Small groups—in which 6 to 12 people regularly gather to talk about their spiritual journeys, study the Bible, and pray—have become an integral and dynamic part of modern American church life. They have helped transform thousands of churches and millions of individuals. Though many think they were invented in the last couple of decades, they've been around in one form or another since the early 1700s, with the ministry of Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley.
June marked the 300th anniversary of John Wesley's birth, and Christianity Today took the occasion to look at one of Wesley's most enduring legacies. To explore the Wesleys' small-group innovations—and what they might teach us today—we asked senior writer Tim Stafford to talk with Tom Albin, dean of The Upper Room in Nashville. Albin did doctoral research at Cambridge University on the small groups of early Methodism, and he helps lead one of the most significant renewal groups in Methodism.
Why do historians often call the Wesley brothers organizational geniuses?
They often say that the secret of the Methodist movement was its small groups. But when I began my research, I found that nobody had gone deeply into what made those small group structures work. In the 18th century, the Wesleys were remarkably effective within the oral tradition of a working class, almost semiliterate culture. There were no manuals for class leaders produced during the lifetime of the Wesleys. To answer the question, you had to look to letters and diaries for clues.
So what were the early groups like?
There was a rich diversity of groups that emerged within the first five years. The trial band, for example, distinguished a sincere seeker for God from somebody who was just casually curious. You were on trial to see if you really wanted to know and love God.
A group of four to six people met weekly with a leader. They prayed, they sang and worshiped, and there was always an element of spiritual accountability. If they could do that faithfully over the course of two to three months, they were recommended to be a member of the United Society and the class meeting.
In the trial band, you find exactly the grace and power of the sincere seeker that one finds today in the 12-step groups. What does it take to be a part of AA? You have to say, I've got a problem and I need help from on high. And I'm sincere enough that I'll do the 12 steps.
What were the requirements for getting into a trial band?
You just had to be sincere. You didn't have to say you believe in Jesus Christ as your only Savior and Lord, that you accept the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God. You just had to say, "I want God in my life."
The whole Wesley system was set up to help the people who really wanted more of God. If you missed more than three meetings in a quarter, you were out. They made it really easy for people to get out, and significantly challenging for people to get in and stay in.
They created a system where sincere seekers could receive guidance and instruction. In fact you could say that the whole Wesley revival was really a revival of pastoral care and spiritual guidance. The diaries are what clued me in to this. Over and over the person says, "I went to this pastor and they weren't interested, and I went to this person and they couldn't help me, and I read this book, but I had no one to guide me in the divine life." The phrase no one to guide me opened my eyes.
What happened then in the class meeting, when one became a member of the society?
Each one of the Wesleys' small groups related to one of their major theological concepts of grace. The trial band explored and experienced prevenient grace, the grace that goes before belief. The class meeting was for convincing grace. Not only are you responding to the wooing of the Spirit, but you also have made a commitment to pursue a personal relationship with Jesus. You're absolutely convinced that you want and need Jesus Christ in your life. Between the time a person joins the United Society (and gets assigned to a class meeting) and when they experience converting grace, justification, or new birth is about two years.
So what's going on during those two years?
Well, every week you're getting together, every week you're talking about how things are going with your soul, and you're hearing other people talk about it. You could call it small-group spiritual direction. You're praying, you're singing, you're getting spiritual advice, and you bring your questions. You're getting a clearer view of who God is and what the life of faith is, and somewhere in the process the Holy Spirit enabled you to give your life to God. When you've experienced justifying grace, then you're ready for a band meeting.
What distinguishes the band meeting?
In the band meeting, all the members are born again. The issue then becomes, how do I grow in grace, how do I live as a disciple, and there's another theme verse: confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, and you will be healed (James 5:16). In the band meeting, the level of confidentiality is much higher.
The band meeting is also separated, men and women, and even by marital status. New Christians could answer the question, How do I live faithfully as a disciple, now that I've been justified by grace through faith? Gender and marital status become significant. Where before I knew as a single man what the culture told me were appropriate relations for men and women, now that I'm a member of the kingdom of God, how do I relate as a single man?
In a class meeting there could be 12 to 36 people; a band meeting was four to eight. Everybody is my same gender and my same marital status, so they are the ones who can best help me figure out how to live a faithful Christian life in this culture. After this comes the final step, the select band.
How did one get there?
You have to desire with all your heart that God give you sanctifying grace, or else to have already experienced the love of God poured out by the Holy Spirit, as in Romans 5:5. Interestingly, the select band is not separated by gender or marital status. It's as though once you have been filled with the love of God you're living Galatians 3:28, so that in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.
The focus of the class meeting is on the mind, the band meeting focuses on the will, but the formational focus of the select society is the heart. The early Methodists would see the select society as spiritual adulthood. You've given all of yourself at a different level.
It seems that all these small groups demanded a high commitment level.
The Methodist movement was all about creating a channel for people who had the desire and commitment to experience God and live the life of a disciple. It presses us to ask ourselves, Where are the sincere seekers finding a welcome? Where are they finding a community? And where do they find someone to guide them in the spiritual life?
You could argue that any given congregation today probably has 10 to 15 percent of the people who are ready for this type of Methodist movement within the congregation. The trouble is, very few congregations have one available. So people have to go elsewhere if they are really keen to learn and grow.
How long did this kind of small group structure last?
It continued through the Wesleys' lifetime. When the movement began to become a denomination, the small groups shrank into a single category, the class meeting.
Why did they shrink?
The Methodist movement demanded a high degree of commitment. Every year they would rewrite the society book with the list of members. I sat in Wesley's chapel, looking at the society lists in John Wesley's handwriting. He wrote every single name, every year, all 2,000 members. If someone dropped out of some small group, he knew that their name was coming off. He would ask why.
When British Methodism became a denomination in the late 18th century, the whole thing changed. The high requirements for membership of a movement had to be adjusted: Are you going to kick me out of the United Methodist Church because I don't show up every Wednesday? Would you deny me the sacraments? Would you excommunicate me over not giving my penny a week for the poor?
What difference has learning all this made for your own ministry?
When I was a pastor, if you had come to me and said, I'm having trouble with my prayer life, I would have asked you what books you had read, and I would then have recommended the two best books that you hadn't read yet. The basis of my ministry was that knowledge leads to transformation.
Now, I would still ask what books you had read, but I would also ask, What are your prayer practices, and who are the people who taught you to pray, and how did they pray? And then, based on what I learn about your personality and your formative influences, I would seek to get you into the sphere of influence that matches your personality type, and into prayer practices that suit that personality type.
I would try to help you into the sphere of influence of living human guides, spiritual friends who can help you develop new ways to pray that suit the kind of person you are. I now understand Christian spiritual formation and discipleship to involve three interrelated dimensions: knowledge, experience, and a small group that can support me as I grow in grace and discover my place in the body of Christ.
Do we need structures that demand accountability?
No, I think we need structures that allow more voluntary accountability. Voluntary accountability is very important to me, because the difference between a cult and what I'm describing is exactly the issue of voluntary. It's not the church telling me I have to do this or else. As a seeker, I respond to the call of God when I am ready.
There are people who long to go deeper with God, and they don't have anybody to guide them. They can't find a group that's clear enough about the spiritual journey to say, "If you really want to connect with God, here's how you do it." In AA you have to have a mentor, but you also have to have a meeting. So where are the mentors, and where are the meetings? That's the key question for those who desire more of God, more of the life of the Spirit.
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Christianity Today sister publication Christian History featured John and Charles Wesley in its Winter 2001 issue. Christian History marked John Wesley's 300th birthday with a column on how Wesley changed America.
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