I have been listening (via Audible) and reading again through Robert Coleman’s classic book, The Master Plan of Evangelism. It has been over a decade since I last read it, and I am finding more and more jewels than before (hopefully a sign of discernment). This morning, I came across a profound observation from the ministry and method of Jesus in shaping and forming his disciples. In his chapter on “Supervision,” Coleman writes:

Here is on-the-job training at its best. Jesus would let his followers have some experience or make some observation of their own, and then he would use this as a starting point to teach a lesson on discipleship. The fact that they tried to do his work, even though they have failed at it, gave them greater awareness of their deficiencies, and hence they were more disposed to the Master’s correction. Moreover, their encounter with life situations enabled Jesus to pinpoint his teachings on specific needs and to spell it out in the concrete terms of practical experience. We always appreciate an education more after we have had the opportunity to apply what we have learned (96).

Jesus’ method of instruction and training was intensely practical. He employed his disciples in the work, and quite often they failed in it or did not understand the life Jesus was calling them to embrace. Having been confronted with repeated failure and disappointment, the disciples learned humility and greater dependence upon their Master. Being conformed into the image of Jesus meant a constant chipping away at their lives so their thoughts, desires, and actions were brought into complete submission to the way and will of their Master.

I find this method of Jesus rather foreign to current methods of training and discipleship today.

For example, when someone trained for leadership in the local church is told they should go to Bible college or seminary, they are brought into an environment of the classroom where they gain a considerable amount of knowledge. But where is the intensely practical training? Where is the opportunity to fail? Where is the molding and shaping of everyday life where they model their teacher? When these are absent, what we find is disciples to correcting others rather than being corrected by their Master. Because they know more, the “practical application” is exercising that knowledge to make a point, win an argument, or demonstrate their superior intellect – all manifestations of spiritual pride.

One of the reasons we do not have a movement of disciple-making in America is because we have bought into methods of training different from our Master. We are setting ourselves up for failure, and when we wonder why evangelism and disciple-making are waning, we ask those in the classroom to hold a conference or present a lecture on evangelism and disciple-making.

What we need are a bunch of failures who have stubbornly continued in deeper and deeper levels of humility to follow Jesus in his ways of loving people and sharing the gospel in everyday life. We need practitioners who view the front yard as their classroom, the neighbors as their disciples, and their community as their mission field. We need people who have felt the cuts and bruises of daily conformity to the ways of Jesus as their pursue the kingdom of God and pray it down in their hearts.

Where are these people today?

We need them.