A Review of “The Vine Project” by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne

vine-projectEvery pastor and ministry leader desires church growth, and so books on how to attain growth are ubiquitous. Most of these books claim to have unlocked some secret, or assert the keys to revolutionize ministries. They make a case for “epic” church, and dynamic leadership. Marshall and Payne do not offer reader such elements. In fact, in many ways their book is exceedingly simple. It is their simplified strategic plan which makes The Vine Project such a compelling book.

The Vine Project is a sequel, of sorts. It follows on the heels of the author’s previous book, The Trellis and the Vine, which outlined a simple and Biblical philosophy of ministry. The Vine Project is a how-to manual of sorts, which takes the principles delineated in the previous volume and seeks to help readers actively apply them in their varied church contexts. It’s a leadership/church growth volume, but it is uniquely different from many of those other works. In their own words:

The Vine Project is not just a book that you read, like all those other ministry books that you buy at conferences and read and feel mildly enthused by for a time, but which ultimately go to their home on the shelf with all the others. It’s a project. It outlines a process to work through and talk over. It’s a book that should lead to a plan and to actions taking place over time. This is why it’s a book that is likely to take you several years to finish – not, we hasten to add, because the content is vastly long or complex, but because the process it guides you through is not a quick fix. (18)

The authors recommend taking your leadership team through this book slowly, methodically, and working on each section comprehensively to build a strategic plan for your unique place.

The book’s five “phases” seek to help readers do the hard work of analysis, evaluation, strategic planning, implementation, and maintenance. It is a readily accessible work, designed more as a workbook than a simple manual. It invites engagement, reflection, and personal evaluation of self, leadership, ministry, and church life as a whole. It is, in many senses, a comprehensive guide. Guide is the key word too. The “finished product,” so to speak, is not another one-size-fits-all model. There are no “Saddleback Sams” in this book. The work serves to lead readers to the fulfilment of their own personality, rooted in the Bible’s universal framework.

Phase one addresses shaping convictions and in many ways will recap some of the key elements of the author’s previous work. It establishes the why, what, how, who, and where of discipelship. Only with these core convictions in place can the rest of the book prove fruitful. The authors are deeply theological even as they are practically oriented in their goal. There is no false dichotomy in this book: theology and practice must go together. Phase 2 turns to self-analysis and asks each reader to evaluate themselves. We cannot take people where we are not going and we must address the plank in our own eyes first. Phase 3 zeroes in on honest evaluation of our church culture and ministry habits. They authors provide numerous key evaluative exercises to help us understand where we are and where we need to go. Readers will evaluate the membership, the ministries (especially their goals and effectiveness), Sunday gatherings, newcomers, numbers, and potential roadblocks for growth. The need to be patient and thorough in these exercises is evident as readers attempt to look honestly and comprehensively at their churches. Phase 4, then finally, turns to innovation and implementation of change. The authors highlight four “focus areas” from which to strategize for change. Finally Phase 5 seeks to help readers maintain the right trajectory moving forward.

The book’s goal is to help churches dramatically alter their culture of discipleship. The author’s keep this goal simple by phrasing that goal as “moving people to the right.” The book’s simple structure and language lend themselves tremendously to accessibility. Nothing is more frustrating as a pastor than having to “learn” a whole new leadership, ministry language with every new book. Marshall and Payne are interested in helping churches repeat this model, not brand an idea (though they certainly do have some branding with the trellis and vine model). Pastors and ministry leaders will find this to be one of the best books on ministry and church growth.

The elders at CBC have just begun to work our way through this book and already it is reaping fruit. I am excited to see how it helps to shape our overall philosophy of discipleship and our activity in 2017. I highly recommend this book to all ministry leaders. The Vine Project is a unique and highly effective tool for evaluation and change in the local church.

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