The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert E. Coleman, 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Revell Publishing, 1993. 121 pages. Reviewed by C. Walter Overman.
In surveying the landscape of the modern church, Coleman realized that the amount of time, resources, and busyness devoted to methods of evangelism seemed to have little purpose or value. He asks, “That we are busy in the church…cannot be denied. But are we accomplishing our objective?” Coleman says the church has largely failed to make disciples that reproduce themselves. Thus, the purpose of the book is to offer an alternative to modern methods of evangelism. The method Coleman puts forward comes from his careful study of Jesus’ life and ministry; a life and ministry that resulted in disciples producing disciples.
The Master’s method of evangelism began with special training for a select few (Ch. 1), who followed Jesus everywhere he went (Ch. 2). However, to follow Jesus required action on their part; they had to deny themselves and be obedient to his Word (Ch. 3); but in their close access to Jesus, they were able to witness firsthand how he gave himself away for the good of others (Ch.4), and how he depended on God through prayer and Scripture to fulfill his ministry (Ch. 5). Having demonstrated what he expected, Jesus then delegated the work of ministry to his disciples (Ch.6), which he also supervised for encouragement and correction (Ch.7). Jesus instructed his disciples in this way for one purpose: So they would multiply themselves (Ch.8).
In the end, Coleman says that evangelism is more than ceremonies, sermons, programs or crusades. Ordinary people engage in evangelism as they live their daily lives connected to their Master, in Christian community, and by demonstrating and sharing the gospel to those around them. Sermons, creeds, and doctrines are important for evangelism, but they have little value when Christians fail to apply them and follow Christ as he instructed his first disciples to follow. Coleman says it best when he says, “Merely giving them an explanation will not suffice. The wandering masses of the world must have a demonstration of what to believe—they must have a mentor who will stand among them and say, ‘“Follow me, I know the way”’ (p.113).
Critique and Application
If Coleman’s analysis is accurate, then Jesus’ plan of evangelism can be described in one word: Discipleship. Although he never makes the point directly, that is the implication. In my estimation, it is a valid conclusion. Jesus’ strategy to evangelize the world emphasized the training of ordinary men and women who would invest their lives into the lives of others with a gospel-centered focus, thereby making disciples who in turn make more disciples, who in turn continue the cycle. Coleman’s recognition of the church’s failure in this regard is the correct diagnosis. That he recognized this problem decades ago and warned evangelicals to change, makes this book all the more important for pastors and lay leaders to read today. If the church is to turn the tide of shrinking membership rolls and budgets, it must get serious about discipleship.
The strength of the book is its application for today. In each chapter, Coleman demonstrates how the church has either failed to implement, or where the church can be more effective in implementing, the principles that guided Jesus’ strategy for evangelism. The Master Plan of Evangelism will push church leaders to become serious about discipleship while providing practical suggestions for implementing a discipleship strategy. Importantly, Coleman demonstrates why the church must look at evangelism in a whole new light. He is right when he says, “…[Jesus’] basic philosophy [of evangelism] is so different from that of the modern church that its implications are nothing less than revolutionary” (pp.19-20).
Two implications from the book stood out to me the most, both of which come from a pastoral perspective. First, I want to be sure a system is in place whereby discipleship becomes a natural part of the church in which I pastor. One way to accomplish this task is to ensure “every convert is given a Christian friend to follow until such time as he or she can lead another” (p.48). Secondly, I want to be a servant-leader in the mold of the Master. This means that I must also consider “no service too small nor any sacrifice too great when…rendered for the glory of God” (p. 63). In this way, Jesus demonstrated that service unto God and others is at the heart of evangelism. May it be the center of my evangelism strategy, too.