John Wesley and Small Groups
As one raised in the United Methodist Church, I was always familiar with the radical ministry of John Wesley, hearing stories in Sunday sermons or learning the history of the Methodist revival in confirmation class. In my final year at the Candler School of Theology, I had the privilege of exploring Wesley’s life and thought in more detail in a course entitled: “John Wesley’s Theology and 18th Century Epistemology.” For my final assignment in the course, I wrote a 22-page paper on the small group organizational structures of early Methodism. To get historical perspective, I examined how Wesley’s historical encounters with the Moravians, a group of pious Christians from Germany, shaped his understanding of small group structures. It was a fascinating study, and I was truly impressed with Rev. Wesley’s organizational genius. He developed an intricate system for creating Christian disciples that is still relevant today. It was a three-part system consisting of societies, class meetings, and bands, which will be explained in further detail below.
Society meetings were like small congregations. There could have been anywhere from fifty to several hundred members involved with a society. They met on Sunday evenings for hymn-singing and preaching/teaching. One element of traditional Christian worship noticeably absent, at least at first, were the sacraments. Wesley encouraged persons to attend their local Anglican church on Sunday mornings to receive the sacraments. Wesley was adamant that the Methodist movement was not a separatist movement. Of course it would later split off from the Anglican church and become a separate denomination, but that was not John Wesley’s original intention.
The societies were mainly geared towards education. The Methodist movement was successful in evangelizing lower class persons because of Wesley’s field preaching. Societies became the places where these new converts were educated in the faith. But John Wesley was not content to merely educate new Christians so each member of the Methodist societies was also required to attend a weekly class meeting.
The Class Meeting
Class meetings met weekly and consisted of about 12 persons, with a mixture of gender and marital status. The group was led by a class leader, who was appointed by the society leadership. The meeting would begin with prayer and hymn-singing. After that, the class leader shared an orderly account of the week, focusing on personal spiritual growth. After the class leader shared, the rest of the group would take turns answering the question, “How goes it with your soul?”
All Methodists were required to attend these meetings and were given tickets to get in. If a person missed too many meetings in a quarter, they would lose their ticket and not be able to participate. It was very much a high commitment style of Christian discipleship and nurture! The class meetings were also places where offerings were collected to support the work of the Methodist movement. Whereas the societies were focused on education, the class meetings were much more focused on spiritual nurture, spiritual direction, and mutual encouragement.
The deepest level of commitment in the Methodist movement was the band. Unlike the class meetings, these gatherings were entirely voluntary and homogeneous (same gender and marital status). These were also the smallest groups, 3-4 persons. These groups focused on intimate sharing of temptations and confession of sins. They were in essence accountability groups. As one might imagine, these groups were not very popular. No more than about 25% of Methodists participated in the bands.
What Can We Learn From John Wesley Today?
Wesley’s small group system has much to teach us today. For example, the model provides for both education (a focus on the mind) and nurture (a focus on the heart). At times we pick one or the other, but the early Methodist system shows a way to unite them in a context of Christian growth. Additionally, the system offers several levels of commitment and depth. People who want to go deeper in their discipleship can voluntarily join a band. However, it makes discipleship a requirement for everyone (class meeting). Too often we make discipleship optional in our churches. It’s interesting how people tend to respond favorably to high-commitment Christianity. In many of our churches we assume people don’t want to be bothered much, but that may not be the case. They may actually be looking for a church that asks them to be committed Christians rather than nominal ones.
Yet, the Wesleyan system also provides a realistic perspective on the nature of spiritual growth and discipleship. Not all believers are either able to join high-commitment accountability groups or interested in them. While pastors and priests may desire that all members of their congregation progress toward the highest level of discipleship, the reality is that a church will always contain a mixture of believers with a range of interest levels. The Wesleyan system, in a pragmatic way, creates spaces for both types of Christians–the new believer and the high-commitment longtime disciple.