By Michael C. Mack
I had the privilege to interview Robert Coleman in his home in Wilmore, Kentucky, for our August 2019 issue. It took me back to when I interviewed his brother Lyman Coleman—founder of Serendipity House, compiler and editor of the Serendipity Bible for Groups, and widely known for being a pioneer in the small group movement in the United States—for a cover story in The Lookout in 1993.
Robert described Lyman as his “best friend for all these years.” The brothers worked together many times, and each of their ministries often benefited the other’s. For instance, Robert met Billy Graham while visiting Lyman, who was working for Graham at the 1956 Oklahoma City Crusade. Years later, Graham asked Robert to lead the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and the Billy Graham Evangelical Association’s International Schools of Evangelism.
In 1960, the two brothers founded Christian Outreach, a small nonprofit company that distributed inexpensive booklets and Bible study materials, many by Robert, on salvation, basic doctrine, evangelism, and discipleship. By the turn of the century, more than 1,225,000 booklets had been distributed in English, and their materials had been translated into at least 50 languages.
And one more overlap in their lives: As I described in our August feature article, Robert set a high school record in Dallas, Texas, in the 120-yard high hurdles. He taught Lyman, and, five years later, Lyman broke that record. Both brothers, it seems, are high achievers.
As I talked with Robert, it quickly became obvious that the brothers couldn’t be more different in personality—Lyman is a right-brained creative genius who is known for some wild and sometimes crazy antics (Robert and I laughed together about some of them); Robert is a left-brained thinker and professor who is much more conservative. Yet both are fervent about reaching lost people and both focus on the importance of relationships as a key in disciple-making.
When I asked Lyman for an interview more than 25 years ago, he asked me instead to travel with him to two cities on his Serendipity small groups conference tour so we could spend more time together and get to know each other. The time I spent with him over several days had a profound effect on my life. I watched Lyman lead those conferences, and when I began to lead small group conferences myself, I tried to emulate his teaching methods. That was a bad choice—I quickly learned I had to use my own gifts, personality, and style. Before we parted ways, Lyman challenged me to throw my life into reaching lost, broken people through authentic community and to encourage others to do the same. I still carry that passion with me today.
Lyman offered me a job at Serendipity in 1995. I declined, but his encouragement spurred me on to start SmallGroups.com later that year. I cried with him on the phone when his 26-year-old son, Kevin, died in a skiing accident that same year. I’ve been honored to speak at some of the same events with Lyman and spend time together on several occasions over the years.
I hate to admit it, but though I had read two of Robert’s books while in seminary in the early 1990s, and they had a profound effect on me and my ministry, I didn’t realize Lyman and Robert were brothers until just a few years ago!
At the beginning of my interview with Robert, he told me, regarding Lyman, “He’ll be thrilled when he knows I’ll have a chance to visit with you.” As my son Dru (who was there to take pictures for the article) and I left, Robert told us both what an honor it was to meet with us. Dru was taken with this 91-year-old humble servant.
Of course, I am the one who is honored to have met and spent time with these two men. They are wonderful examples of living a life of passion for Christ. They have both taught me the value of spending time with people, humbly serving others, being a model of Christlike love—these are all vital elements in the master plan of making disciples.