A common question I am asked is: Should you have class meetings online? This question had particular urgency during the Covid-19 pandemic. If online small groups are appropriate, what is the best way to start them?
This post will do two things. First, I will briefly introduce Wesleyan class meetings. Second, I will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of having these meetings online. Look for a follow-up post that outlines an easy way to quickly launch class meetings in your church. (Want to make sure you don’t miss future posts? Click here to get posts sent to your email.)
What is a class meeting?
Class meetings were small groups in early Methodism that had roughly 7 – 12 people in them. Members talked about their present lives with God. The groups focused on transformation – becoming more like Jesus. They were not information-driven groups. In class meetings, participants answered some form of the question: “How does your soul prosper?”
I love this question! It emphasized the expectation that Methodists would thrive as they met together and invested in community. Methodists were confident that these groups would positively impact member’s lives. And this optimism was not merely wishful thinking. Members of class meetings were confident in the group’s value because they had experienced it themselves. They testified to their own lives being changed as a result of the community they found in these small groups.
John Wesley believed class meetings were so important that he required active participation in the small groups for membership in Methodism. A Methodist was a weekly participant in a small group where they discussed their faith and their discipleship to Jesus Christ.
Of the many programs and curriculum that Methodism has tried over its nearly three hundred year history, the class meeting has been by far the most successful at helping Methodists grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.
Can you do this effectively online?
I have recently argued that there are some things the church cannot rightly do online. But class meeting are actually ideal during Covid-19 and a time of social distancing. Here’s why:
First, the larger the virtual gathering, the more passive the audience will be.
Second, the major need that people have in this time is not for good content to watch on their computer screens, or even excellent worship music. (If this were the major need, that content would largely have already been available online before the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted all of our daily rhythms.) The major need people have is connection to others and space to share with others where they are struggling and where they are experiencing God’s presence.
Third, groups of 7-12 people are close to the ideal size for online meetings on Zoom or Google Hangouts. In this format, you can see everyone’s face on one screen. And it is at a scale where everyone can have a chance to share with the group and feel a sense of connection.
I do think churches should go all in on creating these kinds of groups right now. If you feel like your church is stuck and spinning its wheels, send out an invite to join a group like this today.
However, while online is good, in person is even better. I do not believe that local churches should encourage small groups to meet online in normal seasons of life, though there are exceptions to every rule.
I’ve been in two different small groups that were both very powerful. One is connected to my current church and is now meeting weekly on Zoom. The other has always met online, but we try to be together in person when we can. I think everyone in both groups would agree that it is better to meet online than not meet at all.
I also think they would all agree that it is just that much more powerful when everyone is in the same room than when they are in front of computers in their own homes.
The church should facilitate connection now through online small groups like the Wesleyan class meeting. But they should also remain committed to in person connection as the primary and most effective approach to small group formation.
You should start these groups now
You should start these groups now because nobody knows what the future is going to hold as far as coronavirus is concerned. No one knows when churches will begin holding public worship services on their campuses again. We don’t know if there will be one or more disruptions again before effective testing and treatment for Covid-19 are found and widely available.
If you establish these groups now, they will be in place when we are able to meet in person and they will also be in place if social distancing has to be reintroduced due to a flare up down the road.
You should absolutely start Wesleyan class meetings online in this season. The next post will talk about how to get started. If you want to get a head start, pick up a copy of my book, The Class Meeting and read the first two chapters in one sitting. (It is available in print and digital versions. For this purpose, I’d recommend the immediate availability of the digital download. It is also cheaper!) You will need this basic background to be able to invite people to join a class meeting in your own voice.
I know many of you have already started class meetings in your churches. Have those groups continued meeting online? If so, how is it going for you? Where are you seeing fruit? What are the unexpected challenges you have encountered?
Update: Check out part 2: How to Quickly and Easily Launch Online Class Meetings
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.