-Up - Growth - Training model a bit too much. But on the whole, this is a brilliant book which calls the church back to its core mission. It is very readable and honest. It makes no promises of 'success', but reminds us that only God can provide the growth. There is a very helpful section at the back for pastors who wish to try some of things in the book, but have further questions.
If you're a pastor...read this book!
If you're an elder or in Christian leadership of any kind...read this book!
It is available from the Matthias Media Australian store here.
There is also a US store here.