Having located ourselves on the European continent 400 years ago in the previous two posts I aim to move to the British mainland during the turbulent years of the eighteenth century. This will enable further reflection on the central importance of small group ministry in the local church.
The person who can help most here is John Wesley. Wesley was a passionate evangelist and an organisational genius. He was also the founder of the Methodist movement. At the time of his death Methodism was reaching around one million people. Coupled with these huge numbers he faced the challenge of how to adequately disciple new Christians. The answer was a network of small groups.
He approached this task with passion and intent. Methodist societies existed in various communities around the UK. These he divided into what he called “classes” and “bands.” People meet each week in these small groups to study the Bible, pray and feedback on their relationship with God. Each class had a leader who reported to the preacher in charge of the society.
They were in effect house churches, meeting in the various neighbourhoods where people lived. The class leaders (men and women) were pastors and mentors.
Wesley set out guidelines for these class leaders which encouraged them to “see each person in his class once a week, in order to enquire how their souls were prospering; to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require…”
The class meetings normally met one evening each week for an hour or so. Each person reported on their spiritual progress, or particular problems they had encountered, and received the support and prayers of others. Because the leaders knew each member well, they could adapt what they said to each individual need. The frequent meetings meant that wrong attitudes could be stopped before they developed into sinful practices. In this context of frequent, personal, and loving contact, class meetings became a powerful redemptive force.
Two things stand out in Wesley’s vision…
The class meeting was the cornerstone of the entire Methodist structure.
They became the primary means of grace for thousands of Methodists. They served an evangelistic and discipling function (The class meeting was the place where most people came to faith).
Drawing on this rich heritage, Wesley and (Spener) can provide insight for the church today as it disciples the people of God and engages with the local community.