As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently read Robert E. Coleman’s classic book ‘The Master Plan of Evangelism’ (first published in 1963). In it he identifies disciple-making through relationship as Jesus’ simple plan to change the world. As such, it might have been better titled ‘The Master Plan of Discipleship’; in fact, Coleman did write a second book by that name some years later, which I confess I have not read!
I think the principles are sound, even to this day. But some of the language is dated (for example, Coleman is rather fond of saying that Jesus’ goal was ‘world conquest’, which means something different in these days of global terrorism than it did in 1963 when Billy Graham was still leading ‘evangelistic crusades’). He was (and is) a fairly staunch evangelical and used the language that evangelicals customarily used in 1963; some of it may be a barrier to a wider readership appreciating his work in 2016. Also, there is a curious lack of detailed practical illustration in the book; the author is skilled at articulating the principles, but not so god at giving an account of how he has put the principles into practice in his own ministry.
What I propose to do in these blog posts is to use the same chapter outlines as Coleman does, reword his original somewhat, sometimes offer some responses to what he says, and try to give some thought to the issue of how we might work these things out in a practical way in 2016 (not the same world Coleman was writing in, and definitely not the same as first-century Galilee and Judea!).
I will not feel obligated to touch on every paragraph of each chapter; some of them are not relevant in 2016 as they were in 1963, some are definitely dated, and some will not have the same significance to a wider audience as they did for the evangelical readership Coleman was originally addressing. I will however cover the gist of his argument in each chapter, using my own words, interspersing my own ideas and interpretations. Anyone who wants to see how my posts are related to Coleman’s original is strongly encouraged to read the book!
In quoting Coleman’s actual words there are a couple of changes I will make. Firstly, in 1963 he used the words ‘he’ and ‘men’ to mean ‘he or she’ and ‘people’; I will usually (but not always) replace them with a more modern idiom. Secondly, in 1963 it was far more common than it is today to capitalize nouns and pronouns referring to God and Jesus (eg. ‘Nevertheless, when His plan is reflected on…’). I will not reproduce this in my quotes from Coleman; personally I find it distracting, and I suspect others do as well.
Preface: The Master and His Plan
Robert Coleman sees the Great Commission of Jesus as central to the evangelistic work of the church, and although in 1963 he could just allude to it and assume everyone would be familiar with it, maybe in 2016 we need to lay it out right at the start to make sure that everyone is on the same page:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).
Coleman, writing in 1963 for an evangelical audience, does not bother to engage with the critical scholarship that dismisses this as a later addition of Matthew’s own invention. My own personal view (and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this) is that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. It is consistent with, though not identical to, the commission statements found in the other gospels (Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:47-48 cf. Acts 1:8, John 20:21) – all of which agree that at the end of his ministry Jesus gave his disciples some form of commission to take his message out to the world and to invite people to repent and believe in him. That the early church continued to use the discipleship language of Jesus for some time is demonstrated by Luke’s witness in Acts 11:26 that it wasn’t until the gospel reached Antioch that the word ‘disciple’ began to be replaced by the new word ‘Christian’.
So this Commission has been given to us, to take the message of Jesus out and to invite people to become his disciples. Merely because we’re busy doing stuff doesn’t necessarily mean we’re accomplishing the work we’ve been given. We might even become very skilled at what we do, but if we’re not doing the right work, there isn’t much point to it. As Coleman says, ‘the question must always be asked: Is it worth doing? And does it get the job done?’
So, regarding our evangelistic work, we need to ask if our work is actually fulfilling the Great Commission. Are we seeing an ever-expanding company of dedicated men and women reaching the world with the Gospel message as a result of our ministry? Evangelistic programs are all very well, but are they helping us to accomplish our objective?
What we need is a well thought out strategy to help us move daily closer to our long range goal. If we’re going to find joy and fulfilment in our work, we need to know how any particular course of action will fit into the overall plan of God. And this is especially true of any particular plan or method we employ to help us spread the Gospel. We must be able to see how it fits in with the goal of making disciples who will seek first the Kingdom of God by practicing the teaching of Jesus and making new disciples in their turn. Otherwise we’ll just be engaging in busywork.
Coleman’s aim in writing the original ‘Master Plan of Evangelism’ was, as he put it, an effort
‘to see controlling principles governing the movements of the Master in the hope that our own labours might be conformed to a similar pattern. As such, the book does not seek to interpret specific methods of Jesus in personal or mass evangelism. Rather, this is a study in the principles underlying his ministry – principles which determined his methods. One might call it a study in his strategy of evangelism around which his life was oriented while he walked on the earth’.
Our study of the plan of Jesus is based on the New Testament, and particularly the gospels, which are either eyewitness accounts of the story of Jesus, or are based on such accounts. John tells us that he wrote primarily in order to show us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that by believing we may have life in his name (John 21:31). However, this revelation of the new life in Christ also includes the way he lived and taught others to live. The witnesses who wrote these things down not only saw the truth; they were also changed by it. Because of this, they inevitably bring out the particular aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus that struck them the most and influenced them to leave everything and follow him. Not everything is reported, of course; the writers paint a portrait of the whole by describing a few characteristic encounters, teachings, miracles and experiences, all within the framework of the overarching story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But of those things that have been recorded, we can be sure that they are intended to teach us how to follow the Master. And since part of that following includes evangelism (“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” [Mark 1:17]), the gospels are also our best available textbook for the work of evangelism.
The plan of Coleman’s study was to trace the steps or Christ as portrayed in the Gospels without undue recourse to secondary materials. He studied the life and work of Jesus to try to discover the reasons why he chose the methods he used for his mission. In doing this, Coleman tried to look at the big picture, from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry as a whole, ‘hoping thereby to see the larger meaning of his methods with (people)’ .
Jesus Had a Clear Objective. The days of his earthly life were an unfolding in time of the eternal plan of God. It was always before his mind. Coleman says, ‘He intended to save out of the world a people for himself and to build a church of the Spirit which would never perish. He had his sights set on the day his kingdom would come in glory and power. This world was his by creation, but he did not seek to make it his permanent abiding place. His mansions were in the sky. He was going to prepare a place for his people that had foundations eternal in the heavens’.
Nowadays we might word this a little differently. Writers such as N.T. Wright have alerted us to the fact that ‘dying and going to heaven’ doesn’t actually occupy the same amount of space in the New Testament as it does in popular spirituality. The New Testament writers are more interested in the coming of the Kingdom of God ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’, and in the resurrection of the body. The coming of the Kingdom of God on earth was the centre of Jesus’ teaching; the Church is meant to be an outpost of that Kingdom, a signpost even, demonstrating by its life what that Kingdom is all about, so that people are drawn to follow Jesus as their King.
Everyone is included in this invitation. Jesus’ love was universal; he was ‘the Saviour of the world’ (John 4:42). God wanted all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). So Jesus came and lived and died for everyone. His goal was to reach the whole world with the Gospel of the Kingdom: in terms of the big picture, we in North America are in fact ‘the ends of the earth’ that he talked about in Acts 1:8 (“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”).
Jesus’ whole life was ordered by this objective. Everything he did was significant because it contributed toward this ultimate goal. This is why it is so important to observe the way he chose how to spend his time, and to try to discern the basis on which he made those choices. He did not have in mind only the immediate future and the immediate geographic area of Galilee and Judea. He was calling together a team of followers that he would send out into the whole world to further the plan of God for its redemption. Jesus had confidence in that future plan precisely because he lived by it in the present.
It is tremendously revealing to study that plan. If we think carefully about it, we will be led to some far-reaching conclusions. But it might take us time to discover them; in fact, it might appear at first glance as if the Master has no master plan at all! This is in fact what Coleman calls ‘one of the marvels of his strategy. It is so unassuming and silent that it is unnoticed by the hurried churchman. But when the realization of his controlling method finally dawns on the open mind of the disciple (we) will be amazed at its simplicity and wonder how (we) could have ever failed to see it before. Nevertheless, when his plan is reflected upon, the basic philosophy is so different from that of the modern church that is implications are nothing less than revolutionary’ (italics mine).
We will proceed to lay out eight guiding principles of the Master’s plan. They are not necessarily sequential. Actually all of the steps are implied in the first one, and in some degree they all begin there. The outline is only intended to give structure to Jesus’ method and bring out the progressive logic of the plan. One thing we may notice is that as the ministry of Jesus progresses, the steps become more pronounced and the sequence more obvious.
The next post in this series will be based on Chapter One of The Master Plan of Evangelism. The chapter is entitled ‘Selection’, and the first subheading (restated in modern idiom) is ‘People were his method’!