The second in a series of four stories on Wesleyan small groups. Read the other stories here.
This car passes West Nashville United Methodist Church, but many Christians are making time in their busy schedules to work on their spiritual lives with a small group. File photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.
Into their already jam-packed schedules, many United Methodists are setting aside time to connect with other Christians, to receive encouragement to grow in their discipleship, and to spiritually mentor one another.
The typical Sunday morning interactions that occur in the church narthex after worship are unsatisfying for some. We talk about the weather or sports, but when asked how we are doing, many of us automatically reply, “Fine. How are you?” no matter how rough the week may have been.
The Rev. Michael Zdorow, Pastor of Connecting and Leadership Ministries at Christ Church, a United Methodist congregation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says, “I’ve observed that there is this veneer over our souls. We have the Christian answer or the automatic Christian response to some things.”
To grow, we need to go deeper.
In the 1990s, Christ Church invited members to come together in what they call Wesley Fellowship Groups. Each Wesley Fellowship Group is “a covenant relationship group where the goal is sanctification. According to Zdorow, "It is more, ‘How is it with your soul?’ And then holding each other accountable in our daily walk with God and being in ministry with the church.”
The Class Meeting
This is not the latest innovation in church growth, but an adaptation of what John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was doing in 1700s England.
Methodism began with a small group. Then, as the movement spread, a specific type of gathering called the Class Meeting became central to what it meant to be a Methodist.
Historically, Class Meetings “made sure that every Methodist was connected to other Methodists, so no one was left out, ignored, or overlooked,” notes the Rev. Kevin Watson, a United Methodist elder and Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology. “They relentlessly focused every Methodist on the current state of their relationship with God. And they connected people to others who were at different stages of the Christian life.”
Both Wesley in England and Asbury in America considered Class Meeting attendance mandatory. Admittance to the larger Society Meeting required a ticket from a Class Leader, validating one’s faithful participation in a Class Meeting.
Admittance to a Society Meeting required a ticket from a Class Meeting. Around the edges of this ticket from 1814 are several reminders of acts of piety. Photo courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History.
“Class Meetings were required, because they were believed to be particularly helpful in people’s growth in the Christian life, at any stage,” explains Watson.
This commitment to growing people into disciples of Jesus Christ helped the movement spread on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean then, and in other parts of the world today. (More on that in part 4 of this series.)
The mission statement of The United Methodist Church—To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs—continues to call us to this work today.
As it was in the days of Wesley and Asbury, Class Meeting-style groups, like Christ Church’s Wesley Fellowship Groups, still make and shape disciples by connecting people to one another, helping them grow in their discipleship, and encouraging them to mentor each other spiritually.
All of this happens through a very simple structure. A group of about a dozen people gathers weekly to take turns answering a single question. In 18th century English, Wesley asked, “How does your soul prosper?” or “How is it with your soul?” Today we might say, “How’s your spiritual life?”
The conversations that follow are powerful.
“I have never been in a Class Meeting where people ran out of things to talk about,” Watson says. “On the contrary, I have often heard people express the challenge of not letting the groups run over too much.”
It doesn’t happen overnight, but through answering that question together Class Meeting members grow closer to one another and closer to Christ. They begin to “watch over one another in love.”
Zdorow shared the example of a participant who came to a meeting frustrated with something in his life. The group members listened, but kept asking soul questions.
“People in the group gave this person space to vent and talk about this,” Zdorow recalls, “but then we got past that superficial stuff and next thing you know, we’re starting to really get to matters of the heart.”
Living your faith
When we enter into these types of conversations regularly, lives are changed. Zdorow sees the evidence.
The Rev. Michael Zdorow finds members of his congregation's Wesley Fellowship Groups to be very active in the church. Photo courtesty of the Rev. Michael Zdorow.
Wesley Fellowship Group members are “very active in the life of the church,” he emphasizes. “They have the whole components of serving together [and] growing together. They really do care for one another.”
For example, when Christ Church needed hospitality at a second campus, a Wesley Fellowship Group recognized an opportunity for mission. “They were never part of that campus,” Zdorow reports, “but they saw the need and started stepping up to help out with the hospitality and make that a welcoming place.”
Connecting, growing, and journeying together forms disciples as they reflect on and share their answers to a single question.
To start a similar group, simply invite some friends together and ask the question, “How’s your spiritual life?” Then see where the Holy Spirit leads.
A great resource to learn about what Wesley’s Class Meetings looked like then and could look today, is Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. The book includes a study guide that helps groups begin the transition from being information-driven to transformation-driven and watching over one another in love.
Next we explore Covenant Discipleship Groups.
Editorial note: This story was first published August 17, 2015.
*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact him at [email protected] or 615-312-3733.