Robert Coleman: Jesus’ Strategy to Reach the World

“If you are truly doing evangelism, you will take care of the people you bring to Christ.”

In this conversation with Robert Coleman (author of 24 books, including the seminal titles The Master Plan of Evangelism and The Master Plan of Discipleship, he candidly shares about his awakening to the symbiotic relationship between evangelism and discipleship—and why he just wants to be known as “a disciple of Jesus.” Coleman is the distinguished senior professor of discipleship and evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

What’s your definition of evangelism and discipleship?

Well, they flow together. An evangelist will make known the Good News, which is Christ. Discipleship is to follow Christ and continue to learn from him. The Greek for “disciple,” mathetes, translates “learner,” as in the sense of an apprentice. So the followers of Christ inevitably become disciple-makers or evangelists. Both flow together in a personal commitment. The objective of evangelism is to make disciples, which is how we should be planting churches.

When did you awaken to the symbiotic relationship of evangelism and discipleship—that evangelism was part of discipleship and not separate?

When I started teaching evangelism at Asbury College. I could see how Jesus personally leads people to know him and the kingdom. But I began to ask the question: What is his strategy for reaching the world? That’s what he came to do. And then it dawned on me. His strategy is in making disciples who will replicate what he’s doing with them. It was a revelation.

How did it dawn on you?

Well, the Scriptures convinced me this was what Jesus did, but then I had to ask myself, Is that what you’ve been doing? And I had to honestly say “no.” I had been preaching like an evangelist. I would preach hard, give an altar call and then expect people to come down and pray to receive Christ.

We would send them through some kind of training class, but we had no real follow-up plan. Certainly no discipling. I was getting people to church, and the churches grew. And because of that, Asbury thought I knew something about evangelism when really I was ignorant. That’s how I got invited to start this new evangelism department at Asbury. The leaders didn’t know how little I knew.

But when I began to see that discipling was the fabric out of which Jesus’ evangelism evolved, it revolutionized my understanding of ministry. And I began to try to find ways to do it. I remember the next morning in class, I told my students, “I will be here early in the morning at 6. If anyone wants to come and pray with me and study the Bible together, you are welcome.” That started more than 50 years ago, and I have been doing that in one way or another through the years.

As I have been doing this, I’ve learned more and more about how evangelism is perpetuated through discipling. Where there is true discipling, evangelism is assured. If you are truly doing evangelism, you will take care of the people you bring to Christ. You will not turn them out into the world without someone to lead them. We’ve got to unite these two, and that’s what I have been trying to do.

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What are the detriments or consequences of compartmentalizing evangelism and discipleship into two different areas?

When you start to separate the two, you become departmentalized so that you miss the reason behind it. If evangelism is only making known the gospel and you don’t see the ultimate objective, then you really do not assure any reproduction of what has been taught.

The very fact that you come to Christ implies that you will follow him. So you become a follower, a disciple, and you can’t follow Christ very long without learning where he’s going. You become a fisher of men, and you begin to do what you see Jesus doing.

We join Jesus in his mission.

Exactly. I think that every class in theology ought to be like a class in evangelism as far as the spirit and the objective. I think when you leave a theology classroom, you should feel like climbing up a palm tree with a wild cat under each arm. You should be on fire because the reason we have theology is that we might know God, and to know God is to know everything there is that would fill our hearts with joy. That’s the whole purpose of theology.

You don’t have to be a theologian to read the gospels and realize why he preached, why he talked and healed. He focused his ministry on making disciples, men who would catch his heartbeat and his vision and then go forth and reproduce what they learned.

So the Great Commission is Jesus at the end of his way [day?] telling those who have followed him, “Now you go and replicate what you’ve seen in me.” It’s following the example that Christ has given us in his own lifestyle. And that’s why I look upon both evangelism and discipleship as a lifestyle. It’s the way Jesus himself directed his life while he walked among us.

You’ve been talking about evangelism and discipleship for decades. Are you seeing increased focus on evangelism and discipleship?

I think I see it, but I think we have to be careful in thinking that will solve all of the issues before us, because we live in a fallen world. And to speak about it as a great return to the pattern of the early church or a pattern of Christ is oversimplifying or exaggerating, really, what is happening. But I do believe that there is a turning back to the pattern of more costly evangelism. Some of it has been precipitated, I think, because of our culture, which is becoming increasingly anti-Christ. You see it everywhere. And the church is going to be increasingly harassed because the satanic struggle of darkness is going to increase, which will put more pressure on the church. But it doesn’t need to in any way hinder the opportunity for evangelism. It’s the darkness that makes us see the stars when they appear.

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And I think there is a turning to more of a long-term lifestyle result. We don’t just want decisions. We want people’s lives to be transformed. But it’s very costly. It’s one thing to say, “Yes, this is the need, and this is where we’re going.” It’s another thing to ask, “Are we willing to pay the price for it?”

My class at Gordon-Conwell went to Singapore to finish their D.Min. We went to a church where Edmund Chan is the pastor. He started it about 30 years ago with 17 people, and it has grown now to 3,000 or 4,000. One student in my class said, “Now Dr. Chan, what is the one thing you have to do to make disciples, just one word?” Typical student question.

He just paused for a moment and spoke one word: “Die.”

And I’ve thought about that. Here’s a man who has demonstrated in his own ministry that you can grow a church on discipling—he calls it intentional discipling. And God has given him the fruit, but he’s saying that it’s the way of the cross. It’s what Bonhoeffer said: “When you come to the cross, you die.” But returning to the roots of the church will be more costly than we realize. I’m not sure we really get that yet.

It will be an individual matter for us, and we’ll all have to work through it on our knees. I’m not exempt from this. It will be hard for me, as well. This is why I say the Lord is still working on me.

What are you learning now at this point in your life?

I’ve learned that the closest I ever am to heaven is when I’m on my knees. I’m also coming to realize my helplessness and that I’m totally dependent upon the grace of God. Until we recognize our complete dependence upon our loving Father in heaven, we’re not in a position to really receive what he wants to give us. God is teaching me what I may not have learned if I’d just been a young upstart like I was when I was in high school.

You know, you never get through learning. I’ve lived long enough to see the fruit. I can look back and see God in amazing demonstrations of grace.

It just makes me almost shed tears with the wonder of it all. It’s the overwhelming realization of how great is God, and how it’s all by grace, undeserved, unmerited.

And he’s always looking out for us. He’s always our best friend and counselor. And I can trust him. I just want to be with him on his mission to save.

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