In an age of efficiency, pragmatism, and numbers, Robert E. Coleman proposed a revolutionary, yet ancient, strategy of evangelism in his classic work The Master Plan of Evangelism. Billy Graham explains, “Instead of drawing on the latest popular fad or newest selling technique, Dr. Coleman has gone back to the Bible and has asked on critical question: What was Christ’s strategy of evangelism? In doing so, he has pointed us to the unchanging, simple, yet profound biblical principles which must under gird any authentic evangelistic outreach.” (15) In short, Coleman has challenged the church to rethink its evangelistic methodology by rediscovering the Master’s method of evangelism.
Coleman begins with this question: “Are our efforts to keep things going fulfilling the great commission of Christ?” (19). Coleman’s thesis is that Jesus’ plan for evangelism should be the template for the evangelistic efforts of the church, and he identifies eight principles that summarize Jesus’ plan of evangelism. These principles are selection, association, consecration, impartation, demonstration, delegation, supervision, and reproduction.
- Coleman describes selection by noting, “The initial objective of Jesus’ plan was to enlist men who could bear witness to his life and carry on his work after he returned to the Father” (27). Although those selected were not important, influential, wealthy, or temperate, they were moldable.
- The principle of association is explained with these words: “Having called his men, Jesus made a practice of being with them. This was the essence of his training program – just letting his disciples follow him” (41).
- Coleman’s third principle is consecration and it results in obedience. He notes, “Jesus expected the men he was with to obey him” (51). This obedience meant giving up everything to follow Jesus and learning how to obey Jesus by watching Jesus obey the Father.
- The fourth principle of Jesus’ evangelistic plan is impartation. This is the principle of giving and serving through the power of the Holy Spirit. Coleman claims, “It is only the Spirit of God who enables one to carry on the redemptive mission of evangelism” (65).
- The fifth principle, demonstration, involved Jesus showing his disciples how to live by living as an example for them. Jesus displayed persistence in prayer, a commitment to scripture, focus on evangelism, and an emphasis on teaching during the time he spent with his disciples.
- Coleman explains, “Jesus was always building his ministry for the time when his disciples would have to take over his work, and go out into the world with the redeeming gospel” (79). To prepare for this coming time when the disciples would take over, Jesus practiced the principle of delegation which is Coleman’s sixth principle.
- The seventh principle Coleman identifies is supervision. When Jesus delegated responsibility to his followers he was always careful to supervise their work. Coleman points out that this supervision involved refusing to let the disciples rest in success and in failure (93).
- The final principle Coleman gleans from the gospels is reproduction. He explains, “Jesus intended for the disciples to produce his likeness in and through the church being gathered out of the world” (97). Coleman asserts, “The test of any work of evangelism thus is not what is seen at the moment … but in the effectiveness with which the work continues in the next generation” (103).
While most churches are infatuated with relevance, coolness, programs, and methods, Coleman seeks to rediscover the timeless principles that formed the evangelistic method of Jesus. In doing so, he identifies several areas where the church has fallen short of the Master’s plan, and he calls on the church to change.
Coleman is correct when he criticizes the modern church for neglecting the principle of selection by choosing to focus on large numbers and large crowds. Many churches are built around the production and the event of worship, rather than the development and discipleship of converts. The neglect of selection is related to a tragic failure in the principle of association. Coleman correctly points out the failure of the modern church to nurture new believers. Focusing time and energy on a small group rather than a large crowd clashes with the conventional wisdom of our age, but Coleman convincingly argues that this was Jesus’ plan.
One aspect of Coleman’s work that might confuse many today is the relationship between evangelism and discipleship. To put the matter bluntly, Coleman has written a book about discipleship and used the word evangelism in the title. Some might argue that Coleman is blurring the line between evangelism (gospel proclamation that leads to salvation) and discipleship (teaching new believers to follow Jesus). Personally, I love the fact that Coleman wrote a book about discipleship and used the word evangelism in the title. Too many talk about evangelism as something that ends with “soul-winning,” rather than embracing the entirety of the Great Commission. Jesus calls the church to, “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus is with his church only when the church is committed to making disciples through baptism (evangelism) and teaching (discipleship).
There is one recurring issue in The Master Plan of Evangelism that is concerning. Several times Coleman seems to suggest that God’s plan to save people can, and will, be frustrated by our failure to observe the Master’s principles of evangelism. For example, Coleman says this about selection, “Everything depended on their faithfulness if the world would believe in him “through their word” (31). Coleman later implies that the salvation or damnation of the lost will be determined solely by what we do or do not do (116). In these statements Coleman emphasizes human responsibility at the expense of the sovereignty of God. In Isaiah 46:10 God says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” Surely the God of Isaiah 46 will not have his plans thwarted by the obedience or disobedience of his people.
To be fair, Coleman’s emphasis on human responsibility may actually be a needed reminder, rebuke, and challenge to some. Although God is sovereign and will accomplish his purposes, he nevertheless chooses to use means. Those means are believers preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who are lost. Since God intends to use human beings in the evangelization of the world, Coleman is right to insist that God’s people use the best, most biblical means for evangelism.
The Master Plan of Evangelism is a tremendous book that should be read and practiced by all believers. If the Master’s principles for evangelism were faithfully integrated in the church, the result would be exponential growth. Those saved would become disciples who in turn make disciples, which was something directly connected to evangelism in the mind of the Master.
“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.” (38)
“Jesus did not have the time nor the desire to scatter himself on those who wanted to make their own terms of discipleship.” (53)
“We must always remember, too, that the goal is world conquest. We dare not let a lesser concern capture our strategy of the moment.” (95)
“The test of any work of evangelism thus is not what is seen at the moment … but in the effectiveness with which the work continues in the next generation.” (103)