By Michael C. Mack
I read Robert Coleman’s book The Master Plan of Evangelism as a seminary student in 1989, when it was in only its 45th printing, with more than 925,000 copies sold. It has now sold more than 3.5 million copies and been translated into 105 languages.
I’ve read the book many times over the years. It’s hard to find a page that doesn’t contain highlighting, underlining, asterisks, exclamation points, and notes in the margins. I’ve read his follow-up, The Master Plan of Discipleship, based on the book of Acts, many times as well. These books formed my views on making disciples, the church, and ministry. I’ve used them in my own ministries and taught many of the biblical principles.
It was an honor for me, along with my son Dru (who took photographs for the story), to spend a couple hours with Coleman in his home in Wilmore, Kentucky. I was there to interview him for this month’s feature article, but we also spent time together just talking about life and family. He gave us a tour of his office in the loft of his small home, where he showed us his Bibles, pictures he has painted, and a special letter from Billy Graham that hangs on the wall. He even obliged me by signing my copies of his books.
An interesting part of our conversation was Coleman’s description of how he wrote The Master Plan of Evangelism.
When he started teaching at Asbury University in 1955, they didn’t have a class on evangelism, and he had no training on the subject. “I hadn’t read any book on evangelism,” he said. “Hadn’t done any school or taken a seminar or training course on it. But I did know there is one book you can trust, and I was interested in just teaching the evangelism of Jesus using Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as our textbook. I knew that Jesus was the answer and he was the way I wanted to follow. That was the invitation when I came to Christ: ‘Follow me.’ I knew I couldn’t go wrong if I followed Jesus.”
In the first class on evangelism, he and the students used no textbook other than a parallel Gospel (with all four Gospel accounts together). They would ask two questions as they read through the Gospels: What did Jesus do, and how does that relate to your life?
As Coleman prepared and as he taught that first class, he saw Jesus’ clear priority on making disciples. “He preached to the crowds, he healed the sick, he worked miracles . . . but day by day he was making some disciples! And he molded those men into a group that would turn the world upside-down!”
Coleman says as he read and reread the Gospel accounts and saw what Jesus did, he wrote notes about what he was discovering. “Those notes were the beginning of The Master Plan of Evangelism. And then I would teach them, and the students would ask questions. The students were helping me write the book! They would ask questions and they were giving me the answers to the questions people ask. [By about] my third year I had what you would call a text that I typed up and we mimeographed.”
At one time, Coleman had 7,500 copies of the self-published book stacked in his garage. His wife, Marietta, told him those were all the copies they’d ever need. They’d never need to print more. Coleman chuckled at the obvious irony.
We are featuring Robert Coleman this month as we discuss two tightly related topics: education and discipleship. As you’ll see in the feature article about him, Coleman has spent the last 60-plus years in theological graduate education. He taught—it’s actually more accurate to say he discipled—his students in many of the same ways as the Master, Jesus: building relationships, spending time with one another, asking questions, and inviting his students to ask questions.
I think you’ll see many of Coleman’s comments fleshed out in our articles this month about our Bible colleges and about Christian education as it relates to discipleship, experience, and culture. The question we hope you ask after reading Coleman’s article and then the others in this issue is this: Jesus commanded us to make disciples . . . but how?
My personal hope is that this month’s issue will help church leaders clarify, and perhaps simplify, their disciple-making efforts.
“The apostolic church, not the prevailing mediocrity of our religious community, sets the norm,” said Coleman in The Master Plan of Discipleship. “Where we perceive our shortcomings, in all honesty, we should seek to bring our lives [and our churches, I may add] into conformity with the New Testament standard.”
We can all get on board with that!