We currently have the joy and privilege of serving in the English ministry of a Chinese church. It’s given me a window into the world of the immigrant church and its unique mission opportunities and needs. We’re learning to be “missionaries” in our own backyard as we help each other navigate living between Kiwi culture, Asian church culture and gospel culture as we take up our cross and follow King Jesus.

Recently, a few of us at church finished reading through Tony Payne and Col Marshall’s classic book, “The Trellis and the Vine”. We had the modest goal of going through a book as part of monthly leadership sessions. I’m grateful for the ongoing conversations it’s sparked about what Christian ministry should and shouldn’t look like, where we should prioritise our care and attention, and how to focus on God’s people and their gifts, not the programs and tasks that “need doing”.

In an immigrant church, cultivating a “gospel growth” mindset to Christian service can be particularly difficult for several reasons:

  1. The hierarchical nature of Asian (and other non-Western) cultures mean that many church members feel the need to define who they are and their worth based on which committee or team they serve in. (Spoiler alert: our identity should first and foremost be in Christ, not our serving role). It also means a ready acceptance of a very organised and institutional form of ministry (trellis building) rather than the organic and chaotic work of personal, prayerful vine work. Sermons become lectures. Meetings become formulaic. People become cogs in a wheel.
  2. For many immigrant churches, Sundays are a mix of a spiritual, cultural and social haven. When combined with a cultural longing for thick relationships, the result is that to feel accepted in an immigrant church, members have additional pressure to spend much of their free time on church-related tasks and participating at church events. The focus easily becomes task-oriented rather than Word and Spirit-directed.
  3. The emphasis on numbers and pragmatic concerns can make administration particularly overbearing in an Asian church: when church members expect attendance and giving numbers to be published every week in the bulletin and regular reports, members end up spending more time on writing reports and reconciling accounts than reading the Bible together and praying for one another.

I’m thankful for the Wheat + Grain Coop (米麥工坊) for translating it into Chinese (both Simplified and Traditional scripts are now available). But be warned! It’s a dangerous book to read, because it strikes at the core of how many immigrant churches “traditionally” view ministry: a task-oriented, numbers and policy-oriented business. Yet if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, this book might help more immigrant churches return to Jesus’s basic call to “go and make disciples of all nations”.

Here’s some excerpts from the opening chapter to whet your appetite (in English and Chinese):

In my back garden, there are two trellises.

我很想說 它是我的杰作,但事實上它幷不是。這個架子不僅
固還設計精細, 外面的綠色噴漆更是讓人賞心悅目

The one attached to the back wall of the garage is a very fine piece of
latticework. I wish I could claim it as my own creation, but I cannot. It is
sturdy and dependable and neatly designed, and the federation-green paintwork has been kept fresh. It lacks only one thing: a vine.

我想支架上面應該是有過枝的,只是園丁實在是費了很多時間和精 力來這個支架,最終沒了時間來種種子,因此沒了藤蔓繞架的景 象。這個架子一定是有人付出了很多心血才建好的,它幾乎可以稱 得上是一個藝術品。可惜即使當確有藤蔓繞架,今日也只剩下光禿 禿的一副骨架了。

I imagine there once was a vine, unless the construction of the trellis was one of those handyman tasks that took so long that, in the end, no-one got around to planting something to grow on it. Someone certainly put a lot of time and care into building it. It’s almost a work of art. But if there was ever a vine that laced itself around this beautiful trellis, there is now no trace of it.

另外一個支架在我家圍墻邊上,長在茂盛的茉莉花叢中,顯毫不起 眼。施了幾次肥,澆上一些水後,茉莉花不斷冒出芽,繞著圍墻茁 壯成長。春天初到之時會開出潔白的花朵,甚是美麗。有時,我會修
剪一些枝子;有時,我會除掉一些雜草;有時,我也會噴灑些東防 止小蟲吞噬翠綠的枝葉。但茉莉花就這樣不斷地怒放著…

The other trellis leans up against the side fence and is barely visible beneath a flourishing jasmine vine. With some fertilizer and an occasional watering, the jasmine keeps thrusting out new shoots, winding its way across, up and over the fence, putting out its delicate white flowers as the warmth of spring approaches. Some pruning is needed every now and then, and some weeding around the base. I’ve also had to spray it once or twice to stop caterpillars from feasting on the juicy green leaves. But the jasmine just keeps growing…

當我坐在我的後院觀賞這兩個花架時,不一次地聯想到教會的組織 架構。大多數的教會都可被看爲是包括支架和花枝的混合體。任何基 督徒事工都是在聖靈的大能之下向萬邦傳講耶穌基督的福音、勸多人 悔改向主、幷在福音裏堅定且成長──就像是栽種、澆灌、肥和修 剪葡萄枝的工作。

…As I have sat on my back verandah and observed the two trellises, it has
occurred to me more than once that most churches are a mixture of trellis and vine. The basic work of any Christian ministry is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of God’s Spirit, and to see people converted, changed and grow to maturity in that gospel. That’s the work of planting, watering, fertilizing and tending the vine.

經供我們 閱讀、有一定的領導架構帶領教會的發展。有的教會、團契或者機 構都有一定的支架在支持著他們做的工作。事工成長的同時,我們 也應該注意架構的調整管理、財政、基礎設施、組織架構以及領導 體系,都會隨枝子的生長也逐漸變得越來越重要。從這個角度來

However, just as some sort of framework is needed to help a vine grow, so
Christian ministries also need some structure and support. It may not be much, but at the very least we need somewhere to meet, some Bibles to read from, and some basic structures of leadership within our group. All Christian churches, fellowships or ministries have some kind of trellis that gives shape and support to the work. As the ministry grows, the trellis also needs attention. Management, finances, infrastructure, organization, governance—these all become more important and more complex as the vine grows. In this sense, good trellis workers are invaluable, and all growing ministries need them. What’s the state of the trellis and the vine at your church?

同時,支架工作通常都比修護枝子的工作更容易吸引人的眼光它顯 而易見,也比較按部就班。通常都是一些看得見的工作──一個會議、 一項活動、一個策劃、一個預算、一基建工程,都是一些讓自己有 成就感的事情。我們甚至想把個架子造得高至上天,期望藉此宣揚

[Trellis work] often looks more impressive than vine work. It’s more visible and structural. We can point to something tangible—a committee, an event, a program, a budget, an infrastructure—and say that we have achieved something. We can build our trellis till it reaches to the heavens, in the hope of making a name for ourselves, but there may still be very little growth in the vine.

支架工作在很多教會中都受到注,主要是因爲長期以來基督徒對事 工所擁有的一種制度化的認識。教會、基督徒團體、甚至整個教派, 都很有可能把有的注意力都關注在如何保持他們的結構體系上。我 認的一個教會每周都有23個不同的團體舉辦活動,幷且這23個團體 的活動都會列在每周的周報上。這些不同的活動或者團體最初都是出于好的理由而成立的,它們開始時都是想要成長教會生活的某個層 面。這當然會導 – 很多人每周在教堂裏參與很多不同的工作。但究竟有多少是成長枝子的工作呢?枝子到底有沒有成長呢?有多少人聽到了神的話語,幷且靠著神的聖靈日漸增加對神的認識、活出屬神的生 活呢?就我提到的這個教會而言,這樣的成長是寥寥無幾的。

The concentration on trellis work that is so common in many churches derives from an institutional view of Christian ministry. It is very possible for churches, Christian organizations and whole denominations to be given over totally to maintaining their institution. One church I know of has 23 different organizations and structures functioning weekly, all of which are listed on the weekly bulletin. All of these different activities started as good ideas for growth in church life at some point in the past, and they certainly result in lots of people being around the church building during the week doing lots of things. But how much actual vine work is taking place? How many people are hearing God’s word and by the power of his Spirit growing in knowledge and godliness? In this particular church, the answer is very few.

I commend the whole book for you and encourage you to read it with your fellow English and Chinese-speaking vine-workers!