This is the third post in a series on the contemporary relevance and practical application of the Methodist class meeting. In the first post, I gave a brief history of the origin and development of the class meeting in early Methodism. In the second post I discussed the potential contributions I believe the class meeting can make for 21st century Methodism and compared and contrasted the class meeting to Sunday school classes, small groups and accountability groups. In this post I will discuss the target audience for the 21st century class meeting.
Simply put, class meetings are designed for anyone who wants to grow closer to God. As I mentioned in the last post, they can help ensure that people do not fall through the cracks in a church. Classes also help people be self-aware of what is happening in their lives as Christians. What difference is their faith making in their life? And they provide a place for people to talk with other people who want to grow closer to God about what is happening in their life with God.
In the last post, John Meunier raised an important issue. John wrote: “Didn’t the class leader have a role that included giving advice and/or reproof as needed? It seems like that would be felt as more intense to most people today. Not as intense as the bands, but more intense than many folks want.”
As far as I can tell, John is right. I think there would be resistance to joining something like a class meeting among many people for two reasons: 1) Generally speaking, Methodists have not been in the habit of talking about their lives with God for a long time. 2) Contemporary Methodism’s desire to avoid being judgmental or condemning has led to an almost total abandonment of any real standards or expectations for its members. This was illustrated recently by, of all people, Jon Stewart who said that Methodism was like the University of Phoenix of religions, you pay $50 check “I agree” and you are saved. Stewart has perhaps given Methodism too much credit for having membership standards – because there is no cost currently associated with being a Methodist.
So, at one level people might be uncomfortable because they are being asked to talk about something they aren’t used to talking about with other people. At another level they might be uncomfortable because they are being asked to make a meaningful commitment to join together with a small group of people with the purpose of growing in their lives with God.
My response is that comfort is not the best indicator of whether or not something is good for you, or whether you need to do something.
For my first two years as a Ph.D. student, I did not take good care of my body. I did not exercise and I ate whatever sounded good. This approach was, generally speaking, very comfortable. Recently, I committed to exercise 20 minutes or more at least 3 times a week. The first time I ran (using that word very loosely!) was not comfortable, in fact it was painful. I thought I might throw up at the end of those first 20 minutes and the next day my legs were sore. I am slowly getting in better shape, but running (using that word just a bit less loosely now) is never comfortable for me.
This may not be the best example, but we could easily come up with many other examples of how comfort is not necessarily a good or accurate indicator of right or wrong, or of what is best for us.
More directly to John’s concern, in my experience people who are gifted at leading groups like class meetings are quick to listen and both cautious and sensitive about offering advice or correction. At this point, I am going to set this aside, because I plan on writing more extensively about the role of the class leader in future posts – which is what I think is primarily at issue here.
So far I have argued that the class meeting is for everyone who wants to grow closer to God, but I have also admitted that it will likely intimidate many people who sincerely desire to grow closer to God. What is the best way to address this tension?
This is a key place where pastors and lay leaders have an opportunity to challenge people to move outside of their comfort zone. An effective way to address this tension would be for the person who has the vision for starting groups like this to acknowledge that the thought of joining something like this might be a little bit scary, but that is actually a very normal reaction. One thing I have done to ease this tension is to make the first meeting more of an information session, where people will have the chance to learn more about the group, what its goals are, and why someone would benefit from being a part of it. I always stress that people who are interested, but not sure if this is for them should come, that coming to the first meeting is part of discerning whether this is for them. It is NOT a commitment to join the group. In other words, you can give people the freedom to come and learn more, without feeling like showing up means they are going to be forced to permanently join.
More importantly, anyone who is trying to start these type of groups needs to be able to make the case for why facing the fears or discomfort that will result from getting involved will more than offset the initial discomfort. If someone has been part of a group like this before, it would be very appropriate for them to share the hesitation they may have initially had to joining and then to share the ways that the group was a blessing and actually did help them grow closer to God.
Ultimately, I believe there are a significant number of Methodists who want to grow closer to God so much so that they are willing to move outside of their comfort zone and take a risk if they are convinced that the risk is likely to help them actually grow in their faith. The key, then, will be to make a persuasive case that this type of group is a key tool to that end. It might not hurt to remind them that for our spiritual ancestors, it was believed to be an indispensable tool.
What do you think? Have you been in a group like this? Did it help you grow closer to God?
If you are just joining this conversation, welcome! Please continue to feel free to ask any questions that this post may have raised for you. You can email me directly at deeplycommitted at gmail dot com or leave a comment on this post.
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Don Yeager said:
I believe Bishop Dick Wills, when he was pastor at Christ UMC in Ft. Lauderdale, instituted something like Wesley accountability groups in the church there. He spoke about them at a clergy retreat in North Texas several years ago. He might be a good resource.
Also, David Lowes Watson (any relation?) has been an advocate of covenant discipleship groups in the contemporary church.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks Don. You are right, Bishop Wills did institute what he called Wesley groups, and they were intentionally designed to be a contemporary version of the early Methodist class meeting. Wills wrote a book about his time at Christ UMC called Waking to God’s Dream: Spiritual Leadership and Church Renewal and the Wesley groups feature prominently in the book.
And thank you for the reminder of David Lowes Watson’s work. He has done more than anyone of generation to work for the a return to something like the early Methodist class meeting. Unfortunately, we are not related – at least as far as I know. If you were to meet both of us at the same time, it would be immediately obvious as I do not have the very cool British accent that he has!
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As I recall, John Wesley’s primary requirement for membership in the Methodist Society (or was it the bands) was a “desire to flee from the wrath to come”. It seems to me that that is different from a desire to “grow closer to God”. I’m wondering if these requirements are essentially identical. If not, what difference would the distinction make–is it simply a matter of modernization, or something more substantial?