It’s very clear to me that Robert E. Coleman has a different definition of evangelism than many other Christians today. To him, it’s not just getting someone to pray a sinner’s prayer. It’s not just about persuading someone to give their life to Jesus. And it’s certainly not just about persuading people to start coming to church. No – it’s about making disciples. As such, the evangelist’s job isn’t finished when someone decides they want to become a Christian. No – the evangelist needs to walk with the new Christian to get them established as a disciple. And this isn’t about signing up for a multitude of programs – it’s all about relationship.
Who is Robert E. Coleman? He was born in 1928, so he’s getting on a bit now! He has taught at Asbury Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton College, and since 2001 he has been Distinguished Senior Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
In 1963 he published a book that has since become a classic in the field of evangelism and discipleship studies: The Master Plan of Evangelism (over 3.5 million copies in print). The book is not long (my old paperback edition has 126 pages), and it sets out to answer one simple question: What was the evangelism strategy of Jesus Christ?
In answer to this question Coleman identifies eight principles from the life and practice of Jesus. They aren’t sequential (‘first 1, then 2’), but each constitutes one essential element of the way Jesus did his work. Here they are:
- Selection. Jesus chose a small group of average people (Coleman, writing in 1963, uses the word ‘men’, and it is true that all of the twelve were men, but it’s clear that Jesus also had followers who were women, and he certainly has them today!) – people who were honest and humble and teachable. Jesus kept the group small so that he could work effectively with these people; his objective was to mould them, and it is certainly true that the potential for effective training and transformation in a smaller group is much greater. In choosing this method, he was not ignoring the masses: rather, he was expanding his ministry, as each of these men and women would be able to go out and reach many others with the gospel.
- Association. This is how Jesus impacted the lives of these early disciples: by being with them, and by letting them follow him. Association preceded explanation; good teaching could take place in the context of association. Because the group was small Jesus was able to give personal attention to each of them. In imitating his method, we will spend as much time as possible with new Christians in order to model the life of discipleship, teach them the things disciples need to know, and answer their questions.
- Consecration. Jesus, Coleman says, ‘values loyalty before intelligence’. His disciples would learn the truth in proportion to their willingness to deny themselves, dedicate themselves to the Kingdom of God, and obey Jesus’ teaching. Mere ‘church attendance’ is completely inadequate, and so is mere head knowledge; a commitment to obedience to Jesus is essential.
- Impartation. Jesus ‘gave himself away’ to his disciples – he gave them his peace, his joy, the keys of the kingdom, his glory, even his life. St. Paul had the same attitude when he wrote to the new Christians in Thessalonica ‘Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well‘ (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Jesus poured himself into the lives of these people, and the result was their transformation. In the same way, we’re called to share ourselves with others in a practical demonstration of the love of God.
- Demonstration. Jesus demonstrated for his disciples how to live the life of faith and commitment: How to pray, how to use Scripture, how to reach other people with the gospel message (and, we might add, how to live simply, how to bear witness to unpopular truths, how to cross barriers and reach marginalized people, etc.). His method was to conceal that he had a method, because his method was himself. Jesus never required his disciples to do anything that he had not demonstrated to them in his own life.
- Delegation. In the early days the disciples did little more than follow Jesus and watch him, but as time went on, Jesus began to give them more to do. He included them in his own work and then began sending them out on preaching and healing missions. They were to put into practice the methods they had learned from him. Evangelism is not an optional extra but an essential and integral part of discipleship, and we should be giving evangelistic assignments to new disciples today and expecting them to be carried out.
- Supervision. Jesus’ disciples were required to report back to him on their mission efforts, and he saw their inevitable failures as teaching opportunities – a sort of ‘on the job’ training. He was constantly interacting with them and was not afraid to rebuke them when they needed it. In the same way, we need to be involved in intentional, deliberate, one-on-on supervision of the people we are training to be like Jesus.
- Reproduction. Jesus wanted to produce disciples who would themselves produce more disciples. The Great Commission calls us to ‘…teach them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). ‘Converting’ people isn’t enough; unless those people are becoming obedient, reproducing disciples, something is seriously wrong with our method.
The last chapter of the book, ‘The Master Plan and Your Plan’, is an epilogue in which Coleman spells out how we could implement Jesus’ method. He suggests the following:
- Make people a priority
- Begin with a few disciples
- Stay together with them
- Give them time
- Meet as a group
- Expect something from them – give them tangible assignments to live out their commitment
- Keep them growing in grace and knowledge
- Help them carry their burdens, and then
- Let them carry on the work itself.
I’ve heard about this book for years, but I’ve only read it in the past couple of weeks. Like many great ideas, it is essentially simple. I do think, however, that some of the language and modes of expression need some updating for today’s readers. Coleman is fond of describing Jesus’ goal as ‘world conquest’; that doesn’t have quite the same ring in the era of Jihad that it did in 1963! And he has a habit of listing Bible references, rather than quoting and exploring them, which I find somewhat unhelpful. Also, I think the book could be hugely improved by a few examples of his own experience in putting these methods into practice.
Nonetheless, I have no doubt that Coleman is onto something. It’s not rocket science, of course – good ideas seldom are. For me, it’s a salutary warning not to let programs displace contact with people, and not to let secondary matters take the place of the main job we’ve been given. The Kingdom of God spreads as disciples learn to follow Jesus. There is no more important priority for us than making disciples. And in learning to put that priority into practice, we could do a lot worse than giving serious thought to what Coleman has to say.
So I plan to do that. I’m hoping, over the next few weeks, to explore each of his chapters and to share my own thoughts about them. My purpose here is entirely selfish: it’s my own instruction. I’m not good at thinking inside my own head; I do a lot better when I write things out. Hopefully, my thoughts might be useful to others as well.. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in making disciples (and if you’re a Christian, I hope you are), I highly recommend that you track down this book and read it (it’s easily available as a Kindle download).