In my writing and teaching about reclaiming the Wesleyan class meeting, I am sometimes asked about the potential for online class meetings. The class meeting was a small group of seven to twelve people that was centered on each person answering the question “How does your soul prosper?” (For more on the class meeting, click here for a previous series I wrote.)
The more I have thought about the class meeting, the more I have become convinced that the class meeting is more of an archaeological relic from when early Methodism’s days as a movement focused on justification by faith, the new birth, and growth in holiness. Today, most United Methodists do not have the vocabulary to talk about their personal experience of God. I’ve been in class meetings where we revised the original question so it was either “how is it with your soul?” or “how is your life in God?” People who do not have previous experience with a group like this often struggle to find the words to answer the question.
I mention this because I am often asked by people who want to be in a class meeting, but are struggling to find the critical mass to start a class, about the potential for an online class meeting.
Here are my initial thoughts (with the caveat that these are very much still in process for me):
I think there is some potential for online class meetings, but I would have a strong preference for class meetings that meet in real life. Here is my guess: Groups that meet in person in someone’s home have a much better chance of being successful in the long run than do those that are started by people who have met online and cannot meet in person because of geographical distance.
There are two scenarios where I think online class meetings would be most likely to succeed. 1) Technology could be used to sustain community that would otherwise be interrupted by a move. Imagine, for example, an amazing seminary that requires its students to participate in weekly class meetings during their time in seminary, the seminary I teach at does have this requirement! 😉 Here, many of our students have formed close friendships and want to stay accountable to one another, even as they are sent out from SPU. Given a context where people have met together for years and have built deep relationships, I think an online version of the class meeting could be used to help people continue the community that has been built.
2) Technology could be used to help pastors participate in a class meeting themselves, especially if they have never participated in one previously. There are a host of issues here that could be explored further. There is disagreement, for example, about whether pastors should or should not be involved in something like a class meeting with their parishioners. I think it would be better for the church if the pastor is in a group like this within their congregation; however, I am more of a pragmatist than a purist on this. I would rather a pastor be in a group than not, so if it helps a pastor enter into a class meeting by joining a group of other pastors, then by all means they should do it! And if it is not feasible to meet in person because of geographical proximity and scheduling issues, then an online meeting could work really well.
Before I sketch what I think would be the ideal way to organize an online class meeting, I want to make one qualification. One of the values of the class meeting is that it was a way to ensure that every person who was associated with “the people called Methodists” was connected to a community of people who were seeking to be saved from their sins and would watch over one another in love. A concern I always have when discussing online class meetings is that it will be a way for people to play it safe and join together with those they are already comfortable with, rather than risking inviting people around you to try something new. In early Methodism, the class meeting was one of the major pieces of the early Methodist movement. Better to start a class meeting in any form than not start one. But in my mind, it is even better to start one with people in your local church, to invite and encourage them to grow in their love and knowledge of God. I believe that a return to a form of small group practice like the class meeting is one of the best hopes for Wesleyan faith communities, but can only bring renewal to local churches to the extent that they are connected to local churches.
Conducting an online class meeting:
Here’s how I would organize an online class meeting. First, contact the people you would like to be in the group. Agree on a consistent time to meet weekly (remember to take time zone differences into account, if applicable). The best news about trying an online class meeting today is that technology makes it possible to meet as close to in person as possible. I would use skype, facetime, or some other online chat forum to meet. It is ideal if participants can see each other, but not essential. I do think it is nearly essential that the group be able to hear each other’s voices. Instead of sitting together in a circle, or around a table, you will be sitting in front of your computer. But you will still be able to answer the weekly question, pray for each other, and even sing (as long as I don’t have to lead the singing)!
Ultimately, I think online class meetings offer both potential and peril. The potential is that the virtual format may help some folks stay connected to Christian community that God has used to help them grow in holiness. It could also help people find a class meeting to participate in if they are in a culture that is not willing to try a class meeting. And best of all, everything that is essential about the class meeting can be preserved (i.e., people talking to each other about their relationship with God and their pursuit of growth in grace). The peril is that virtual classes could discourage vulnerability and intimacy. They could also encourage people to avoid their literal neighbors and inviting new people into the group.
A good rule of thumb is that you are doing something right if the class meeting is both a means of grace to you personally and it is also used to invite people into a deeper relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
John Meunier said:
Thank you, Kevin. It strikes me as a truly WEsleyan move to take an experimental approach to these things.
I’m interested in how we deal with the loss of vocabulary around salvation and even loss of impulse toward salvation. If the motive force no longer exists can the class meeting avoid collapsing into shallow fellowship and therapeutic support group dynamics?
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When a new small group was formed in my last appointment, the question would center around How goes it with your soul? The group decided they would meet via FB, but found communication problems facilitated the need for face to face meetings. Perhaps it is best to blend both. I know I need face time with my friends and colleagues as so much is interpreted and spoken in the language of the body.
It seems to me that a class meeting could use online tools such as Google Plus hangouts, Skype, or facetime to accommodate special needs that may arise. For example, some years ago when I was in such a group, one of our members was hospitalized for several months. We accommodated her situation by meeting in her hospital room once or twice. If she and all the group members had had internet access, that might have been a great alternative.
That same group member was also a “snowbird”. She and her husband spent part of the year at a second home in a different state. With these online tools, she could have continued participating in our group while she was away.
Generally, I think it is well for groups to meet face to face. The online option could be a back-up plan for situations like the one above.
On the other hand, my experience with that group many years ago. I was the pastor of a small church at the time, and I started the group with the hope that it would become a seed group for the formation of additional Covenant Discipleship groups. It did not. Over the course of about two years, it became a strong support group for me personally. However, the group never multiplied as I had hoped it would. It was a time of internal conflict in the church, and this wonderful little group began to be seen by other church members as the pastor’s clique. I was moved from that church after serving there for 3 years; and I severed ties with the group as I moved. I felt that severing the ties was the right pastoral decision.
Since then, I have not felt the situation was right to be involved with a covenant group. If I were to become involved in one again, I think it would need to be in a group of pastors outside the bounds of a local church.
As a retired pastor now, “the world is my parish”. I am also wondering whether there might be a role for me in creating a neighborhood discipleship group made up of my Christian neighbors (who attend many different churches). I am very interested in Elaine Heath’s developing model.
It will be interesting to see where the Holy Spirit leads us in this. Hopefully we will be able to continue to keep our “charge” faithfully using the wisdom of our Wesleyan heritage “to serve the present age” in a very different context.
Kevin Watson said:
John, you have put your finger on something I think about quite a bit. At this stage, I’d rather people be in shallow fellowship and therapeutic support groups than be entirely devoid of regular community. But I agree that this falls far short of the goal of the class meeting. For classes to reach their potential, the form is not enough but must be combined with the pursuit of justification by faith, the new birth, and growth in holiness.
Good thoughts here.
Inspire Network is already successfully doing online bands. The groups are tied to a common way of life, with an ethos of accountability and spiritual direction, blended with face-to-face time, and in a secure space (unlike any other social network environment). Having the online portion being a supplement rather than a replacement, helps to avoid some of the pitfalls you mention.
Saw a link to ‘online class meetings’ at John Muenier’s site. Also, trying to find and connect with others who conduct actual (face-to-face) Class Meetings with the General Rule. We are an interdenominational small group that uses the 1739 General Rule with directions for class leaders. We’ve been following the rule and discipline of the early methodist people for two years, even occasionally doing Love Feasts (according to Baker’s research) and Covenant Services (using Wesley’s Directions). We often sing hymns from the 1780 Collections but also earlier works of the Wesley’s, together with Watts, and Calvinistic evangelicals of the era. Our class leader is a ‘new school’ or moderate presbyterian, and I’m Anglican, and we also have a Mormon family involved. If curious, scroll to the bottom of this page to read and there’s some embedded links to pages elsewhere. Again, we’d like you to keep us in mind and share our existence with whomever might be interested if they are nearby northern CA. So far, the only actual class we know about is in southern CA at a UMC church, aka. the Font. The pastor there, Glen Haworth, started three classes about a year ago, and we’ve tried to be in touch. I discovered old-Wesleyanism through casual study of Anglican religious societies. Thanks! https://www.fremontanglicans.com/