Robert Coleman: What Planters Can Learn From Jesus’ Discipleship Method
'Everyone—regardless of the ministry gift God gives us—is a ministering priest.'
Dr. Robert Coleman set the standard for discipleship and evangelism in the 20th century when he wrote the watershed book The Master Plan of Evangelism over 50 years ago. Throughout the interview in the new eBook, Revisiting The Master Plan of Evangelism, Bobby Harrington, director of Discipleship.org, joins Coleman to revisit the timeless material of the book and offer some hindsight reflections. Below, Coleman shares his thoughts and insights on how the eight (now nine) principles of Jesus’ discipleship method apply to church planters and leaders today—and gives us a glimpse into how following the master plan has played out in his own family.
Dr. Coleman, the fourth principle you write about is Consecration, which you say another way of saying that we have to teach disciples to obey. How do church planters and ministry veterans lead people into obedience? Your example as a leader becomes a pattern for people. And you don’t ask them to do something you’re not willing to do. When they know that you really care about them and love them, people want to do what you’re asking them to do. Now, that should not be unreasonable, or not suited to them and their gifts. We ask people to do things because we love them; their expression of love in that act encourages them to want to do more, to want to follow and learn more. We live by faith. “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith. The just live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
Faith and obedience, then, are two sides of the same coin. You can’t really believe in Jesus unless you obey Him. Not everybody who professes to belong to Him actually obeys Him. But if we truly believe Him, we will obey Him because what we do reveals the true condition of our faith.
Seems like principle 4 and principle 5—Demonstration—go together. How does a church planter or a leader practice demonstration? This principle of demonstration is critical to a church planter who will no doubt need to reach new people who are unfamiliar with your church. If possible, pastors should never do anything by themselves. Your time pays double when you’re teaching someone else how to do what you do. Even during Bible study, you can invite someone or just have prayer together. Praying together is crucial to discipling because through prayer God brings specific people into your life. You’ve been praying for the Lord of the harvest to send them forth.
When I meet with the boys in my discipleship group on Thursday mornings, we always make time to pray before it’s over. We actually get down on our knees and pray together in the room. Being together, you have the opportunity to demonstrate what you’re talking about. In any aspect, what we actually see will impress us far more than what we hear. Carrying over that concept into your active ministry of preaching emphasizes building relationships where you can be together. Even relaxed and casual get-togethers allow the opportunity to apply the principle of demonstration in your ministry.
The principle of Delegation (No. 6) explores the vital importance of the priesthood of all believers. You say that we’ve still got a long way to go to make it applicable to the average church. How can a pastor or church planter give the Great Commission back to the people?
The priesthood of all believers can be recovered in a vital way so that anyone walking in on Sunday morning feels like he or she is just as much a minister as the preacher behind the pulpit. We’ve been ministering in different ways though, during the week. We haven’t prepared a sermon, but we’re still ministers. The most effective ministry will be the example we set for those watching us. The priesthood of all believers is essential if the Church is going to multiply and fulfill the Great Commission. We cannot relegate this to a few people, particularly highly educated, theologically trained people. If we have to trust that model, we’ve already lost the battle. But when everybody in the congregation senses their own priesthood, it’s exciting. They come to learn more from someone who has perhaps had more opportunities to be involved in Bible training. But they’re ready to learn because they will repeat it the next day with someone else. They’re going to share what they’ve learned at the dinner table.
We’re all preachers, bearing testimony to our faith. In its most practical expression, while all the other aspects of ministry are important, discipling is where we can be involved in direct ministry and will see reproduction. You don’t need a gift or a special calling for that. It’s part of being a Christian. As leaders, we have to model and teach that.
Dr. Coleman, how has discipleship played out in your own family?
I was fortunate and blessed to marry a wonderful girl right after I finished seminary and she finished college. We have three precious children. Our oldest daughter is retired now with her husband; at least he’s retired. He was a minister down in Texas of a little Presbyterian church. We love her, and she has been for us a beautiful young lady. She has one daughter who lives in New Jersey with her husband.
My other daughter lives here locally. Her husband is a teacher at Asbury Seminary. She’s just like her name, Angela (Angel), and she’s one you can guide with your eye. There’s a secret of guiding someone with your eye—you have to look into their face. Angie has always been that way. We are so blessed that we can live close to her and her husband now. She has three children who are walking with God. My son, Jimmy, has six children. He’s the youngest, and he and his wife have homeschooled their kids. He is probably one of the best disciple makers I’ve ever seen. He’s done it with his family. Those kids love Jesus, and they’re very active in a great missionary church with expositional preaching every Sunday. Their oldest daughter’s graduating from medical school next month, and she wants to be a missionary. It’s been a joy to see them grow up loving Jesus and making disciples.
When they were young, what did you do to disciple them?
As the kids were growing up, we always tried to have family devotions at the table. It wasn’t always successful in the way I would have liked. I remember sometimes my son would start crawling out from under the table, and I’d have to throw my leg under him to hold him down. They appreciated it because it was part of the schedule, and we would have prayer before going to bed at night. My son and I developed a very close relationship by having prayer and Bible study together at night for years. I remember when he was getting ready for college, he said, “Dad, you know I’m getting a little old now. I don’t know if we need to do this together every night.” It kind of broke my heart at first, because more than once we would kneel down to pray after a Bible study, and I’d go to sleep on my knees. I was so tired.
Our time together paid off, and I’d carry the kids around as I traveled to speak. We had an old Station Wagon, and in those days you could put down a mattress in the back and the kids could all lie down and sleep at night. We tried to make it a priority to be together in church, to pray together, and I think that that has made a difference.
We haven’t seen the last chapters written yet with all the kids and the grandkids, but we’re still growing and trusting the Lord. I remember once, when I was in the basement of our house, my son came down and said, “Dad, I changed my major.” He was a physics major, and he told me he’d changed his major to Bible. I had to stop what I was doing, and said, “Jimmy, I don’t want you to feel like you’ve got to be a preacher because your daddy is.” He said, “Oh, I know that, Dad. I’m not going to be a preacher. I’m going to be an engineer.” I felt relieved.
You know, when you’re talking about the Great Commission, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a preacher or a missionary overseas, or whether you’re a seminary graduate or what. That’s all good, but most likely everybody you disciple is not going to be a preacher or an overseas missionary. We’ve got to get that out of our heads and realize that everybody who’s a Christian is called to obey the Great Commission. Everyone—regardless of the ministry gift God gives us—is a ministering priest. That’s the priesthood of all believers. Until we can bring it down to this level, we’re not relevant to the Church. It’s only when the whole Church realizes Jesus’ commission is for all of us that the Church begins to multiply.
After writing these principles 51 years ago, how do you feel about them today?
I believe them more today than ever before! I’ve lived long enough to see the extended impact in the lives of men and women. I’ve seen it with my family. I’ve seen it with people in whom I’ve largely invested. I’ve seen it replicated all around the world. Yes, I believe in them more than I did in the beginning.
I believe that Jesus intended for us to adopt His plan. He simply asked His disciples to do for others what He had done for them. He knew what He was doing, and God will bless church leaders who seek to replicate His plan today. I wish I could have said these principles better. I wish I could have been a better model of what I’m trying to say, but I’m still learning. I’m still growing, and so far I haven’t reached the mark—the prize of the high calling in Christ Jesus. But thankfully God is not finished with me yet.
Excerpted from the new Exponential eBook Revisiting The Master Plan of Evangelism: Why Jesus’ Discipleship Method Is Still the Best Today by Robert Coleman and Bobby Harrington with Josh Patrick. Download your FREE copy.