In 2009 a small Australian publisher quietly released a book entitled The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything, co-authored by Sydney Anglicans Colin Marshall and Tony Payne.
The book became an unlikely international bestseller, especially when Mark Dever offered his unsolicited endorsement that “This is the best book I’ve read on the nature of church ministry,” and began reading excerpts of the book aloud at conferences.
If you haven’t read it, you don’t need to. It’s been superseded by their new book, The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture around Disciple-Making. I’ve read it, found it compelling and convincing, and would recommend it to anyone in ministry.
The book replicates the vision from the earlier book, but this time with more nuance. Even more importantly, it carefully and thoroughly seeks to help ministries actually implement the vision. It’s for those who are convinced of this biblical vision but don’t know how to put it into practice.
(If you get the book, make sure you connect with them here, where you can interact, watch videos, download manuals, and get further support and training.)
I’ve reproduced below, with permission, their summary answers to the five convictions they unpack.
1. Why make disciples?
The reason we want to make more and more disciples of Jesus Christ is because God’s goal for the whole world and the whole of human history is to glorify his beloved Son in the midst of the people he has rescued and transformed.
God is now putting this plan into effect, by rescuing people out of “this present darkness” into the kingdom of his Son by his death and resurrection—people who are being transformed to be like Jesus, and who now have a sure and certain place around Christ’s throne in a new creation where evil and death are no more.
This is the zoomed-out picture that explains why making more disciples is so important and so urgent a task.
We could represent it like this:
2. What is a disciple?
A disciple is a forgiven sinner who is learning Christ in repentance and faith.
In the Gospels a “learner” (or “disciple”) of Christ is someone who has recognized the dark and lost state they were living in under God’s judgement, and who has turned to Christ in repentance and faith as Master, Savior, and Teacher to commit themselves totally to obeying him, to learning to keep all his commandments, and to living out that repentance and faith daily for the rest of their lives. This kind of “transformational learning” is really another way of describing the totality of the Christian life.
This same framework of thinking carries into the rest of the New Testament, where “learning Christ” means hearing the word of the gospel (of Christ’s saving rule), responding to that word in faith, and thereby passing from death to life in Christ—with a resulting urgency to kill off the sinful worldly behavior that remains from their former life, and to put on instead the new clothes of Christ.
To become a “Christ-learner,” then, is both a decisive and gigantic step of repentance in accepting the salvation that God has won for us through Christ (symbolized by baptism), and an ongoing daily commitment to living out the implications and consequences of this massive salvation that God has won for us (symbolized by the yoke).
We could add one small detail to our diagram to represent this—namely an ‘L’ (learner) sign above the person who has been transferred out of darkness and into the kingdom of the Son, and who now continues that transformational learning in every sphere of life, especially in the “transformational learning community” that we call “church.”
3. How are disciples made?
How does this rescue and redemption happen? The making of disciples is God’s work, achieved as his word and Spirit work through the activity of Christian disciples and in the hearts of those they speak to. We summarize that activity as the persevering proclamation of the word of God by the people of God in prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God, otherwise known as the four Ps:
- Proclamation of the word in multiple ways
- Prayerful dependence on the Spirit
- People are God’s fellow workers
- Perseverance, step by step
The goal of every form of Christian ministry could therefore be summarized simply as seeking to help each person, wherever they happen to be, to take “one step to the right” through these four Ps—that is, to hear the gospel and be transferred out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom, and then to press forward toward maturity in Christ in every aspect of life, by the constant, persevering, prayerful proclamation of God’s word by people in multiple ways.
Our diagram would now look like this:
To think more clearly about the different “places” people occupy on this spectrum of moving to the right, we could usefully identify four broad stages that people pass through on their road ‘to the right’:
- Some people are very “far away” from Christ and his kingdom; they may not have ever met or spoken with a Christian person. Very often the first thing they need in order to take a step to the right is to meet and engage with a Christian.
- Others have met and engaged with Christians or Christianity in some way. The next step for them is to hear the gospel; that is, to be evangelized.
- For those who have responded to the gospel in faith and repentance, their next step is to be established as a Christian, to send down roots, and to begin to grow in godliness and Christlikeness (a “walk” that will continue for the rest of their lives).
- As Christians are established, and grow in love and knowledge, they will become increasingly concerned not only to step to the right themselves, but to help others do so in whatever way they can. They will benefit from being equipped to do so through teaching, encouragement, coaching and prayer.
We like to use these four Es as handy signposts for different stages of the journey: Engage, Evangelize, Establish and Equip.
We could add them to our diagram like this:
4. Who makes disciples?
In this conviction, we dig deeper into the idea that it is the joy and privilege of all God’s people to be involved in the four Ps. The Bible teaches that God by his Spirit opens the mouths of all disciples to speak the one word of Christ, in a richly varied way. Speaking the word of God to others for their salvation and encouragement is an expected and necessary component of the normal Christian life. And correspondingly, a healthy church culture is one in which a wide variety of word ministries are exercised by a constantly growing proportion of the membership.
Expository preaching is vitally connected to this kind of “every member word ministry.” An expository pulpit is the foundational word ministry that feeds and regulates and equips and builds an “expository church,” in which the word of the Bible is being ministered at multiple levels in a rich variety of ways by the congregation.
In other words, we could answer the question “Who makes disciples?” as follows: By their preaching, training and example, pastors equip every Christian to be a Christ-learner who helps others to learn Christ.
Or to use our language of “moving to the right,” we could change the summary statement at the bottom of our diagram to reflect this integrated picture of the expository church:
5. Where are disciples made?
Making and growing “Christ-learners” is not just something that happens with new Christians, or in small groups, or in one-to-one counseling. It is the basic activity that should be at the center of everything we do as a church—that is, as a transformational learning community—including and especially our Sunday gatherings. One way of describing Sunday church is as a “theatre for disciple-making,” in which we seek to help everyone present take a “step to the right” through the prayerful proclamation and speaking of the word of God.
The missional or evangelistic side of making Christ-learners is not something that only happens overseas in traditional “mission work.” The where of making more learners of Christ is all around us—in our families and streets and communities, in every corner of this present darkness in which people are so desperately in need of the saving gospel of Christ.
Where, then, does learning Christ take place? It happens in every facet and activity of the transformative learning communities we call churches; and through our churches, it also happens in every corner of this present darkness.