By means of a careful study of the Gospels (as might be expected of a genuine evangelical Christian), Robert E. Coleman highlights the manner in which Jesus evangelizes. Coleman focuses the reader's attention on the relationship that Jesus has forged with his disciples with the aim of making them fishers of men; thus conserving the work of salvation initiated during his public ministry.
This formation process, which is actually quite simple, becomes obvious once it has been methodically explained. But it is at the same time a very demanding one for both the disciples and the master. Together, they must commit themselves wholeheartedly, with zeal and perseverance, to a training process, but, first and foremost to each other. This process consists of 8 essential steps, some of which are deployed simultaneously, others successively.
The first four steps structuring the master/disciple relationship are:
1) the selection of his disciples by the master, based on some clearly defined criteria (mainly, their capacity to “bear witness to his life and carry on his work after he returns to the Father”)
2) the association (by which the master and his disciples spend extended periods of time together, in order for the master to preach by means of his own example and for the disciples to learn by imitation)
3) the consecration of the disciples (that is, their full involvement in the formation process and their obedience to the master)
4) the impartation of the wisdom and skills of the master to his disciples (with a view to their missionary growth.
The next three steps focus on how wisdom and skills are imparted. First of all:
5) the demonstration, by which the master exposes and explains, in his daily practice and teaching, what he wants his disciples to imitate and learn. Then,
6) the delegation follows, by which the master gradually passes on his missionary authority to the disciples, so that they might be increasingly in charge of the mission. And finally
7) supervision is required, by which the master exerts influence from afar by correcting and/or guiding his disciples, if necessary.
The last step is the main goal of the whole formation process set up by Jesus:
8) the multiplication of disciples, their increase in number. The seven previous steps are indeed combined in such a way as to make the master/disciple relationship a dynamic structure, an evolving training framework that is propitious to the skills transfer and the gradual empowerment of the missionary apprentice. The completion of this process of growth ensures, over time, the rise of a new generation of missionary disciples in the Church.
Obviously, the formation model offered by Jesus in the Gospels concerns a particular group (the Apostles) at a particular place and time in history. Therefore, it cannot be adopted without being adapted, according to the unique context in which masters and disciples find themselves today. Nor can it be adopted without being spiritually nourished from within by what ultimately makes it a source of life, namely the spiritual friendship between the master and his disciples, whom he no longer calls servants but friends (Jn 15:15).
That being said, the example of Jesus as a disciple-maker will always remain the cardinal reference for our missionary and pastoral life. To ignore or distort it in its most universally valid principles (either because of a lack of rootedness in the Word or a poor application of its principles which does not meet the needs of our time), is certainly a breach of the first rule of Christian life: the imitation of Jesus Christ. For sure, we cannot afford to compromise the renewal and fruitfulness of the mission in such a sad way (1).
Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism , 2010, 160 p.
(1) This is the translated and slightly modified version of a text originally published in French in Le Verbe, a Quebec Catholic magazine.