Each summer, from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day, blue-collar vacationers converge on Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and make it one of America’s largest summer tourism destinations, second only to Orlando. It’s a slice of NASCAR and rural Americana, served on the plate of Deep South beach town. For many, just the name of the city immediately conjures up the feel of sand and sunburn, and with it the scent of second-hand liquor, SPF-50, and Old Spice-masqued sweat. It’s a lovely place to have your life changed.
In the midst such chaos, and that of other similarly gruff beach towns, Campus Outreach (and other college ministries like Cru and Navigators) is quietly building a new generation of in-the-trenches gospel advancers at its summer projects. At least that’s the goal.
Myrtle Beach makes memories—-often bad ones. But for a growing group it brings to mind life-changing moments, in all the right ways—-in conversation, or during sermonettes, or while sharing our faith on the beach or at the job site, or while studying the Bible with a friend. Or maybe even in reading a project-assigned book.
I was a team leader during the summer of 2002, and charged to read Robert Coleman’s modern-day classic The Master Plan of Evangelism in preparation for the talk on discipleship I was to give late in July. The main takeaways from this book on disciplemaking are in the air with Campus Outreach. Coleman’s core message about making disciples like Jesus was nothing new—-it was solidifying some already forming convictions. But the way he said things on page 38 of my red 30th Anniversary Edition (1993) made something click like never before. At least it was deeper, more beautiful, more catalytic than before.
Beginning at the end of the previous page, and moving into page 38, Coleman calls for fresh evangelistic action. The rate of gospel advance isn’t keeping up with world population. Even as early as 1963, he was lamenting the irony that in “an age when facilities for rapid communication of the gospel are available to the church as never before, there are actually more unevangelized people on the earth today than before the invention of the horseless carriage.” How much more so today.
There was the flavor of “it’s a dire situation” (from a certain vantage), but he warns against becoming “frantic in trying to reverse the trend overnight,” and adds, “Perhaps that has been our problem.”
Coleman’s challenge is that we not become distracted with reaching the masses—-all mile-wide and inch-deep type—-while neglecting to seriously disciple the few. Invest your life, at depth, in the few, and teach them to multiply their lives by doing the same. Don’t settle for chipping away at the masses personally, but train the few to multiply their lives, and in doing so reach the masses by discipling others to disciple others.
Says Coleman, it’s the very thing Jesus’s Great Commission is getting at. It’s the very thing the Savior himself did with his life, as he gave himself in depth to 12 disciples, not refusing to bless the masses, but not neglecting to invest in the few.
Then came the life-changing graph, and this very practical call from Coleman:
Here is where we must begin like Jesus. It will be slow, tedious, painful, and probably unnoticed by people at first, but the end result will be glorious, even if we don’t live to see it. Seen this way, though, it becomes a big decision in the ministry. We must decide where we want our ministry to count—-in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we have gone. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.
Coleman’s charge is no rebuke to those rare gifts to the church who minister significantly to her masses. Bless the Luthers, Calvins, Spurgeons, and widely beloved ministers of our day. Coleman himself preached his share of circuits, and was good friends with Billy Graham (who wrote the book’s foreword). If God one day, to your great surprise, gives you a ministry to the masses, that’s all well and good. But it’s not the goal to be pursued. Not the ideal for every Christian to keep pressing toward.
The bread and butter of how the church grows and her gospel advances is not mass-focused ministry, but in relational, intentional discipling of the few. Such life-on-life disciplemaking is how our Savior himself invested his best earthly energies during his three-plus-year public ministry (leading toward his unique mass-relevant ministry at Golgotha).
The calling on Average Joe Christian is the Commission calling, to disciple all nations, not by personally preaching in stadium events to every one of them, but by discipling a few at a time in an ongoing process toward mature Christianity, who in turn disciple a few others. And thus we slowly (but effectively) reach the world as Jesus himself did not only with his inimitable work on the cross, but also with his oh-so-imitable work of discipling a few.
It’s a vision that has stood up to biblical testing, and has helped to give clarity and substance to making tangible strides at gospel advance, whether on the roads of first-century Palestine or on the college campus in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
And even in Myrtle Beach.