Matt has been the pastor of his church in a small town in the US for almost two years. Over the last six months he has undertaken The Vine Project and has already seen some remarkable changes taking place. Colin Marshall (Co-author of The Vine Project), spoke with him.
Colin: Tell me how you got started with The Vine Project in your church.
Matt: So, I grabbed the book in August. I finished a first reading in probably four days. I set it down for a couple of days and then spent 10 or 11 days going through it a second time. I began outlining it, looking at the resources on the website and dividing it into different sections.
And just in God’s beautiful timing, a pastor from Texas visited our church at the end of August and we went to lunch after the service and he asked me, “So what are you reading”.
I said, “I tell you what, I am on fire with this book, have you heard of it, The Vine Project and he lit up and said, ‘I just finished reading it’.”
I said, “I am going to do my best to make sure we maintain a high view of the Word of God in our church but this book is really going to become the application of our mission. He said his goal for this year was doing the same with The Vine Project and so we’ve encouraged each other in this and it’s really been wonderful, Colin.
Colin: That’s a great blessing to me and to Tony to hear that. That’s marvellous. Can you tell us about your Vine Project team and what has been happening?
Matt: I have a team of about eight or nine, a mixed group of men and women. Around six months ago, we implemented The Vine Project as my revitalisation plan for the church.
And it has introduced so many new terms, goals, structures. I want to see everything change in the church, not for the sake of change but for the requisite that this church will be a church that glorifies God and reaches its community with the Gospel.
So in the beginning, I spent a good deal of time using a few other resources to assess the condition of the church. When I say assess, we are talking about a membership of 22 people and an attendance of about 40. There was no community outreach, no community impact or service and a Sunday only group.
So what our team has done is implemented The Vine Project with a focus on the Sunday morning, our flagship, as well as starting an equipping group on Wednesday evenings that is focusing on equipping in the spiritual disciplines. Each Wednesday night we have three different groups, our youth (kindergarten up to sixth grade), our junior high and high school group and then our adults.
Colin: Your Vine Project team is separate to that?
Matt: The Vine Project team is really a review team that helped implement our new Wednesday night approach for the equipping group. Again, there is a small group at the church, but we saw 18 new members join in January and that was all a direct result of Wednesday night.
Colin: Very good!
Matt: Absolutely, the church membership nearly doubled and that is something, although it is premature, it is still something we are celebrating because each of those people who joined are looking for a deeper connection to a church that has a spiritual emphasis, rather than an entertaining emphasis.
Colin: How did you connect with these new people?
Matt: They were direct connections from people that were on The Vine Project team. So we started to announce we were going to offer this Wednesday night equipping group and The Vine Project team members began to share with their friends, people they know in the community, that have expressed the desire to be part of, how do I say this, a church that disciples and invests in the spiritual growth of its people and that was one of the predominant phrases that we used to try and invite people.
Colin: So the team members mentioned this to neighbours, to other church goers, to anybody they thought that might be interested, and as a result of that, 18 new people have come?
Matt: Have joined the church.
Colin: A bigger group have come?
Matt: Probably 40 – 50.
Colin: So you have a formal membership and 18 have gone through that process. When did you start all this?
Matt: September (six months ago).
Colin: That must be pretty encouraging then.
Matt: It really is.
Colin: What’s the next step in where you are up to with the Vine Project? Are you going through the phases one by one?
Matt: We are. I see us transitioning from Phase 1 to 2. And what I mean by transition is some of the Vine Project members have been sharing with people in the church, their assessments of the church. So what is taking place is there is just a tremendous excitement for the material and so with this revitalisation of the church taking place, we have intentionally slowed things down to explain terminology and our mission. The membership just approved what you saw was our mission statement, ‘to love, lead and launch disciples of Jesus Christ’. And so we are educating people what that looks like.
Colin: The phrase on your website, ‘A community on mission’, is that something new as well?
Matt: Yes. That is brand new.
Colin: I like that.
Matt: So with our purpose statement and our mission statement, we are realising that the majority of people that call themselves Christian in this area believe that Christianity is church attendance and associating with Christ and that’s about it. We have mentioned discipleship and we have learned that this culture ascribes discipleship to church attendance, so we have intentionally slowed down. We have probably spent seven or eight months focusing on explaining the terminology, what the life of a disciple looks like, what that path looks like.
Colin: So you will do that on Wednesday nights and through Sunday?
Matt: So we have started on Sunday morning, on April 1 we are hoping to start using the term learning groups, because really as you have identified, this is a group that is discussing what they understand about the Bible or some biblical concept or idea and where they can really learn, sometimes for the first time, about the scriptures or about God.
It’s a challenge to us that we have identified maybe 30-35 terms, some in the book, some in the scriptures, related to discipleship that we need to explain to people. We don’t have a problem with that, it’s just a barrier because there is a style of ministry that says come and participate wherein we are presenting a biblical approach to following Jesus that as you know well, has a lot of descriptives and life-changing conditions to it.
Colin: What ones are you thinking of, what is an example of a term?
Matt: Denying self.
Colin: Yes, taking up our cross and being dead with Christ and raised with Christ, all that kind of language.
I noticed on your website you have a lot of activities on. You started with a membership of about 20 and the attendance was 40?
Matt: Our membership now is around 55 and attendance is around 140 to 160.
And that has really been since last summer. So this shift with The Vine Project has really helped with the understanding of revitalisation because people are realising that radical change does need to happen and we need to encourage and invite people to take that step, I think you would say, “a step to the right”. But really, it’s a step forward in a closeness to the scriptures, a closeness to God and closeness to their church and their community.
So the activities that have developed have all come from people that have said they have experienced this transformational work of Christ and they want to bear some type of responsibility to let this message out through serving our community and I would say this has happened on a most surprising level.
Colin: What are some examples of that? What are they saying that they want to be involved in?
Matt: So one couple grabbed a few of our young people in the church and the first Friday of the month they do this two-hour activity. They make invitations and they give it to kids in the community and invite them to either a home or to the church. They feed them and talk to them about who God is. A family in the church have a wonderful home with a big pool in the back. They opened up their house, their pool, put a movie going in the background and 26 kids showed up. The second meeting will be this coming Friday.
Colin: High schoolers?
Matt: High schoolers. And it’s great when the couple and the church says, “I didn’t know one of these kids before”.
Colin: So these would be kids that don’t know anything about Christ and the church?
Colin: That’s exciting isn’t it. That’s great news.
Matt: It really is.
Colin: At two or three levels. One, that the message is getting through to other couples in the church, that this is the normal Christian life to be reaching out to others. And that couple are not on your Vine Project team, so they are hearing about this through Wednesday night and then God is giving fruit with 26 kids turning up.
Wednesday night has become a key for learning this way of community and discipleship and so on. It sounds like Sunday has been affected as well already.
Colin: Tony and I set out these five phases. We talked about evaluating Sunday in Phase 3 and making plans for Sunday in Phase 4 but it sounds like Sunday is already being affected. You can’t control what God is doing.
Matt: Yes. So for example with the music, with this transition and revitalisation we were going through, God brought two key people to the church who were really gifted. They have stepped in and in some respects, have been able to take the music and see transformation happen with it, without being part of the Vine Project team, but knowing what we are trying to do as a church, they have taken that on for the worship ministry.
Colin: What are the next steps for the team and the church?
Matt: We will be engaged in explaining terms and laying out the understanding of our assessment of where the church has been and where the church, by God’s leading and his grace, should be heading. That is the focus for the next six months. We will implement a new constitution. Our Sunday morning Sunday school will shift to a focus of learning groups with trained leaders that allows more interaction and dialogue setting for learning to take place. Our Wednesday nights will continue to be for equipping.
Colin: Do you see potential things that could stall the process that you pray about or worry about?
Matt: Sin has an ability to do that. I don’t want to minimise that or say it is the obvious one.
Next – I just wrote this in my journal this morning – I see the danger of people focusing on growth and shifting their mind that we are a growth-oriented church and not a discipleship-oriented church.
Colin: One of the significant things about change, having some examples of fruit that has come from the changes, builds the momentum. Are the church members generally aware of the Vine Project team and that you guys are working through a process of change?
Colin: It is God’s work and God’s blessing so we are thanking him, but it is also a process that our leaders are going through. That gives them courage then doesn’t it?
Matt: Oh, tremendous.
Colin: That you’re not just changing things for the sake of changing but for the sake of the mission and God is using the changes. Even with all those new people that have come along, Vine Project team members have had a heart change in the way they are relating to people and inviting people. So it is a terrific process of change that you are seeing.
Matt: It really is.
Colin: It is really what we all long for all the time. It’s not just a management exercise, but a heart exercise.
Matt: Yes. I guess I would say I am personally thirsty for God’s ongoing transformational work in my life, so I find a tremendous amount of encouragement if I can be in surroundings with people who are thirsty for that transformation.
Colin: Thank you for talking with us, brother.
Matt: God bless you, brother.