The Vine Project: A review

Jesus told us to go and disciple all nations. That means that those of us who have been called and sent are to be disciplemakers who equip others to be disciplemakers as well. The question that I have been asking myself recently is, “Are the sending and training structures that we have established to help get people to the nations effective in equipping them to be disciplemakers?”  We train people to raise their support, learn and adjust to a new culture, learn to speak a new language, prepare for various security risks, educate their children, and get along with their teammates – but are they learning to become disciplemakers?

I read The Trellis and the Vine a number of years ago. This short book differentiated between the work of actually discipling people from the work of creating and maintaining the structures and programs that support this disciplemaking.  The former was called “vine work” and the latter “trellis work”.  The authors, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, made the sobering and accurate observation that often trellis work has taken over most of the church’s time and energy, so that very little actual disciplemaking is happening. The book called for a radical mindshift that would prioritize disciplemaking over programs and building organizations.

The Vine ProjectBut how does a leader of a church or an organization lead the way in making that mindshift?  How do we change an organizational culture so that disciplemaking truly is at the heart of everything we do?  Marshall’s and Payne’s sequel, The Vine Project: Shaping your ministry culture around disciple-making seeks to answer that question. As the website connected with the book says,

The Vine Project is more than just a book to be read. It’s a roadmap and a comprehensive set of resources for this sort of church-wide culture change.

That’s why (somewhat unusually) we’ve called this book a ‘project’. It’s not a set of detailed answers or prescriptions delivered from on high to solve your problems. It’s a set of processes, tools and guidelines for you to work through with a small team of like-minded fellow workers—starting from wherever you happen to be, with whatever strengths and weaknesses you happen to have.     Kindle Loc 133

These “processes, tools and guidelines” are a series of steps that one can take to align the structures of your church or organization with the goal of developing a disciplemaking culture.

The book walks you through 5 phases in the process of aligning your church or church plant to focus on the primary goal of disciplemaking.  Phase 1 is about sharpening your convictions about the following questions: Why make disciples? What is a disciple? How are disciples made? Who makes disciples? and and Where do we make disciples? In answer to that final question, we see that disciplemaking should not be relegated to just small groups or one-on-one meetings, but should happen in every ministry of the church, including the public worship services. In this section, we are introduced to the 4 Ps – Proclamation, People, Prayer, and Perseverance.

To put it in the briefest way possible, disciples are made by the persevering proclamation of the word of God by the people of God in prayerful dependence on the Spirit of God.    – Kindle loc. 1081.

I found this brief definition of how disciples are made to be most helpful, and particularly appreciated the emphasis on the centrality of the word of God in this process.

Furthermore, the process of disciplemaking is described as “moving people to the right”, referring to the following diagram.

Moving to the right

 

Phase 2 leads the reader to begin with themselves and their own lives and ministry.  Leaders must first reform their own personal culture so that they line up with these convictions before they can lead their church or organization to change. We must become people who are continually moving to the right ourselves and who are leading others in our personal sphere of influence in steps to the right.

Phase 3 is about leading a process of loving, honest evaluation of all our ministries and people. We are encouraged to identify where each person in our church is at in the process of learning Christ.  The book talks about 4 broad categories of Engage, Evangelize, Establish and Equip, but also adds some subcategories. How effective are each of our current programs in moving people to the right?

Phase 4 then moves on to talk about innovation and implementation. Four key areas are addressed:

  1. making the Sunday morning service a flagship for the whole disciplemaking culture
  2. designing the rest of the church ministries so that each becomes a pathway for moving people to the right.
  3. planning for growth
  4. communicating our new way of thinking about disciplemaking throughout the church

The culture we’re wanting to build is one in which all the saints see it as their privilege and joy to be involved in transformative learning together—so that all God’s People, each in their own way, Persevere in Proclaiming the word, in Prayerful dependence on the Spirit, to help others take a step to the right (the four Ps).

Kindle Loc 3241

Although much of this phase and the next were focused on the church context, I was particularly interested in the section on equipping believers, because it parallels to some extent my role in training missionaries.

Here are some of the basic kinds of competencies or skills that nearly every Christian should have in their kitbag:

  • how to speak the word of God to yourself— that is, how to read the Bible prayerfully as a regular part of life
  • how to speak about Christ with non-Christians, whether in sharing one’s testimony or in providing a simple explanation of the gospel
  • how to answer common questions that are raised about Christianity
  • how to read the Bible one-to-one with someone else (whether a Christian or a non-Christian friend
  • how to follow up a new or young Christian personally
  • how to encourage and minister to others on Sunday (the ‘ministry of the pew’)
  • how to minister to your spouse and children.

Kindle Loc 3972

Can I assume that all new missionaries will come to the mission with these competencies? I wish I could.  But I cannot assume that all missionary candidates will be sent by churches that have gone through the process of thinking deeply about how to equip their members for disciplemaking.  How do we ensure that new missionaries have learned these skills before they get to the field?

The last phase of the book (Phase 5) is about maintaining momentum. Here the authors address the obstacles and challenges that we will face in reforming the culture of our church or organization, and how we might address those obstacles and challenges.

The authors say the book is not just for churches, but for any organization that seeks to bring about a culture change in this area of disciplemaking.  While I did learn some general principles that apply to our context of training missionaries, I found that that the majority of the book, and particularly the second half, seemed to be primarily focused on churches, and could I even say those churches with a heavy dependence on what happens in the Sunday morning service. Nevertheless, the process of evaluating everything we do in terms of its contribution to discipling people is a helpful pattern to follow in any organization that seeks to “disciple the nations”.

So although the book did not specifically the question that I have been asking, I can recommend this book to those who are engaged in church planting in countries where such activity is not restricted. Church planters in contexts where public worship services are possible will find much of value in this book. Those who work in countries where small home groups are the primary means of fellowship and teaching will not find this book as helpful – but then they will likely not have to deal with the same inherited church culture.

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