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In response to my recent post on the expansion of Methodism in the early 19th century, I highlighted the large percentage of laity who were involved in spiritual formation of other laity in their churches. I suggested that one of the key reasons for the success of early Methodism was that for every church there were several lay people who were leading class meetings, where the lay leader of the group was responsible for asking each person in the group, “How is your life with God?” I then suggested that “one of the most essential tasks for the United Methodist Church today is training and empowering laity for this kind of ministry.”

John Meunier responded with a brief and piercing comment: “Someone teach me how to “empower and equip” lay leaders and I am there.”

So how do we empower and equip lay leaders in the contemporary United Methodist Church?

In this post I will do two things. First, I will identify two ways I think the early Methodist approach to discipleship can be directly adopted by contemporary United Methodists. Second, I will specifically outline one way to empowering and equipping the laity for the kind of ministry I have in mind.

It seems to me that often when folks in the Methodist blogging world talk about John Wesley or early Methodism, they trip over themselves to make sure their audience realizes that “things are not as they used to be.” At one level, this is an obviously true observation. Life in the 21st century United States is very different than life in 18th century Britain. An awareness of context is very important both in reading and interpreting Scripture and in making comparisons or prescriptions from one period of history to another.

And yet, the pastor in me often wonders if the concern for context is often a way of distancing ourselves from taking the Christian life too seriously. What, for example, has changed about the current context that would make the question “How is your life with God?” an irrelevant question for the twenty-first century?

As it relates to empowering and equipping lay leaders in the church, my guess is that the church could fruitfully adopt most of the strategies of the earliest Methodists without having to do too much contextualizing. Here are two specific ways that the early Methodist approach could be directly adopted by contemporary Methodists:

First, the expectation that every Methodist must join and participate in a weekly class meeting meant that Methodist leaders were constantly trying to identify people who might do a good job leading a class meeting. When a gifted lay person was identified, the typical response was to encourage them to become a class leader. This is relevant for contemporary Methodists because I suspect that many pastors most naturally assign their most gifted laity to be the leader or chair of a committee, rather than seeking to help them find a way to pastor other members of the church. So, the first thing I think contemporary Methodists should do to equip and empower laity for the ministry of “watching over one another in love” is to make identifying lay leaders who are gifted for this kind of a ministry a priority over everything else. If you have a lay person who would either be an excellent chair for the board of trustees, or would be willing to lead a weekly small group focused on growth in grace, you should direct that person every time to lead a weekly small group focused on helping others grow in grace.

Second, early Methodism equipped and trained lay people through a sort of apprenticeship. The first thing that someone who was Methodist did was join a weekly class meeting. In that meeting they would observe a lay person leading the class meeting, asking each person how their lives with God are, facilitating the conversation, making sure everyone has a chance to participate, and offering advice or encouragement as they discerned it was helpful or appropriate. These class leaders, when they identified someone they thought had the potential to be a good class leader, would talk with them and provide an opportunity to lead a class. I believe that this is relevant for contemporary Methodism. The main concern of some pastors might be that there are no laity currently involved in this kind of ministry who can apprentice others. My guess is that nearly every church (if not every church) has at least one or two laity who would thrive as a spiritual director or guide for others, but they are not able to exercise this gift because it is not currently valued by the church, or they are not able to exercise these gifts because they are so absorbed in tasks of institutional maintenance. The first step, where there is not currently an active lay ministry to others would be for the pastor to work to identify people who are gifted in this way, and seek to apprentice them and then help them start a ministry with others. This could be very similar to the ways that excellent Sunday School teachers are identified, except that they would not be teaching a curriculum, but would be a shepherd of souls.

The second thing I want to do in this post is outline the steps that could lead to empowering and equipping laity to start something like a class meeting. (I want to preface this by saying that this approach assumes that the congregation where this is being implemented generally has little to no awareness of the class meeting or the early Methodist approach to discipleship.)

First, preach a sermon series on the Wesleyan Way of Salvation and the Methodist “Method” for Making Disciples. Depending on the pastor and the congregation’s need for teaching on this, I would envision this being 6-12 weeks. The goal is that after the sermon series, the congregation should have a basic familiarity with Wesleyan theology and the “method” for bringing this theology to life that gave Methodism its name.

Second, towards the end of the sermon series announce that small groups will be forming which will explore this further. A book like my A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living would be helpful in helping folks get a better sense of the way that Methodism was originally designed to be a force for the spiritual renewal and transformation of its members. Sunday School classes could also be encouraged to use this study during this period of study.

Third, at the end of the study people should be invited to join an experimental class meeting that would last six weeks. During this time they would be able to see what a class meeting is like and they would be able to discern whether they would be willing to make a longer term commitment to being in a class, or even become a class leader.

Fourth, at the end of this period people would be invited to make a commitment to join a class. Depending on the response, a new class, or classes would start. Ideally there would be at least one lay person who would be willing to lead each class. This is less important, but I think it also would be ideal if after the six week “experiment” the classes met in the home of the class leader, or another person’s home (mostly because this is a more intimate and less intimidating environment for people who might consider joining a class after it has already been formed).

Fifth, the pastor should ask the class leaders to meet with her once a month to talk about any challenges they are facing, to ask questions, or to process what they are learning. The purpose of this is not to gossip about what is happening in other people’s lives, but is solely for the purpose of providing continued support and encouragement for the class leaders.

Sixth, once this approach has become a part of the congregations “DNA” steps one and two could be the training that new members go through, or confirmands.

Seventh, once or twice a year there could be space in the worship service for people who have been in classes to testify to the difference it has made in their lives. Following this, the person could make an invitation to join a new round of a six week experimental class meetings where people could get a feel for a class meeting without fully committing to it. After this, the procedure that follows step three could be followed.

These are my thoughts for equipping and empowering laity to become spiritual leaders who “watch over one another in love.” What are your thoughts, objections, or questions?