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10 years of changing church culture

10 years of changing church culture

They say publishing is like firing a shotgun out a window and hoping that a bird flies past.

I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but it’s certainly true that writing books is as delightfully and confoundingly unpredictable as life and Christian ministry is in general. We like to think that we know what we’re doing, and that we can strategize our way to success. And I suppose that is sometimes true.

But in my observation (and experience), the most startlingly successful ventures emerge in the least likely of places, and only appear clever after the fact.

The success of The Trellis and the Vine certainly fits into that category. When I finished the manuscript, just over ten years ago now, I was not only thoroughly sick of the sight of it, but was pretty sure the book would have a small and dismal future. The manuscript had been through multiple versions and revisions, most of them unpublishable. I wasn’t at all sure about the title. And who would read it, apart from a few devoted Briefing readers or MTS fanboys?

This was not just post-creative depression. I couldn’t see how a book so unremarkable in its central ideas and thesis would gain any traction.

But there was my mistake. Sometimes, the simple, clear, straightforward statement of the obvious—if it comes at the right moment and in the right form—can be exceedingly powerful (think emperor and new clothes).

For that is what T&V was and is: a pretty unremarkable re-statement of the essential nature of Christian ministry and the ways we get diverted from it.

It argued firstly that the commission Jesus gave his people was to “make disciples” of the nations—that is, to see those around them come to know Christ, and to grow to maturity in him, through the four Ps: the presentation of the gospel-centred word of God, in prayerful dependence on the Spirit, by the people of God (all of them in different ways), persistently over time.

Secondly, T&V contended that all the other things that we do as part of church life—the structures, plans, programs, meetings, groups, events, committees, facilities, and all the rest—are like a framework or trellis to facilitate the Spirit-dependent word and people work that really produces spiritual growth.

As it turned out, that metaphorical distinction—between ‘trellis’ and ‘vine’—highlighted a problem that churches everywhere were experiencing; namely, that it is easy to spend so much of our time and energy on maintaining and growing the ‘trellis’ that very little ‘vine’ work actually happens. The culture or DNA of church life ends up being driven by activities and programs and all their supporting apparatus rather than by working with people—particularly in teaching, equipping and mobilizing the members of the church to ‘make disciples’ (in the full meaning of that phrase).

This unremarkable but fresh explanation of the obvious led pastors all around the world to reply, “Well, yes, that’s what I’ve always believed Christian ministry was about. So how come our church life looks like this—and what can we do about it?” The conversations we’ve had with thousands of those pastors have been dominated by seeking to answer that question (and led to a sequel, The Vine Project).

Ten years on, I’m more convinced than ever that we need to keep digging deeper into each of the four Ps and asking how these means and channels of God’s grace can be more powerfully present in our churches:

  • In the Presentation of the Word: how could we be more ambitious for our people to grow in knowledge and spiritual wisdom through a profound understanding of the doctrines of the faith?
  • With Prayer: it’s no secret that many Western evangelical churches exhibit a chronic prayerlessness, both in our public meetings, and throughout the congregational life. Are we making any progress in this?
  • With People: if we believe that all disciples have a ministry of the word to others, what are we doing to teach, encourage, equip and mobilize our people for these variegated ministries?
  • In Persistence: all culture change requires dogged patience, thoughtful planning, constant innovation and honest review. Are we prepared to trust the means that God has given us, and dig in for the long haul?

As we do so, the good news is that God has a habit of blessing the unremarkable, the obvious, and the things that the world and our hearts tell us are least likely to succeed.

Tony Payne

Since founding Matthias Media in 1988, Tony Payne has written more than 30 books, ministry courses and Bible studies, including The Trellis and the Vine, The Course of Your Life and The Tony Payne Collection (an anthology of articles and essays). He now works as a ministry trainer and writer-in-residence at Campus Bible Study (UNSW). He is married to Ali, with five adult children and six grandchildren. The Payneful Truth is Tony’s weekly text and audio journal.