As readers of this blog and other pieces I have written are aware, I see the early Methodist class meeting as not only an ancient relic of days or yore, but as a practice that can and should be reclaimed by Wesleyans (and so does the seminary where I teach, where all students participate in a class meeting during their first year). There is one piece of this that comes up frequently in conversations about reclaiming the class meeting that I have not yet directly addressed – the relationship between the early Methodist class meeting and Covenant Discipleship (CD). I believe that there are some important differences between the class meeting and CD. Yet, I have been hesitant to speak directly to the similarities and differences between the class meeting and CD for several reasons.
First, I am a big fan of David Lowes Watson’s work. In many ways, I am standing on his shoulders. The renewed interest in the class meeting is largely a product of the time and energy he has invested as a scholar and a churchman in describing the class meeting, and in seeking to find ways to help contemporary Wesleyans reclaim this practice. His Early Methodist Class Meeting remains the standard book on the class meeting in early Methodism. And his vision for CD groups remains the most constructive proposal for how people can be equipped to return to a form of accountable discipleship (Steve Manskar also has a great book by that name and is doing wonderful things to keep Wesleyan discipleship before the broader UMC). In countless conversations I have had about the class meeting, people have spoken of their participation in CD groups and the valuable role they have played in their lives.
I am also hesitant to critique CD, because I think it is valuable. I am not interested in being seen as someone who is an opponent of CD. The differences that I see between CD and the class meeting are not serious objections or major flaws to CD itself. In other words, I am glad that people participate in CD groups. Further, I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing nothing because it isn’t perfect or exactly the way that I would do it.
CD almost always comes up in conversations about reclaiming the class meeting, particularly in several recent conversations I have had. I do have some concerns about how easily people assume that the two are synonymous. Because of my interest in reclaiming the classing meeting, I have decided it is time to spell out my concerns about CD as a contemporary version of the class meeting. Nevertheless, I want to stress that I offer this as a sympathetic critique.
I attended Wesley Theological Seminary in from 2002 – 2005. During my first year as a student at Wesley, we were required to participate in a weekly CD group. We were also required to form a weekly CD group as a part of our field education/internship experience in our second and third years. These experiences were generally positive for me, particularly the group that I was a part of during my internship. However, as I began to study the class meeting in its own rite, I increasingly began to feel a sense of unease about the assumption that CD was the same thing as the class meeting.
My sense is that a major assumption that went into the development of CD was that the General Rules functioned as a clear structure or guideline for the time that was spent in the class meeting. In other words, the content of the class meeting looked something like each person in the meeting being asked whether they had avoided doing harm, had done all the good that they could, and had practiced the means of grace. If this were the primary activity of the class meeting, CD would be a fantastic translation of the class meeting that provides a practical acknowledgment that the contemporary UMC is so diverse theologically that there is no longer an agreed upon list of sins that should be avoided (i.e., we no longer agree on what should be included under the first General Rule). A major positive of CD is that it allows individual groups to create a customized list of General Rules. It helps groups to reclaim a rule of life. And this is a valuable thing to reclaim!
However, I do not believe that the General Rules provided the major structure for the early Methodist class meeting. My sense is that they were in the background and that people were clearly expected to keep them, and would be called out if they were clearly violating one of the General Rules. But I do not think the major activity of the class meeting was giving an account of how you had kept the General Rules in the past week, which I take to be the main function of CD. Rather, I think the major activity of the class meeting was answering the question that is listed in the General Rules itself, to talk about one’s experience of God, how one’s “soul prospers.”
The General Rules begin with a description of people who came to John Wesley “deeply convinced of sin” and “earnestly groaning for redemption.” As Wesley began to meet with this group, and it began to grow, the first “United Society” was formed in London. These societies consisted of people “having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united… that they may help each other to work out their salvation.”
The class meeting, according to Wesley in the General Rules, arose in order to “more easily” keep track of whether people in the societies “are indeed working out their own salvation.” And class leaders, again, according to the General Rules, were to meet with the people in their classes each week in order to do three key things:
“1. To inquire how their souls prosper.
2. To advise, reprove, comfort or exhort, as occasion may require.
3. To receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the preachers, church, and poor.”
This list suggests to me that the primary activity of the class meeting was conversation about the state of each person’s life with God. Wesley’s narration of the beginnings of the United Societies is filled with language that points to the search for a direct experience of God being one of the key emphases of early Methodism in general, and of the class meeting in particular.
To put this differently, I think CD can much more plausibly be viewed as a contemporary adaptation of the Anglican Religious Societies for the 21st century, than the Methodist class meetings. The Religious Societies would come up with a list of rules that they would commit to keep and be accountable to, just as in CD. In the class meeting, one was accountable to the General Rules, but this was in the background and only came to the foreground if there was a pressing reason for this to happen (like someone violating one of the rules).
I became more convinced of the difference between CD and the early Methodist class meeting when I began formally studying the popular Methodist experience of communal formation as a PhD student. To the best of my memory, I do not recall ever reading an account of a class meeting that stated explicitly, or suggested that the rhythm of the class meeting was taking turns discussing the member’s faithfulness to the General Rules. There were examples of people being asked if they were keeping the means of grace, etc. However, these questions were part of a broader conversation that centered on the search for an experience of justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit of one’s adoption as a child of God. The overwhelming sense I had after reading popular Methodist accounts at the Methodist Archives was that people were desperately seeking an encounter with the living God.
Ultimately, I think there is a serious mistake that comes in equating CD with the class meeting. CD is focused on a covenant that you and the group are held accountable to. Unless my experience in these groups was a complete aberration, (and my reading of texts about CD was way off base), a person who is involved in a CD group will not necessarily ever be asked about how they are doing in their walk with God. Based on the way it is conceived, it would seem that CD itself could become yet another way of insulating ourselves from asking difficult questions about what is actually happening in our lives with God. (I’m not saying that this is what typically, or even frequently, actually happens in CD groups.) Based on the way CD is designed, it would seem to be possible to do all of the things in a CD covenant and not grow in your love and knowledge of God, or even have someone ask you about this vital aspect of your life.
Someone recently said to me that it is very difficult for many contemporary Methodists to know where to start in answering a question like, “How is it with your soul?” I think this person is right. We have largely lost the language for speaking of a living breathing relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was suggested that CD could be a way of backing into these kinds of conversations. I think that is possible, and I know many people who would testify that their relationship with God is stronger because of their involvement in CD. However, I think most people avoid conversations that are uncomfortable or feel risky, rather than accidentally stumbling into them.
Ultimately, I think Covenant Discipleship does more work than is necessary. It is more complicated than it needs to be. I do not see a reason why the class meeting cannot be picked back up as it was generally left off (well, historians could do some needed quibbling here). There is no reason why people who want to be faithful Christians cannot begin to gather together in small groups to talk about how things are going in their lives as followers of Jesus Christ, to support each other and to encourage each other to grow in grace.
I think the best way to reclaim the language of a lived experience of God is by trying to speak it, even if by fits and starts. Ultimately, reclaiming the early Methodist class meeting may be scary and intimidating, but it does not need to be complicated.
What do you think?
Katie Z. said:
I have not had any experiences with true class meetings, but I have participated in CD groups for a number of years. I think I have always concieved of class meetings as being more informal and more self-aware/vulnerable conversations about our faith than the CD groups… although at various times my CD groups have achieved that level of comfort with one another. The model of going through each stage of the “rule of life” and holding one another accountable is valuable, but I do hear your critiques about not asking the questions behind the questions…
1) what limits your ability to accomplish this rule? where is your faith blocked?
2) why are you struggling with this rule, this week? is there something about your relationship with your neighbor or with God that is getting in the way?
3) how have you been encouraged/strengthened to live out this rule this week?
4) where has God convicted you about what you are or are not doing?
When you go a bit deeper with the rule of life and ask about the struggles and pray for the places we need encouragement, then I think that we find a balance between the two. However, if I remember right, that isn’t explicitly written in the guide for CD groups.
Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their recent book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, argue that the single most important factor for a number of different positive (and one negative) characteristics for those who are highly religiously committed is that they belong to vibrant social networks within their religious groups. The authors expressly mention small groups in churches as one of the major factors in this scenario. It’s so interesting that sociologists can show empirically the power of groups like band- and class-meetings.
Secondly, I wonder if the UMC might not find a theological core (again) if we saw the formational power of these groups in terms of doctrine. You can’t really have a group if you don’t have at least some shared vision. Shared vision implies some kind of theological core.
As usual, I’m working on how to integrate experience of God with explicit theological reflection…
aarontiger (@aarontiger) said:
As usual, Kevin your insight is invaluable. I had wondered about the differences myself, but glad you wrote this post for us to understand, and I think your critique was done with great grace (as a Methodist theologian should) to CDs.
Jerrod Burris said:
Kevin, as is usually the case you have given me stuff to think about. Now I’m wondering….do think a small group started as a CD can be converted to a class meeting?
Jim Davis said:
I have hungered for a class meeting experience for many years and never found it in a church. My appetite for spiritual experience has been filled in a 12 Step Group.
Founded in 1935, the Twelve Step groups are probably the most important spiritual movement of the twentieth century. Their growth has been phenomenal, without a huge staff and zero advertising budget. Tradition 11 says: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.”
Just like the early class meetings, much of the wisdom of the Program is carried by an oral tradition, passed on from member to member, especially by “sponsors” (mentors). BTW, the principle of anonymity is probably one of the reasons why we know so little about what actually went on at a class meeting. They were confidential.
The Twelve Step groups are a good example of a social movement that has managed to maintain itself and grow with an absolute minimum of organization and central control.
The traditional “charism” is maintained by an opening reading at each meeting. In AA that reading is “How It Works” from pages 58-59 from the “Big Book” (official title, “Alcoholics Anonymous”), which includes the famous “Twelve Steps” widely used by many groups dealing with many different issues.
That reading includes such principles as: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” “Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” “Without help it (alcohol or whatever) is too much for us. But there is One who has all power–that One is God. Many you find Him now.”
Then follows the Twelve Steps. The first three are surrender steps. “(1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable. (2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
The Steps are not rules. They are written in the past tense as the experience of the first 100 sober alcoholics. Prior to AA most alcoholics died, so the early AAs asked themselves, Why aren’t we dead? And Bill Wilson distilled their experience into these Steps. The Steps are always voluntary. As the Big Book says, “If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it–then you are ready to take certain steps.” The implication is, if you DON’T want it, you are free to try another way. We just know our way works for us.
For many church people Step 12 is particularly challenging: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” Notice that the spiritual awakening does not come first, but is the result of action. This is metanoia, not a one-time emotional conversion experience.
Many meetings have a “topic” for discussion, often selected from the index of “conference-approved literature,” but the basic issue is always, “How did it go this week?” If anyone has a pressing problem, that takes precedence over the planned topic. People bring their difficulties in living the Program to the meeting. They do not expect to come to the meeting to hear a “challenging message.”
While the Program describes itself as a “selfish program,” meeting the recovery needs of individuals, there is always recognition of responsibility for outreach and service. AA Tradition five says, “Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Al-Anon adds, “Each Al-Anon Family Group has but one purpose: To help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps of AA ourselves, by encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives, and by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics.”
Humility is built in. “How It Works” concludes, “Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”
I have no desire to make the Twelve Step programs “Christ-centered.” I like the gentle challenge to find “God as you understand him.” I believe that God can meet us right where we are. And then we begin to grow from there. My growth included learning a lot more about Jesus, but others may find a different way. That’s okay, and I can learn from them.
How different our churches would be if we were “Hypocrites Anonymous” and at each week I had to introduce myself, “Hi, my name is Jim and I’m a grateful recovering hypocrite.” “I’m grateful for my recovery (in this specific way), but this week I’ve had a hard time living in the way God wants me to (in some specific way).” And then I asked the group for help, “How have you-all dealt with this?”
My dream is that our churches might become similar places of personal support, emotional recovery, spiritual challenge and growth.
Steve Manskar said:
Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ll begin my response by affirming your goal of re-traditioning the class meeting. I am full agreement with you that The United Methodist Church needs to rediscover the method of Methodism that was the class meeting. That goal is precisely the purpose of Covenant Discipleship groups.
You see, Covenant Discipleship groups were never intended to be a replica of the class meeting. While they have their origins in the class meeting, they focus on the one aspect of the class meeting that is most absent from the contemporary United Methodist church: accountability for discipleship. Most of the other important characteristics of the class meeting (fellowship, catechesis, prayer, and Bible study) may be found in a typical congregation. However, it is highly unlikely that groups whose focus is accountability for discipleship are commonly found.
This leads me to clarify a common misunderstanding of Covenant Discipleship groups. They were never intended to be a substitute for the class meeting. Rather, they were, and are, designed to form leaders in discipleship who could then provide the lay pastoral leadership needed in a contemporary version of the class meeting. If the class meeting you envision is ever to be re-traditioned, then the church needs to form and equip lay women and men to do the pastoral ministry once done by class leaders. Covenant Discipleship groups are designed to form and equip lay women and men to serve as class leaders.
This is the most neglected and misunderstood component of Covenant Discipleship as it was envisioned and developed by David Lowes Watson. Pastors and laity have been attracted to Covenant Discipleship groups as a program for persons interested in discipleship. But they fail to understand the true purpose of the groups, largely because they are unfamiliar with, or intimidated by, the office of class leader. My experience tells me that most United Methodists (clergy and lay) are uncomfortable with the idea of lay pastoral leadership that is embodied in the historic office of class leader. I suspect this reality is why few United Methodists have ever read the trilogy of books by David Lowes Watson in which he sets forth his vision and method for re-traditioning the class meeting and class leaders for the church today (Forming Christian Disciples: The Role of Covenant Discipleship and Class Leaders in the Congregation; Covenant Discipleship: Christian Formation Through Mutual Accountability; Class Leaders: Recovering a Tradition).
I am with you Kevin. Like you, I am convinced The United Methodist Church must recover and re-tradition the class meeting for today. However, in order for that to happen the church must be very intentional about forming and equipping lay men and women for the pastoral leadership the class meeting and the mission of the church requires. Covenant Discipleship groups are designed to do that essential formational work.
Kevin Watson said:
Thanks for all of the gracious and thought-provoking comments! You are helping me to think about the class meeting and Covenant Discipleship more carefully.
@Jerrod – With God all things are possible! I think it is possible to transition from CD to a class meeting, but I think it would ultimately only be marginally easier than transitioning from Sunday School or another curriculum driven small group. In my experience, if you want to help people learn to talk about their experience of God, the best way to do so is to have them begin to talk about their experience with God. I’m sure there is an easier way.
@ Jim – Thank you for your wonderful reflection on AA. I have often thought that AA is one of the closest equivalents of the early Methodist class meeting, though it is clearly oriented in a different/more specific direction than the class meetings were. The one push back I would have as a historian is the idea that because the class meetings were confidential we don’t know much about them. That is true in that people did not write letters to the editor about their classes. However, there are thousands of extant letters in places like the Methodist Archives that contain the private correspondence of early Methodists. These letters often speak of experiences in classes and bands that reveal quite a bit about the early Methodist experience of the classes and bands.
@ Steve – Thank you for taking the time to bring your expertise re. Covenant Discipleship to bear here. I was hoping you would! From prior interactions I know that our passions for renewal of The UMC are far more similar than they are different. I write what follows with the sense that we are for the most part kindred spirits. I also appreciate your clarifying the original intentions and purposes of CD. There are two places where I think there may be some divergence between our senses of the relationship between CD and the class meeting, or the potential of CD to lead to a retrieval of the class meeting.
1. I am not sure I agree with you that accountable discipleship is the one area of class meetings missing from contemporary UM congregations or that the other aspects of class meetings are typically found in most UM congregations. As I was trying to point to in my post, I think the key activity of the class meeting was developing a vocabulary for speaking of one’s experience of God and helping people pursue justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit. In my experience, these are both more important than accountable discipleship, and less common. That is, I think most contemporary UMs would be more comfortable talking to each other about whether they have read Scripture, attended worship, etc. than they would be comfortable talking to each other about whether they have experienced the witness of God’s Spirit with their spirits that they are the children of God. (This is not to say that accountable discipleship is unimportant, I think it is vital – and one of the reasons I am a fan of CD. But, if I had to prioritize them, I would place the pursuit of justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit within the context of community ahead of accountability for one’s discipleship.)
2. If the goal of CD was and is to form disciples who can lead class meetings, it seems to me that CD has largely failed. (I may factually be off base here, because I am writing this from home and do not have access to my copies of David Lowes Watson’s books.) But, hasn’t CD been around for about twenty years? Perhaps I have missed it, but I have never heard an example of CD being used to actually raise up class leaders who then started class meetings. My sense is that this is because CD is not actually a necessary intermediary for starting class meetings. At Munger Place, for example, we simply started a class meeting. Ten people eventually were committed participants. After about six months, we split the group into five groups of two leaders and started five class meetings. From these groups we identified further leaders. Last I heard, Munger Place has at least twelve functioning class meetings. (They call them Kitchen Groups.) I think there is room to disagree on this, and I can see how CD could be helpful in leading toward class meetings. However, I do not think it is a necessary step, and I think the burden is on CD, if this is in fact the ultimate purpose, to show that it is actually helping to create class meetings and not just becoming an end in itself. (I want to admit here that I may be misunderstanding you, as I actually think CD groups existing for their own reason is legitimate.) And either way, I hear and appreciate your desire to see UMs return to the class meeting.
Finally, I want to underscore how much I respect the folks, particularly at GBOD, who have invested so much time and energy in the work of discipleship (which is at the heart of the current mission of The UMC). And in particular, Steve, I appreciate the work you are doing and look forward to ways to work with you to help The UMC more effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ, particularly through the Wesleyan approach to communal formation.