What ministry is about 2

The story so far: Col Marshall and I are just about to publish a book called The Trellis and the Vine. The final chapter contains ten propositions about church life and ministry that summarize the general argument of the book. I’m running a version of these ten propositions up the flagpole to see what the Sola Panel community makes of them.

Proposition 1 was: Our goal is to make disciples not church members.

Proposition 2 is about the inevitable drift of churches towards institutionalism.

2. Churches tend towards institutionalism as sparks fly upward.

Churches inevitably drift towards institutionalism and secularization. The focus shifts from the vine (the making of disciples through the prayerful ministry of the Word) to the trellis (the programmes and structures that support and enable that work). There is a gradual change of emphasis from seeing people grow as disciples towards organizing and maintaining activities and programmes. Pastors easily start to think about their congregation mostly in structural and corporate terms. They fret about getting people into groups, building numbers at various programmes, putting on events for people to come to, and so on. They stop thinking and praying about people and where each one is up to in gospel growth, and focus instead on driving a range of group activities attendance at which (we assume) will equal growth in discipleship. The congregation likewise comes to equate ‘involvement’ and ‘ministry’ with participation in the various structures and events of church life.

But going to groups and activities doesn’t generate growth in discipleship any more than going to hear the Sermon on the Mount made you a disciple of Jesus. A ‘trellis’ of appropriate size and quality is necessary for the growth of any ‘vine’. But managing, maintaining and improving the trellis easily takes over from vine work.

5 thoughts on “What ministry is about 2

  1. Thanks for this insight into the book – these tasters are definately whetting my appetite!

    I know that this incorrect focus is one I am guilty of doing so often. It is so easy to put our trust and place emphasis in our structures rather than the great and powerful God that does the work through them! I tend to end up focussed on my efforts and my results rather than those I am supposed to be serving!

    Thanks for the rebuke!


  2. Tony, grappling with this issue is so hard.

    Zac Veron’s book I am reviewing claims that

    The demands and challenges of modern day ministry mean that pastors need to continue to learn and be trained, not just in Bible exposition, ethics, theology and prayer, but also in leadership and strategic planning skills, financial and legal matters, property management, governance, and reporting requirements. [Leadership on the Front Foot p.16]

    Zac does not want theological colleges to try and teach all that latter stuff, but insists that pastors need to be committed to keep learning afterwards in these sort of areas (and not just theology and preaching etc.

    To Zac’s list, I would add that I have needed to gain at least basic knowledge or skill in the areas of industrial relations/human resources, property development (as well as maintenance), IT skills (incl. database operation), AV skills, time management, graphic design.

    Often some of this is delegated and/or done better by others. But many times it has honestly seemed like I have been the one of the spot who has had to do at least part of it!

  3. Tony, for all that, I love the vine and trellis imagery and have often used it. It’s an image which has some excellent explanatory power.

    But two problems.

    (i) In the image, only the vine is alive; the trellis, of course, is inanimate. In real church life, it is people that are being administered, organised, helped, cared for by the aid of the structures and meetings (or rather, by what occurs in and through them).

    And the people cry out for those things – not so much the structures, but what they provide (anything from the clean and working toilets and palatable coffee through to an easy and workable system to help get people into Bible study groups, or to ensure newcomers or fringe people don’t get ignored or missed.)

    I know you are not denying this, but people need the trellis (although maybe not always as fancy as they imagine)

    (ii) The NT itself envisages structures; structures which are administered by people, including leaders, at least in an oversight way.

    E.g. 1 Tim 5:3-16 speaks of the widows list, which enables welfare to be distributed to older widows whose extended families are not or cannot look after them. And it is Timothy – a church pastor and overseer of some sort – who is being instructed specifically on how to administer this trellis. In Acts 6:1-7, the apostles do not personally perform the sort of ministry to widows envisaged here. But they see it as their responsibility to ensure it occurs and to commission them. I presume there is some sort of periodic ongoing oversight likely here too.

    In Acts 4:34-5:11, the Apostles are directly and personally involved in the receipt and oversight of monies given for the sake of the needy. Likewise, Paul’s very personal involvement (along with representatives of various churches) in collecting monies for the Jerusalem poor is well-known and frequently mentioned through the NT.

    There were lecture halls to rent (Acts 19:9). Presumably there were preaching rosters to organise. There was the storage of books to arrange (2 Tim 4:13). And so on.

    If the analogy is to hold I think we have to classify a lot of this as trellis work. And yet its reality and even importance is often acknowledged in the NT, and often pastors and elders are involved directly in it, or in overseeing it.

    Does the use of the vine-trellis image adequately express this?

  4. Hi Sandy

    Thoughtful and perceptive comments.

    In the book, we certainly don’t argue that the ‘trellis’ is unnecessary or unimportant. Far from it. Without a good trellis the vine collapses in a heap.

    We also touch on the point that you and Zac make—namely that as a congregation grows in size and complexity the challenges of leadership and organization (‘trellis growth and maintenance’) also increase considerably.

    However, the point we are making (as summarized in the quote above) is this: there is a strong tendency for trellis work (as useful and necessary as it is) to take over from vine work. We can even start to think that if we have a really excellent trellis, the vine will grow of its own accord.

    We’re talking about understanding the relationship between trellis and vine, and getting the priorities and mindset right. It’s not the trellis vs. the vine!


  5. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for this post! It was timely and really helpful to me.  It’s the first time I’ve heard that illustration, and I really like it.


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