Thoughts Upon Methodism (Part IV)
I have been discussing John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Methodism in a few previous posts. You can read them here, here, and here.
I have focused on Wesley’s essay, which reads:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
The last two posts discussed whether Methodism in America has managed to hold fast to the doctrine and the spirit of the early Methodists. The goal of this post, then, is to seek to answer the question: Has Methodism held fast to the discipline that Wesley set before the first Methodists?
In order to answer this question, we need to first answer another, more basic, question: What was the discipline with which the Methodists first set out?
The basic discipline was the structure that Wesley created to ensure that Methodists would grow in holiness of heart and life. In other words, the discipline was the means by which Methodists expected to become holy. This discipline consisted of three key levels of organization: the society meeting, the class meeting, and the band meeting.
Today we can best understand the society meeting as being very similar to Sunday morning worship. It was the largest gathering where Methodists came together to sing songs of praise and worship, to hear the Scriptures read and preached upon, and to pray.
The center of early Methodism, perhaps surprisingly, was not the society, but the class meeting. There was even a period of time where you could not go to the society meeting if you did not go to the class meeting. At the class meeting you were given a ticket that would be used in order to get into the society meeting.
The class meeting was a group of about 12 people that was led by a lay person. Every person in the group would be asked “How is it with your soul?” Through the class meeting lay leaders were able to monitor Methodists and ensure that they were making progress along the Way of Salvation. It is also interesting to note that people often came to experience justification through the class meeting.
The next level was the band meeting. This was the most intense level of the Methodist discipline. Everyone who was a Methodist was expected to be at the weekly society and class meeting. However, Wesley did not consider the band meeting to be mandatory for all Methodists. The band meetings were smaller than the class meetings (about 7 people) and they were divided between men and women.
The band meetings asked very direct and intimate questions, like: “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?”
Some scholars have compared this structure to the three major areas of the Way of Salvation. The society meeting related to prevenient grace, the class meeting to justifying grace, and the band meeting to sanctifying grace.
Now that we know what the general outline of the Methodist discipline looks like, we can answer the original question: Has Methodism held fast to the doctrine with which it first set out?
Answering this question is sadly easy. The answer is clearly no. We have not maintained a Wesleyan discipline in the United Methodist Church in America. My feeling is that for most Methodists discipline means either: not much, or a book (as in The Book of Discipline). But for Wesley, the Methodist discipline was a commitment to a process that enabled Methodists to grow in holiness. It enabled them to experience transformation. Far to many Christians today are not being transformed. They are no different today than they were 12 years ago. (There are of course always exceptions to the rule, and thank the Lord there are still many people who have been deeply changed by their relationship with Jesus Christ.) However, wherever people are not being transformed and renewed in the image of God, it would seem that Methodism has the form, but not the power of godliness.
To bring this discussion to a close: I think that the area of discipline is clearly the area where United Methodists in America have strayed the farthest from their Wesleyan roots. I think the area of discipline is the area where John Wesley today would be the most discouraged were he to “ride the circuit” in United Methodist churches. My guess is his question would be, where is the discipline? John Wesley knew that discipleship does not just happen, it is first the result of God’s grace and secondly the result of committing to a process that has born fruit in the past. This does not mean that the process must be static and stay the same throughout time. By no means! But it does mean that there must be a process. There must be an expectation that people actually grow in their faith.
One of the things that always amazes me in Wesley’s writing is his willingness to ask people directly about where they are in their faith. He was not afraid to ask people to give an account of their walk with the Lord. In my experience, very few United Methodists today are willing to ask those questions. We are typically afraid we will offend someone. Wesley seemed to be more afraid of offending his Lord than offending someone who was unwilling to live out their faith.
If we were to commit to resurrecting a Wesleyan discipline in United Methodism, well, honestly, I think it would be incredibly difficult. Some people don’t want to be disciplined, some people don’t seem to want to grow in their faith. But on the other hand, I think there are many people who do want to grow in their faith, but they are not sure how and they do not have anyone who is willing to invest in their lives enough to help them take a few steps forward. I believe there is power in small group accountability (which is the essence of Methodist discipline) and I get excited when I think about what might happen in United Methodism if we covenanted to be accountable for one another for actually living our faith.
There is an unfortunate amount of baggage surrounding the ideal of being held accountable. Christians are often better at being judgmental than they are at helping people to take positive steps forward in their faith. In other words, sometimes we are better at pointing out the mistakes people have made in the past, rather than helping them to see the hope of a future that is marked by faithfulness.
Recommitting to a Wesleyan discipline would definitely require a willingness to take a risk. We would have to risk trusting one another. We would have to risk being more involved in the messiness of each other’s lives. It would not be easy. However, looking back at our Methodist heritage, it seems clear to me that the Spirit of God was powerfully at work. If the risk of being accountable to one another comes with the possibility of reclaiming some of the spiritual vitality that the early Methodists had, then it is a risk that I am willing to take. What do you think?
jeff short said:
i just stumbled upon your thoughts on wesley’s of the class meeting for disicpleship. i was reading again “our methodist heritage” by charles w. keysor. i agree with your thoughts on present day methodism and that it needs to return to the original discipleship accountability meetings. but unfortunately i don’t see that happening any time soon. i think you overlook the context of when methodism began. it began in a revival atmosphere and hearts were more predisposed to submit to christian discipleship during that period. it was the same period of john whitefiled, and of jonathon edwards and the Great Awakening in the American colonies. it was a time of revival, and wesley organized revived souls into revival-sustaining groups. under such conditions revived souls would put up with the intense accountability groups wesley organized. today, being in a state of non-revival, very few people would put up with the accountability of wesley into their lives. now the big question is: could revival come through starting such accountability groups today? or would such groups only service a small minority of people as one would expect? i guess the answer to that question depends on how one interprets history. did wesley and whitefield spark revival and the great awakening, and then consolidate the fruit into the church? or did revival come from the outside and these men just worked amidst revival and took advantage of the unusual spiritual atmosphere for discipling people afforded by the the unusual times? what do you think?
Kevin Watson said:
Jeff – Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. You raise some very interesting questions. I think saying that George Whitefield and John Wesley created a revival would probably be giving too much credit to them, and not enough credit to the Holy Spirit. However, I think that Wesley’s structure of accountability provided a structure that at least the Holy Spirit seemed to bless.
I am not sure I completely understand the issues you raise about the context of Methodism. I agree that many Methodists would not appreciate the need to submit to Wesleyan discipline. To answer your big question, I think that the revival of Methodism is most likely to happen through a return to Wesley discipline, but I agree that it does not guarantee it. My belief is that whoever did agree to become a part of it would benefit from it. If it is only a small minority of people who are actually committed to Jesus Christ enough to grow in their faith, I would want to do whatever I could to help them grow in their faith, no matter how few people it is. Wesley seemed to pour his energy into going where people were responding and where the Spirit was at work. If he had been content to serve in the role of a chaplaincy ministry, he would have served in a lukewarm local church and there would be no Methodism today, we would still be Anglicans.
I am not sure if I have responded to your questions in a satisfactory way. Feel free to follow up with your reaction or clarifications. Again, thank you for not just reading, but taking the time to contribute.
jeff short said:
kevin, i’m particularly interested in this topic because i’m a local church pastor here in new york. i was raised methodist but became ordained as a baptist minister, i’m pastoring a baptist general conference church. i was searching the web for information on revival and church renewal and i stumbled upon your article and was interested. i’ve read read a few books on wesley, like howard snyder’s books, trying to figure out whether wesley was a guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time, or if he created the right place and time by his gifts, abilities, and vision. most books on wesley often make wesley out to be a creator of revival, i.e., the wesleyan revivals, etc. but i’m more inclined to believe now that he really was in the right place at the right time, just as george whitefield started preaching about the time when God was breaking in with revival. i just recently read in snyder’s “the radical wesley” that howell harris reported revival breaking out before whitefield and wesley began preaching. so they came after revival was already going. then also there is the historical fact that wesley’s class meeting discipleship petered out both in england and america around before the end of the 19th century. which leads me to believe that revival was really the driving force behind the wesleyan revivals, not wesley the man.
does that leave me depressed or discouraged that simply applying wesley’s methods to my ministry won’t give me powerful spiritual results? no, because i firmly believe that revival is due, long over-due, in these parts. there hasn’t been a general revival in the united states since the 2nd great awakening in the 1800s. so what i’ve determined to do is prepare for revival using many of the things i see wesley doing with the discipleship meetings, bearing in mind that without revival occuring it will be harder to get people to “buy into” the depth of accountability and commitment wesley saw in his day. my prayer is that God will send a move of the spirit in my lifetime so that my preparation work will be in place to sustain revival as wesley was able to do with his disicpleship system. maybe if the Lord sees enough of us preparing for revival earnestly enough, he’ll send it. i think wesley’s models of close examimation of the soul by group members, confession and repentance, is what the church needs above all things today. if enough of us start practicing these things even before revival, it can’t be anything but good.
does your church do any of this stuff right now? mine does but not to the depth wesley did.
jeff short said:
kevin, do you know any book or article that describes what wesley’s class meetings looked like, in detail? i know the heart of each was an examination of each’s spiritual condition before the Lord, but i’m curious as to what that exactly means. i take it there were both men and women in the class meetings. i also assume the leader asked probing questions such as, “how have you each been tempted this week and how have you responded to these temptations?” but did the class meetings actually call for public confession of sin and public repentance of sin? or was the group leader asking more rhetorical questions and leaving it to each group member to answer within his own heart and confess and repent within his own heart? i know the band meetings actually did ask very private and embaressing questions face to face, and also expected direct, and honest answers to the smaller group, and confession and repentance in front of the group for any size sin. but i’m not clear on the class meeting format. does anybody know how probing and how close an examination of sin and confession took place at class meetings? also, are you doing what wesley’s groups did, and to what degree do you examine souls in a group setting? do you feel you reach the depth as wesley’s groups did in the class meetings?
i’m very interested in these subjects because i’m designing our group format for next year.
Kevin Watson said:
Jeff- Thanks again for your great responses. I am sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. To respond to your earlier comment, I think the success of the revival was due to a lot of different factors, one of the most important ones being what the Holy Spirit was doing before Wesley ever showed up somewhere to preach. I think you are right that in an important sense God was preparing people to respond before Wesley did anything (Methodists like to call this prevenient grace, the grace that goes before). But, where I think you might not be giving Wesley quite enough credit is in the role that the society, class, band structure played in maintaining and continuing the revival. One of the key differences between George Whitefield and John Wesley is that Whitefield preached and basically left, while Wesley preached and then organized those who responded into societies so that they could “watch over one another in love.” I don’t have the citation with me, but there is a great quote attributed to Wesley where he says that Wesley was wise in joining people together, and that “this I neglected and my people are a rope of sand.”
I love the second part of your first response. We can get so caught up in the academic questions that we forget to do anything. Praise God for your faithfulness in preparing for revival and trusting God to do the work to make it happen! I pray that your faithfulness is blessed by God.
You said: “i think wesley’s models of close examimation of the soul by group members, confession and repentance, is what the church needs above all things today. if enough of us start practicing these things even before revival, it can’t be anything but good.”
I just wanted to say that I agree 100% with your sentiments, absolutely!
You asked about my church… We began a Wesleyan class meeting, and it did very well for about 9 months. Then, due to some complicated factors, the group disbanded. I can’t say it was a tremendous success, but I can say that I saw real growth in people’s lives. My church is in a very small town, and that sometimes makes it hard for people to become vulnerable to each other. But I am still working on how to help people “watch over one another in love” in this setting.
Ok, now to your most recent comment: First, the best book available on Wesley’s class meeting is called: The Early Methodist Class Meeting by David Lowes Watson.
There is an important distinction between the class meeting and the band meeting. The basic question of the class meeting was simply “How is it with your soul?” or, “How does your soul prosper?” The band meeting was the one that was more invasive and direct, it was there where specific sins were confessed each week. Because of this the class meetings were co-ed, but the band meetings were divided up based on gender.
To answer your question as best as I can, I would say that the class meeting, as I have seen it used, is a bit more fluid and less clear cut. It requires an ability for the members of the group to listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit. A new class meeting will probably start out pretty surface level, and many people will even be unsure initially what the question “How is it with your soul?” even means. But over time people will begin to realize that they have a spiritual life with God that is not static and it matters whether they have been moving forward in their faith, or moving away from the presence of God. It may be a helpful distinction that for Wesley the class meeting was a basic requirement for membership in the society, but the band meeting was never mandatory, and only about 20% of Methodists in Wesley’s lifetime were members of a band.
Jeff, I am blessed to hear of your interest in the Wesleyan method of accountability. Again, feel free to follow up with any further questions.
Also, David Watson, the author of the book I mentioned above, has come up with what he considers a contemporary version of the class meeting, it is called Covenant Discipleship. If you do a search on google, or amazon, you can find books and information about that. I am not completely sold on it, but it is certainly better than nothing!
jeff short said:
kevin, thanks for the feedback on wesley. you are right in that both wesley and whitfield worked during a unique time of great spiritual revival sent sovereignly by God, and that whitfield won converts but didn’t follow up, but that wesley did follow up with discipleship groups. i don’t think jonathan edwards in america followed up converts either but pretty much limited himself to sunday church service preaching. francis asbury did lots of follow up work in america in that respect based on wesley’s pattern. now the question for me today is how much can be done in a time like our’s now without revival? unless the Spirit sends revival, we are stuck with evangelizing and discipling in spiritually sterile times. that means that our evangelism won’t yield the results of whitfield and wesley, and also that our follow up discipleship won’t see the depths of transformation wesley saw in quantity nor quality. i don’t kid myself in thinking that if i just copy wesley or improve on his methods i’ll see his results. he worked in a special time of the Spirit. on the other hand, the work of evangelism and discipleship must go on with or without revival, still i believe the best way of discipling people is how wesley did it, in small groups, with close examination of the soul. the difference is that we won’t be dealing with the numbers wesley did, and we won’t be able to see the depth of spiritual growth he saw in the groups generally. but the good news is that we will see some fruit and some depth, more than if we did nothing of this sort. i’m convinced that the superficial evangelism and discipleship that is becoming very popular and is filling up churches is not the way to go. creativity in preaching, yes, creativity in groups, yes, but watering down the gospel and the requirements of discipleship as is common today and called “growth” is the very opposite of revival and renewal. wesley’s approach today won’t yield superficial growth and casual discipleship, but it just might prepare a people for the move of the Spirit in revival. that’s what i’m praying for and working for. i think the lord is giving insights and breakthroughs little by little. but the key challange for me now is to see people respond to the idea of meeting together in discipleship groups regularly, examining their souls, repenting when wrong, receiving encouragement when living righteously, and making progress as the Bible outlines. let me know how your groups are progressing along these lines so that i might be encouraged, and i’ll try to do the same for you.
The only thing i know is that i know nothing!
I think that John Wesley and George White field had a lot in common and the article that that editer wrote about george whitefield isn’t true. Pease read Flame of the word book 2a!! it tells so much about the deism and rationalists! PLease read it!
Greats REVOLUTION IN Christian WORLD WAS brought by John Wesley.
I know he was such a tool that was used in Christian World
for Great re bible.His prayer inspire us to today date.
Bill Stegemueller said:
Helpful Post about the structure of Wesley’s discipleship program. Straight and to the point.