Dr. Robert E. Coleman (b. 1928) taught for 27 years at Asbury Theological Seminary and then directed the School of World Mission and Evangelism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for 18 years, during which time he also led the Institute of Evangelicalism in the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Since 2001 he has been associated with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as Distinguished Senior Professor of Discipleship and Evangelism.
In 1963 Coleman published his book on The Master Plan of Evangelism, which boasts over 3.5 million copies sold. Billy Graham would later write a foreword for the book, claiming that few books have had more impact on the cause of world evangelization than this one. For Graham, the secret of the book’s success is Coleman’s disinterest in drawing upon the latest trends or techniques, but his return to the Bible to ask one simple but crucial question: what was the evangelism strategy of Jesus Christ?
In order to answer this question, Coleman identifies eight guiding principles from the life and practice of Jesus, outlined below. These principles in the life of Jesus were not sequential but overlapping. Nevertheless, Coleman discerns a logical progression at play. Coleman begins this work by asking whether our evangelistic efforts are truly “fulfilling the Great Commission”—in other words, is there an ever-expanding company of people dedicated to reaching the world with the gospel on account of our ministry? What is needed, Coleman argues, is a carefully constructed strategy that entails day-by-day movement toward this long-range goal. That is why Coleman has engaged in this study of the principles of evangelism that oriented and determined the methodology of Jesus’s earthly ministry.
- Selection. The first method of Jesus for winning the world was to choose average men who were teachable, honest, and willing to confess their need. Jesus intentionally kept the group small enough in order to work effectively with them and to mold them. Jesus had many disciples, but he concentrated on the Twelve and gave special attention to three. The principle here is that the more concentrated the size of the group, which requires selectivity, the more potential there is for effective training. And he focused these efforts as part of a genius strategy to ultimately reach the masses.
- Association. Having selected his concentrated group, the essence of Jesus’s training program was to be with them and to let them follow him. For Jesus, association preceded explanation as a means of imparting knowledge. It was in the context of association that knowledge and faith could be enlarged. He gave them constant personal attention, like a father with his children. It would be insufficient for a father to raise his child only seeing him once a week, and so we must imitate our Savior in staying with new believers as much as possible in order to model the Christian life, clarify the truth, and answer questions.
- Consecration. Jesus valued loyalty before intelligence. Willingness to obey—to count the cost and to pay the price—was the very means by which they learned more truth. This desire to dedicate oneself to Christ and to deny one’s own self is in contrast to the indifference and complacency of many today within the church. Obedience is essential before conquest.
- Impartation. Jesus gave away all that he had to his disciples, including his peace, his joy, the keys to the kingdom, his glory, and even his life. Jesus’s sanctification was his constant renewal of himself to his Father through loving service to others. His evangelistic strategy hinged upon this, designed so that his disciples would follow the way of their master and similarly impart the love of God to others. Therefore, our service and devotion to God must issue forth in love for others. Jesus’s disciples came to see that all of their work was altogether the work of the Spirit, to whom they must yield complete charge of their lives.
- Demonstration. Jesus demonstrated for his disciples how to live, including how to pray, how to use Scripture, and how to win souls. His method was to conceal that he had a method, for the method was himself. It was real, practical, and came naturally. Jesus never required them to do something he had not done himself.
- Delegation. In the beginning of Jesus’s ministry his disciples did little more than follow him and observe him. But toward the end, Jesus began to push them out of the nest, as it were. They were to follow his evangelistic method of concentrating their time on various individuals in surrounding towns and connecting with follow-up leaders. They were to expect hardship in their ambassadorial roles as they were sent out in pairs to accomplish the mission. Evangelism, we should recognize, is not an optional part of being a disciple but a divine command, and we should be giving practical work assignments today and expect them to be followed out.
- Supervision. Jesus’s interactions with his disciples involved a dynamic interplay of instruction and assignments. They were required to report back to him on what they did, and he saw their failures as teaching opportunities, using on-the-job training to show them what spiritual discernment looks like and correcting their faulty attitudes and perspective in the process. He interacted with them constantly and rebuked them when required in order to redirect them. Likewise, we must engage in personal, deliberate, and patient supervision of those we are training to be like Christ.
- Reproduction. Jesus’s strategy was to produce disciples who would reproduce. The Great Commission culminates in teaching all people to observe and obey all that Christ commanded us. We can convert many people, but unless they become reproducing disciples, we are doing it wrongly. We only achieve success when we are assured that our work will continue in the life of the redeemed. The Master’s Plan of Evangelism works, but shortcuts don’t. Programs can never take the place of the Holy Spirit. When his plan is carried out as he intends, the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church.
In the epilogue to his work, Coleman lays out what he regards to be the essentials of implementing a plan of evangelism based on these principles. Acknowledging that elements of the method will vary, we must
- make people a priority
- begin with a few disciples
- stay together with them
- give them time
- meet as a group
- give them tangible assignments to express their commitment
- keep them growing in grace and knowledge
- help them carry their burdens, and then
- let them carry on in the work itself.
The Genius of the Book
Part of the genius behind Coleman’s enduring work is his combination of Biblicism and simplicity.
Bibliclism. His focus is entirely upon the four authoritative Gospels, which keeps his writing from being bogged down with secondary literature and discussions.
Simplicity. This is not an “easy” strategy to implement, but neither is it complicated. It requires no specialized skills or knowledge but rather an understanding of how Jesus sought to disciple his followers to be disciples of others. Coleman takes an encouraging and realistic tone as he seeks to set forth the principles he discerns in the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Some Questions about the Book
While the main thrust of the book is commendable, and even personally challenging, there are several items that raise questions or that could have required further nuance from the author.
Title. It’s not entirely clear to me that the book should be on the master’s plan of evangelism so much as it is the master’s plan of discipleship. The focus is not on calling people to faith as it is sustaining and nurturing faith that already exists. I raise this only in case the title throws off the reader’s expectation.
Impartation of Life and Doctrine. Though Coleman sounds an appropriate warning against an intellectualist approach, there are times in which he seems to pit the insufficiency of knowledge, laws, and dogma over and against the importance of impartation through a living personality (ch. 2). But for Jesus it was both-and. While it’s true that community was the context for his teaching, the Great Commission requires us to teach people to observe all that he commanded us (Matt 28:20).
Keswickian. Coleman’s Keswickian tendencies are evident, especially in chapter 4 when he speaks about the secret of the victorious life, claims that the Spirit-filled life is not characteristic of all true Christians, and points readers to writings on this issue by Finney, Wesley, and Torrey, et al. [You can read a summary and critique of the Keswick movement-“let go and let God”—here.]
Methodology and the Spirit. There is an uneasy tension in the book between methodology and the effectuality of the Spirit. On the one hand, Coleman insists that nothing of eternal significance is accomplished apart from the Spirit, and at the same time, Coleman sometimes suggests an attitude of implementing the Master’s Plan will produce automatic results, such that world conquest is simply a matter of time if one uses this strategy.
Summing It Up
All in all, this is a clear, simple, and bold book, and it has been bearing fruit for the gospel for over five decades. Though more technical discussions have been written about Jesus’s method of discipleship, none have been as effective at equipping and motivating the church to put it into practice.
The virtues of Coleman’s book outweigh any of its limitations (the proportionality of my analysis devoted to each notwithstanding!). Even as I disagree with some of the theological formulations or presuppositions, or wish that they were expressed with more nuance, I recognize in this book invaluable counsel for discipling like Jesus to further the Great Commission.
For a summary more eloquent than my own, watch this take on the argument by Odd Thomas of Humble Beast: