The church is built upon invitation. In The Gospel of John 1:35-42 we read how the first disciples were invited by Jesus to “come and see.” An unnamed disciple and Andrew follow Jesus after John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Jesus turns and invites them to come and see. The next day he invites Philip to come and see, and Philip invites Nathaniel to come and see. In the meantime, Andrew invites his brother Simon.
Thus, the first community to surround Jesus was formed by invitation. When they said yes to the invitation, Jesus continued to invite them into a deeper relationship. They lived with, learned from, and experienced Jesus on a personal level.
The 12, led by Jesus, was the original “small group.” Jesus’ teaching certainly played a role in their transformation, but the experience of living with Jesus in community and then encountering the risen Christ produced the transformation. Their faith grew experientially.
John Wesley believed his basic small group, the class meeting, to be essential in forming community. He writes:
“Likewise, if you would avoid schism, observe every rule of the Society, and of the Bands, for conscience’ sake. Never omit meeting your Class or Band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community. As one saith, ‘That part of our economy, the private weekly meetings for prayer, examination, and particular exhortation, has been the greatest means of deepening and confirming every blessing that was received by the word preached, and of diffusing it to others, who could not attend the public ministry; whereas, without this religious connexion and intercourse, the most ardent attempts, by mere preaching, have proved of no lasting use.”
Wesley clearly says it is not preaching that produces community and disciples, it occurs in experiential groups: bands and classes.
From the beginning, our churches were meant to be communities of invitation. But, do Wesleyan Class meetings produce disciples that invite? This research seeks to learn if class meetings create disciples that invite others to come and see.
McEver Road United Methodist Church is in a middle-class suburb in the Atlanta metropolitan area. It is a medium sized church, worshipping 160 in two services. Demographically the church is white and Latino, which does reflect the neighborhood. The average age is 52. Theologically the congregation would be classified as centrist.
The church was formed in 1972 enjoyed steady growth, peaking at 225 in worship in the mid 1990’s. For many reasons, especially the last recession, the church began to decline and 8 years ago bottomed out at 100 people in worship.
Like many churches in decline, McEver had turned all focus inward to survival and lost its connectedness to the community. Changing our culture and focus to be mission based re-engaged us with the community and produced growth in numbers and spiritually. However, we were still struggling with some inward focused “hangover” problems from the declining years.
The Presenting Problem Isn’t The Problem
From initial research it was discovered what appeared to be the old problem of worship wars was really grieving over the loss of community. Because the church had two different styles of worship in two different locations on campus, an “us versus them” mentality resulted. However, the research indicated this fragmentation was a symptom of a larger problem: the loss of community in our area due to suburbanization: high transience of residents, rapid growth, consumerism, suburbanization, and political polarization.Many of the congregants longed for community outside the church and were hoping they could find it in the church, but did not. The church was not producing community and those who were hoping for it were grieving its loss.
One of McEver’s values and marks of being a disciple is to practice “radical hospitality.”4A disciple that practices radical hospitalityinvites all to be connected to the fellowship. This is exactly what Jesus did as discussed in the introduction. This is not merely welcoming people when they walk through the doors of the church. This is intentionally going into the world into “associations” such as places of employment, schools, nursing homes, etc., and creating connections between people and people to the church.
So now that we have discussed the problem lets turn our attention to why John Wesley’s class meeting was selected as a possible solution.
The Proposed Solution: Wesleyan Class Meetings
Wesley believed that faith formation is a matter of the heart (transformation) not necessarily the head (information). He knew that disciples were made by changed hearts. In “Advice to the People Called Methodist” he writes
By Methodists I mean a people who profess to pursue (in whatsoever measure they have attained) holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God. They place religion in a uniform resemblance of its great object, in a steady imitation of him they worship, in all Christ’s imitable perfections, more particularly in justice, mercy, and truth, or universal love filling the heart and governing the life.
What exactly did Wesley mean by heart? He used the word heart in a number of metaphorical senses. One of these was to see the heart as the seat of “tempers.” In the 18thcentury sense of the word Wesley meant “where temper referred to any endearing character disposition.”Wesley believed that “these tempers can be focused and strengthened into enduring dispositions.”These tempers were not infused by God instantaneously, but it is God’s regenerating grace that accomplishes thisand one must respond to this grace. One of the means a believer serious about heart religion has to respond to this grace is “to live within the rhythms of less common means like class meetings… .In other words, class meetings affect the change in thinking and behavior that should produce disciples who invite, along with the other marks of a disciple. that a Methodist grew in love of God and neighbor and looked over each other in love. Wesley’s class meetings were the sustaining instrument of behavioral change in the Methodist movement. Wesley saw the importance of these small groups so much so that attendance was mandatory.
In the 21stcentury, trying to make any church related activity mandatory would be seen as domineering. Many churches that have tried to implement a mandatory small group strategy have seen them fail (McEver Road included). This is part of the problem with today’s declining church—commitment on the part of the disciple. Church attendance is declining, membership has lost all meaning, and an investment in discipleship has become confused with personal developmentrather than spiritual formation. Will the class meeting small group method still work?
Class meetings are not a “magic pill’ for spiritual formation. Class meetings are but one element in forming disciples. McEver Road does have a strategic discipleship process. Although we had what we believed to be a well-conceived discipleship process, it was informationally based. This came to my attention after reading Kevin Watson’s book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. Watson writes, “information driven small groups that do not lead to a changed life are no more valuable for Christian discipleship than a weather report that does not impact the clothes you wear.”It became obvious that our spiritual formation was a mile wide and an inch deep. We dearly needed transformation-based experiential small groups that didn’t thrive on content but on changed lives.
With Kevin Watson’s book in hand I approached 5 couples in addition to my wife and me to reach a total of 12. I purposely involved different generations and people I knew to be in different places along the path of their spiritual journeys. We read the book separatelythen met at the parsonage.
Method, Results, and Analysis
Data was gathered by ethnography, interview, and survey. The dynamic of the group was interesting to observe. The first meeting was somewhat awkward. People were unsure of sharing even though everyone knew each other previously. After meeting for 18 months we have grown very close and have grown even more intimate in our relationships. We have truly learned to watch over each other in love.
In an anonymous survey I asked “Has group interaction made it any easier for you to invite others into the life of the church or attend this group? The answers were predominately that no it had not. However, the answers to this question (This is important as you will see.): Has participation in this group increased your desire to participate in mission activities, local or otherwise? The answer was “yes it has.” The class meeting did not create disciples with the desire to invite. Put another way, they may have said it helped with wanting to invite but their actions did not follow their words.
However, I can say with all certainty that this Wesleyan class meeting helped people to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, or better yet, become perfected in love. Their commitment to serving was the greatest behavioral change witnessed. This group played a pivotal role in helping host a Trunk or Treat that produced an attendance of over one thousand! This group was also instrumental in organizing a Fresh Expressioncalled Love on Tap in a local craft brewery.
In the class meeting, one encounters God in the meeting and in the lives of others. Through sanctifying grace, we become more and more Christ-like in our love. In other words, class meetings are for Christian formation, not just information.
For my ministry setting, with the adaptations we made, I can say without a doubt, based upon the research, that class meetings do change thinking and will change behavior. The class meetings produced the connections we were looking for to build community within the church and outside the church. Class meetings certainly help churches become places of invitation, even if that means an invitation to the community rather than to individuals.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Discipleship is not easy. We need the help of each other in community to grow in discipleship. We are created to be in community by the God in three persons. God is community. We are created to be in community with God and with each other. The Greek-speaking theologians, in their efforts to understand the idea of a three in one God, explained the trinity as a dance of love.
Churches should be communities involved in the dance of self-giving love. An invitation to come and see is an act of self-giving. Churches should be creating this kind of community in the neighborhoods they serve by being communities of invitation. It is in another dance of love that we can become communities of invitation, the Wesleyan class meeting. I am not so naïve as to the size of the sample being only one church. However, it is working for McEver Road UMC and I think the evidence suggests that it will work for others.
John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition., vol. 11 (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 433.
This idea is based on many interviews with congregants, local politicians, local historians and journalists. It is interesting that local politicians and journalists noted that churches were not doing a good job of building the community. In fact, the Oakwood (where the church is located) city manager commented that the two biggest churches (one a huge multi-site mega church complete with celebrity pastor) had become “self-contained entities.”
Since, I have undertaken many actions to produce this connectedness within in the church; too numerous to go into here. I am happy to say that the “we versus them” mentality has been eradicated.
Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Living(Nashville: Abingdon Press 2010), 17-24, Kindle. The other four marks are: extravagant generosity, passionate worship, risk taking mission and service, and intentional faith development.
For our purposes we will define radical hospitality as “the desire to invite and welcome all into our fellowship no matter their gender, race, income, sexual orientation, marital status, or age.” This is how it is described in our church publications and web site.
Much has been written about the class meeting and you will find many of these books listed in the bibliography of my thesis. My purpose here is to provide information that would help one to decide if the use of Class Meetings in their context can be effective. My belief is that the class meeting will work in any context, but the reader can be the judge of this.
Paul Wesley Chilcote, ed., John & Charles Wesley: Selections from Their Writings and Hymns—Annotated & Explained, SkyLight Illuminations Series (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2011), 165.
Randy L. Maddox, “A Change of Affections: The Development, Dynamics, and Dethronement of John Wesley’s Heart Religion,” in “Heart Religion” in the Methodist Tradition and Related Movements, ed. Richard B. Steele (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow press, Inc., 2001), 15.
David Lowes Watson, The Early Methodist Class Meeting(Eugene: Wipf and Stock 1985) 148-149.
 Ibid., 15.
I highly recommend this book as the place to start these small groups. It is well written, well researched, and passionate. There are other books, but this one is by far the best.
With one exception. The youngest member of our group, a young mother, 34 years old, invited a young lady from her work that has a myriad of problems in her life and negativity towards the church. She did become a regular member for about 3 meetings. She assisted with our VBS, and we could see that she was warming to the idea of connecting with our community. She then lost her job and moved away. By the way, this young mom is also the one that is our second-class leader! She leads the younger age group.
A fresh expression is a new form of church for those not connected to any church and probably do not want to be connected to a traditional church setting. They take shape outside of the walls of the church in places where people in tour community are already gathering, in our case a local craft beer brewery.
This is not to say that informational discipleship should be abandoned. Bible Study and such programs are means of grace as well; experiential and informational should be balanced. In our case it was not.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship(New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1959), 89.