John Wesley's Groups
At the heart of the (cc. 50-year) revival accompanying the life of John Wesley and transforming England as a whole there were groups of different kinds developed by him for varying purposes. Wesley's followers, who were nicknamed "Methodists" because of these and other methods, belonged to the Church of England at the time (until Wesley's death), and usually attended its worship services. Wesley arranged them in societies that roughly corresponded to our churches and were mainly places for (practical) Bible teaching. But Wesley knew that this is not enough, we have to go down to the level of deeds (it is often the primary level of learning), or even deeper if possible. Therefore, every member of the societies was, at the same time, a member of a "class" of 10 to 12 people. These classes were mixed as to age, spiritual maturity, gender, marital and social status. Those who wanted to walk more closely with God formed "bands" of 4 to 6 members of the same sex and status as well as mentoring pairs and spiritual twins. Most of the work was done in these small discipleship groups, the members of which were accountable one to another about their lives and sins, prayed for each other and encouraged one another to love, good works and holiness, avoiding theological disputes. They examined the teachings of the Bible in light of their personal experience, while new leaders were born and equipped for ministry. Each kind of group met at least once a week. Their meetings were characterised by an atmosphere of trust, confidence, and encouragement, especially in the case of the smaller groups. Wesley learned these methods from his parents (primarily his mother), and these groups functioned without considerable modifications from the early 1740s until about 50 years after his death. (As far as I know, nowhere are they used today, not even at places where they are said to be.) When George Whitefield grew old, he allegedly regretted that he had not used these methods, so most of the fruit of his labours had been lost.
I. The System of Groups
1. Societies: The method of cognition (learning)
A Methodist "society" included all the local Methodists. At the meetings of the societies (that usually had at least 50 members each) the men and women were seated separately, but in contrast to the customs of the day, the representatives of different social classes sat next to each other on the simple, backless benches. Usually prepared speeches were given at the meetings: lectures, preaching, public reading, hymn singing, and "exhorting"; it was not a place for personal discussion and feedback. At the open meetings (e.g. the Sunday evening assemblies) visitors as well as official members were allowed, while at the early morning closed services those who were to start work received encouragement tailored to their needs. They had special celebrations, love feasts, testimonial nights (e.g. on Saturday nights, to offer an alternative to the pub). Central elements of Wesley's teaching were the perfectibility of humanity, the freedom of the human will and the conviction that true religion (or faith) manifests itself in human relationships (in opposition to the teaching of the mystics emphasising solitary contemplation). He encouraged his preachers to study always, and he selected and published in cheap form a "Christian library" for them. He put the emphasis on practice and on living a moral, industrious, and thrifty life, showing not only what to do, but also, how to do it. The Methodists had to have clean and orderly attires and surroundings as well as lives. The teaching was the task of the local and the itinerant preacher leading the society. Usually both were lay "helpers" whose work was checked by stewards. Other very important responsibilities of the latter were distributing goods to the poor, collecting and recording donations, and looking after the facilities. While at the religious societies of the day usually well-to-do ladies and gentlemen discussed interesting theological issues, most Methodists wanted even the basic conditions of existence. The work of the stewards was complemented by (legal) trustees who were also responsible for the soundness of the teaching going on in the buildings they cared for. They all had to apply the general principle of talking personally to the one concerned before telling anyone else.
2. Classes: The method of changing behaviour
a) The Methodist "class", the principles of which have been applied very effectively by secular educators and religious leaders ever since, was probably the most important element of the system of groups. The societies were divided into classes of 10 to 12 members. Their leader (assigned from among their ranks) had to meet each member of his class at least once a week to inquire how their souls prosper; to advise and admonish them, and to receive what they were willing to give toward the relief of the poor. He also had to meet the minister and the stewards of the society once a week to deliver them the donations and to show their account of what each person has contributed. The idea of the class came from the proposal of a sea captain who suggested that each member of the class should give a penny to pay the debts of their society and offered to pay for those members of his class (where he collected the poorest people) who cannot give (enough).
b) In the general rules of the societies the particular behaviours to be followed and those to be avoided were listed along with the "means of grace" that can help us doing it (the Lord's supper, prayer, searching the Scriptures, fasting or abstinence, confession of sins). All these were goals to be reached; the primary condition of membership was seeking "to flee the wrath to come, and to be saved from one's sin", and actively participating in the class meetings. The membership of the classes was mixed from every point of view. Women could be leaders - even preachers -, which was unique at the time. In order to become a leader at a higher level, one had to lead a class faithfully and well. Most often it was the only opportunity for simple people to advance, and they often made use of it - it was here where many leaders of the labour party and the unions were born.
c) The meetings began at the stated hour with singing, then the leader gave a short account of his spiritual life and the experiences of the past week, sharing honestly both his progress and his mistakes, sins, temptations, sorrows, and inner struggles, showing an example to the others. It was also his responsibility to make sure that the meetings have an atmosphere of acceptance and commitment, understanding and confidence. They praised God for every progress, and balanced failures with sympathy and encouragement. The purpose of the societies and classes was working out the salvation of their members (cf. Phil. 2:12) and pursuing a holy life ("without which no one will see the Lord", Heb. 12:14) which kept the different groups from a selfish or aimless and fruitless introspection. In order to preserve the atmosphere of honesty and trust, visitors could attend only two class meetings before joining the class. Members received quarterly tickets from Wesley or his ministers provided that they had not missed more than three class meetings during the previous quarter. This lead to their regular and active participation and provided a painless way of getting rid of members who broke the rules. It usually happened if someone did not want to improve, and corrupted the group; as long as he had a spark of spiritual life, he was rarely excluded. Wesley himself paid close attention to his societies; he was not only an organising genius, but he also cared about details.
3. Bands - The method of changing emotions and motives
The band consisted of 4 to 6 people of the same sex, marital status, and of similar age. Membership was voluntary here (though Wesley propagated it emphatically at other meetings as his favourite group), and it was for people who wanted to grow inside, in the purity of their intentions, too. The members of these groups shared and examined their motives and impressions of their hearts with total honesty. So their meetings were closed, and they received into membership only people known, recommended, and interrogated by the members. For the questions and the rules of these small groups see "Rules of the Band-Societies". The leader's role was much more limited here than in the classes - he only started the conversation in which the members took part much more readily and actively.
4. The select society: The method of training
From among the most faithful men and women Wesley selected some as a separate group and he trained them weekly in the doctrines and methods of Methodism, so that they show an example to other Methodists. Some people did not find other groups challenging enough, but here they could continue growing. They were not allowed to consider it as a prize for the attainment of perfection or a static plateau. This group had neither special rules, nor an official leader. Wesley initiated open discussion, welcomed criticism, and even had the members of this group participate in making decisions and determining guidelines for Methodist doctrine and practice, while he could also be totally honest and open to them, and could learn from them. Everything said was in absolute confidence; in all "indifferent matters" or issues they submitted to the arbitration of the senior minister, and just like in other groups, everyone contributed what they could to the common stock.
5. Penitent bands: The method of rehabilitation
On Saturday nights Wesley met separately those who struggled with such severe problems that they could not live up to the demands of the class meeting. The format and stringent measures of these meetings were designed to help the really penitent backsliders (primarily alcoholics). This group was similar to the organisation of our day called Alcoholics Anonymous.
II. The Reasons of the Effectiveness of Wesley's System
A) The principles
1. The human will is free, and human nature is perfectible by God's grace through group activity and the means of grace (the Lord's supper, prayer, reading the Bible, fasting/abstinence, confession of sins).
2. Learning comes by doing the will of God.
3. The spirit and practice of primitive Christianity can and must be recaptured.
4. The gospel must be presented to the poor; social evil is not to be resisted, but overcome with good, changing the individuals. Groups are especially proper for the poor, since the latter are loyal to buddies, not ideas - in contrast to the intellectually and financially well-to-do who are more inclined to individualism.
5. The primary function of leaders is not to perform ministry, but to equip others to lead (see Eph. 4:11f). The countless offices of the Methodist groups - leaders of different groups, stewards, exhorters, trustees, sick-visitors, helpers, preachers, booksellers - made ministry available for everyone.
B) Group strategies
1. The point of entry to the hierarchically interlocking, constitutionally authorised groups is behavioural change, followed by the changing of emotions and aspirations, and by possible rehabilitation. A class leader was usually a member of a band, whose leader belonged to a select society, whose leader was in turn a local preacher.
2. Everyone takes part constructively in the activity of the groups (otherwise he loses his ticket, so he is excluded); the groups are graded by the readiness of participants. Except for the meetings of the societies, each member spoke at every meeting, which was facilitated by the questions described in the rules ("constitution").
3. Built in features of the system include individualised care and multiple accountability - usually to peers as well. At the same time detailed records help leaders know the members of their group(s) thoroughly.
4. The cognitive, affective and behavioural functions are separated, which also makes it easier to select elements functioning deficiently.
C) Leadership principles
1. Untrained lay people could become leaders if they proved to be capable of it - which made it possible for simple people to emerge as leaders.
2. Wesley himself appointed leaders with a good sense, based on public guidelines, seeking the counsel of his associates.
3. Leaders were recognised and trained, but were not made by education or other methods (leadership cannot be produced).
4. The speeches did not only delight listeners but urged action and also delineated how to do things.
5. They applied a combination of local and trans-local leadership.
D) Supplementary instructional aids
1. The thinking of the people was also formed by songs expressing theological truths.
2. Even the poorest people gave gifts, so they could have a sense of ownership and became important parts of the system.
3. Wesley published more then 400 volumes of cheap and good literature, and his preachers were also booksellers and promoters of good reading habits.
4. They opened schools for poor children, and launched self-help and relief projects using the collected donations.
Most of the above thoughts come from D. Michael Henderson's book, "John Wesley's Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples" (Evangel Publishing House, Nappanee, In., 1997) where there is also detailed information about the precedents, experiences, and steps that led to Wesley's groups. Dr. Henderson is an experienced Methodist pastor, theologian and educator as well as founder and Executive Director of African Leadership, an organisation which helps train and equip African leaders for ministry in Africa.
Róbert Hargitai (www.hivo.hu), 01/2007.
You are free to copy this material without modification if you include the above quotation (free download).
More information (Home)