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John Wesley's Small Groups: Models of Christian Community

John Wesley's Small Groups: Models of Christian Community

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There is nothing like the excitement new believers discover when they sense they are surrounded by friends who care deeply for them. In fact, healthy Christian faith instills a powerful desire to be with other believers in worship, fellowship, and just learning about the things of God. Meeting together offers Christians opportunities to be renewed in worship, enriched in fellowship, and challenged to explore their new faith.

Whether you are a part of a mega congregation or a smaller one, there is an important 'next' step that offers promise for shaping and enriching your faith. Some churches call them small groups. Interestingly enough, the history of small groups goes back to Jesus and the disciples. It was John Wesley, however, who gave the world one of the most effective models of this endeavor.

While some aspects of Christianity have become privatized, individualistic, and lacking accountability, it is also true that participating in intimate groups, where people share their lives and faith, runs counter to such trends.

Being a believer requires community and fellowship.

We cannot live as if we are alone on an island and be a Christian, since faith is always communal. One aspect of our faith formation is participating in spiritual accountability groups. Wesley believed that there is 'no personal holiness without social holiness.'

For Wesley, living holy lives required believers to share their lives in intimate fellowship on a regular basis. His development of small groups revolutionized 18th century England and provided a framework to help people grow in 'holiness of heart and life.' Small groups provided a context in which seekers could receive support, accountability, and encouragement. This was especially important considering the evils of society and the disarray of the culture. Wesley's system of mutual accountability was divided into three formative aspects: societies, classes, and bands.

Societies primarily focused on educational channels through which the tenets of Methodism were presented. These tenets were taught in a large classroom setting primarily through lecture, preaching, public reading, hymn singing, and 'exhorting.' In societies, people sat in rows, women and men separated, where they listened to a prepared lecture. They were not given opportunity to respond or give feedback.

In societies leaders taught key Methodist doctrines:

1. The perfectibility of humanity vs. Reformed and Calvinistic views of human depravity.
2. The freedom of the human will vs. theological determinism.
3. True religion manifested in human relationships vs. the mystics, who emphasized inner contemplation as the way to spiritual growth.

John and Charles Wesley led the societies until the movement expanded and lay assistants were delegated to oversee them in the absence of ordained clergy. The major aim was to present scriptural truths and have those truths clearly understood.

Class Meetings were the most influential instructional unit in Methodism and probably Wesley's greatest contribution to spiritual growth. Class meetings get so much credit because they radically transformed England's working masses. The success centered on the instructional design of behavioral change.

Classes were intimate gatherings of 10 or 12 people who met weekly for personal supervision of their spiritual growth. Rules for the United Societies were the primary framework for the class meetings. Rules specified the basic process of 'inquiry' as to the subject matter of 'how their souls prospered.'

Class meetings were coeducational experiences that included women in leadership. Included in the sessions were those of diverse age, social standing, and spiritual readiness. Wesley wanted the classes to represent a cross section of Methodism. Also, the classes provided a place for believers to accept people from various social backgrounds. This helped break up the rigid class standards of 18th century England.

The leaders would share honestly about their failures, sins, temptations, or inner battles. They were the role models for others. Class meetings revolved around personal experience, not doctrine or biblical information. Perfect love was the goal of the class meetings.

Leaders were fellow strugglers who started the meeting, provided spiritual oversight or pastoral care to others, and were to carry the concerns of the class throughout the week. Leaders created an atmosphere of trust for all members to 'bear all things.'

Class meetings provided community and the development of class relationship and spiritual accountability for those who were struggling with habitual issues.

It was a place that provided support, encouragement, and spiritual maturation as Methodists sought to live holy lives.

Bands facilitated affective redirection. Unlike the class meeting, the band was a homogenous grouping by gender, age, and marital status. Bands were voluntary cells of people who professed a clear Christian faith and who desired to grow in love, holiness, and purity of intention. Bands included ruthless honesty and frank openness. Members sought to improve their attitudes, emotions, feelings, intentions, and affections.

A central function of the band was what Wesley termed 'close conversation.' By this term he meant soul-searching examination, not so much of behavior and ideas, but of motive and heartfelt impressions.

Certainly we cannot replicate Wesley's process completely, but we can transmit the important principles into our local congregations. Gathering in groups for spiritual accountability can help foster our faith and help us grow in Christlikeness. Being a faithful follower of Christ requires our investment in the journey of others.

Wesley provides a holistic approach to Christian formation, something that we can adapt in a Western individualistic culture. We are reminded of Wesley's admonition| there is 'no holiness without social holiness.'

Mark A. Maddix is professor of Christian Education and dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministries at Northwest Nazarene University.

Discussion Questions

1. In what ways are Wesley's small groups applicable today? In what ways could these groups be developed in the local church?
2. Does living a holy life include both personal and social holiness? What does it mean to be a Christian living and serving in Christian community?
3. Why are we reluctant to be involved in groups for personal and spiritual accountability? What barriers are inhibiting us in developing such approaches to spiritual formation?
4. What educational ministries foster each of these areas of cognitive, behavioral, and affective modes? Which is most lacking in our congregation?

Holiness Today, November/December 2009

Please note: This article was originally published in 2009. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.