Reviewing this book is to abuse it. Not that the following is an abusive review. Tony Payne and Col Marshall have followed-up their earlier The Trellis and the Vine with its bigger and beefier brother The Vine Project: Shaping your ministry culture around disciple making. The Vine Project is crucially a ‘project’ and not a ‘book.’ It is itself a ‘trellis,’ a gospel-trellis, designed to support and enable gospel disciple making in our churches. It’s really a project that needs to be reflected upon and implemented, rather than a book to be merely read and reviewed. Now I need to not only confess that by only reading the book I’m breaking Tony and Col’s own recommendation, but I also have to confess to have never read The Trellis and the Vine in the first place, despite having had an accusing copy sitting on my practical ecclesiology shelf, along with a number of other unread practical ecclesiology texts.
The Vine Project is an implementation manual for developing a church ‘culture’ and the relevant church structures that promote the work of the gospel, from making initial contact with the lost, through to multiplying disciples. For those who don’t know their earlier work, The Trellis and the Vine was a bit of a runaway bestseller amongst broadly reformed and conservative evangelicals in North America. A book that put on paper ideas and practices honed at St. Matthias, UNSW’s Campus Bible Study, and other related ministries in Australia, found itself and its authors transplanted into a scene where many of these ideas and practices had few precursors. The theology of “Trellis and Vine” was familiar and persuasive, but their practice was either unfamiliar, or seemingly distant from the expectations of its reformed-evangelical readership. The Vine Project, to mangle the metaphors, puts meat on the bones of the earlier work.
Having made my confessions, reading The Vine Project was certainly no penance. Tony Payne’s prose is as lucid as usual. The book– sorry, the project’s shape is equally clear. The experience of workshopping “Trellis and Vine” has paid off and we’re the beneficiaries. We’re guided through five phases designed to help us, and our churches, develop a disciple-making culture. The bulk of the project’s theology is laid out in Phase One as we’re challenged to sharpen our convictions, personally as leaders and as teams working together. Phase Two attempts to underline how a church won’t change without its leaders being changed themselves. Harking back to older tools like Peter Bolt’s Mission Minded’s ‘Left Hand Game’, the Third Phase makes us ask hard questions about our churches with their various ministries and supporting structures. The implementation of disciple-making strategies is outlined in Phase Four, before the Fifth and final Phase helps us think through keeping the momentum of developing a disciple-making culture going. In terms of bulk, Phase One on sharpening one’s theological convictions and Phase Four on ‘innovate and implement’ dominate the book, but they don’t, fortunately, overshadow Phases Two and Three.
So what do I think of The Vine Project? I wish I’d been handed it as I left Bible College years ago. I wish I’d had it whenever I’ve entered a new ministry. I can easily see myself regularly using my copy and not merely reviewing it. Frankly, from my perspective, few of the ideas are new, or even newly expressed. However, as more of a ‘Carson’ than a ‘Maxwell’ man, I found the project’s gospel-trellis enormously helpful. The first Bible talk I heard from a Sydney Evangelical, all those years ago was humorously titled “The necessity of theological pragmatics”, and recent works from Matthias like The Vine Project and Craig Hamilton’s Wisdom in Leadership continue this vein of applied theology. In truth, the project’s strengths and weaknesses as a book will only really be begun to be seen as readers and, especially, users of it seek to work it out in practice over the next few years, especially in contexts somewhat distant from Sydney’s Evangelical scene.
I appreciate Col and Tony’s serious attempt to address the issue of church ethos, or as they call it ‘culture,’ and crucially our own personal ‘culture.’ The theological underpinnings are strong. Of the project’s phases, Phase Three on evaluation could possibly have been beefed-up even more. Folk who like stories and testimonies will find a fair number of them sprinkled throughout the book and in the accompanying online material (yep, there’s a host of online helps for the project). I also appreciate Tony and Col’s unembarrassed use of “The lost” in the full throated sense of those in the darkness of judgement.
Maybe I’m too much of a fanboy myself, so who might not like this book? I can imagine some of my pals of a more conservative big-R Reformed bent feeling that there is too much ‘wisdom’, too much pragmatics in The Vine Project’s Phase Four. In my more ‘hyper-calvinistic’ moments, I can be a bit too reductionistic in loving the old ‘hyper-lutheran’ quote about Martin and Philip drinking beers, and “the word did the rest.” Some big-R Reformed types will also be uneasy about what they might perceive as the ecclesiological fuzziness of the book. Tony and Col have sought to write it without too much regard for questions of church polity. Other really-big-R Reformed types might also feel a bit uncomfortable with the book’s seeming disregard for sacraments and catechesis. To be honest though, there is little, if anything, in The Vine Project that’s inconsistent with classical Reformed ecclesiologies.
I can also imagine some of my modern Anabaptist friends baulking at the theology of The Vine Project’s Phase One. I can see them lobbing over the criticism that Tony and Col are too reductionist in their vision of discipleship, too soteric, too individualistic. Where’s cruciformity? Where’s justice? Where’s a more fully-orbed missional thrust? The Vine Project is not a short book and addressing those questions as it unpacked and sharpened our thinking about discipleship would have expanded the book considerably. Tony and Col are writing to a reformed-evangelical constituency. While there is scope elsewhere to discuss what it means to be missional disciples, they have done a fine job.
One niggle I have with The Vine Project, and it is only a mild niggle, is that I’d wish that Tony and Col would make more extensive use of sources from outside their own stable. A publisher advertising their own wares is totally fine and a practice that is as old as the printed book, but the fact that Matthias Media’s literature dominate the footnotes is a bit disconcerting.
On finishing my mere reading of the project, I did receive absolution. I found out that there was a case for a mere first reading of The Vine Project so long as there would be a second, and Tony and Col didn’t mind that I hadn’t read “Trellis and Vine,” reading The Vine Project would more than do.