United Methodists come together because they are answering God’s call to discipleship in Christ Jesus. The purpose of coming together in church is to enact with each other the teachings of Jesus, to model our lives upon his life and ministry in this world, and to be mutually accountable and supportive of one another as we all seek to grow in grace as individuals and as communities. Discipleship is constitutive of community — of church — for United Methodist Christians. Without active discipleship the church is a hollow show.
Understanding the centrality of discipleship, United Methodist ecclesiology has developed its form around function to create church structures and processes to help discipleship to be embodied in the lives of Methodists. Because of this, the origin-point for growth in early Methodism was rooted, organically, in small group relationships. In the earliest manifestations of Methodism, especially in the United States, classes were formed before societies. Classes were essentially the ‘cells’ that were formed by calling together a small group of people in a particular area. These groups (ideally of twelve — but usually of varying numbers and sometimes as large as sixty) grew on a preaching circuit over time. When people joined the Methodists, sometimes there were sufficient numbers to form classes made up principally of new members. Sometimes an existing class would be added to and then divided. And, as multiple classes formed around a particular place, these were brought together into societies. This is important: classes came first and then societies. The practical basic unity of church for early Methodists were there classes.
These classes were the settings in which discipleship through action was cultivated. Members came together at least once a week to pray, to sing hymns, and to give account of their attempts to live according to the General Rules — which were practical distillations of Jesus’s teachings about how to live and love one another. Members shared about their temptations and failures. They celebrated the triumphs in which, with God’s help, they had managed to do what was right or avoid doing what was wrong.
Societies provided settings for weekly preaching. The meetings of the societies were open to Methodists and non-Methodists alike. One’s membership in the Methodist Episcopal Church (one of the forerunners of today’s United Methodist Church), however, came through being admitted as a member of a class — not a society (later called a congregation or church). This was a practical recognition that true discipleship needs to be rooted in tangible relationships with one another. Hearing (listening to preaching) does not make one a disciple. Doing in the company of other committed Christians is discipleship.
Indeed, the early Methodist movement was structured around specialized groupings aimed at cultivating different aspects of discipleship. John Wesley developed classes and bands as the working ‘engines’ of growth — of the individual and community’s growth in grace. Bands had a very different purpose. The most common form of the band was a small group (not more than eight members) who had experienced justification and were working on the transformation of the heart and mind to accompany the transformation of behaviour (the latter being the objective of the classes). There were also more specialized groupings in bands — one of these being penitent bands that aimed at helping people overcome addiction to alcohol and other harmful behaviours. These can be seen as a forerunners of mutual support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.
D. Michael Henderson’s analysis of John Wesley’s approach to building and utilizing small groups observes that John Wesley believed that there were three distinct aspects of the human being to which one needed to attend: hands, head, and heart. His method, over time, came to prefer separate settings for the care of each aspect of Christ’s disciples under his pastoral care. Societies were the setting for cognitive discipleship; where the intellect was addressed for the persuasion through the person’s capacities of reason. Classes dealt with behaviour; monitoring and supporting one another in how life is lived. And, bands were the setting in which disciples sought to help one another in the transformations of their hearts.1
It is in this basic structure of the Methodist movement (and then some of the churches that eventually came together to form The United Methodist Church) that we see some of the strongest influences upon Wesley drawn from the Moravians. Small groups as principal organizing features of Christian groups is a common mark of pietists of different types. John and Charles had experienced in their childhood home, under the leadership of their mother, small group meetings that were similar to those common among English Puritans prior to, and during, the Civil Wars in England. The methodology of the small groups Wesley formed, however, have a striking resemblance to the small groups he encountered during his associations with the Moravians.
In the early 19th century, as the socio-economic position of Methodists advanced in the American and British contexts, the rigorous demands that members live under the watchful eye of each other, and that they give over large amounts of time to their small groups, brought them into growing conflict with more common social expectations. David Hempton is but one of the historians of Methodism world-wide who notes that with increasing social advancement the pressures to conform to a model of church that looked like those around them grew harder to resist.² There is more that is needed to explain the drift away from a small group ecclesiology, though. The rise of cross-denominational voluntary organizations such as mission societies, tract societies, Sunday school associations, and myriad groups for the reforming of society’s ills, gave other settings in which Methodists could see themselves as being engaged in the mutual enactment of the mission of Christ in the world. Whatever the explanation for why classes and bands became first vestigial and then removed from the ecclesiological structure of Methodism, the fact is that this motor of discipleship eventually was abolished as a requirement for Methodist church life.
The underlying intention did not go away, however. The Methodist ‘ethos’ still contains a deep sense of commitment to discipleship as a primary purpose for being church together. What can be fairly said, is that the vision for how discipleship is to happen has become less regular; and in some cases individuals and congregations grope about, as in the dark, trying to find effective ways to embody discipleship in their communal and individual lives.
One of the challenges for United Methodists is to gain an awareness of the rich resources they have for developing new ways of embodying their sense of being connected in discipleship together. One cannot live in the past. But the past can provide helpful examples, and wisdom of prior experience, to spark new ideas for how things might be in future.
1 Please see, Henderson, D. Michael. John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples. Nappanee, IN: Francis Asbury Press/Evangel Publishing House, 1997.
2 Please see, David Hempton. Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.