Relational Discipleship & Wesley’s Class Meeting
By Rev. Dr. Marty Cauley
“First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil in every kind; especially that which is most generally practiced. Second, by doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as is possible to all men…. Thirdly, by attending upon all the ordinances of God. Such are the public worship of God; the ministry of the word, either read or expounded, the Supper of the Lord; private prayer, searching the Scriptures; and fasting, or abstinence. More welcoming with balanced accountability” (Wesley’s rule of life).
We live disconnected lives. Even as I write this, I feel the conviction of it in my own life where I barely know the neighbors who live just next door. We exchange pleasant waves pulling in and out of the neighborhood but I have never shared a meal with them or sat late in the evening and talked about significant things. As an advocate for real connection, I am keenly aware of that same need in my own life.
Several years ago, Robert Putnam wrote the landmark text that identified this cultural trend when he penned Bowling Alone. Since then, study after study has reconfirmed his research that 21st-century people live on the most crowded planet in history. We are surrounded by more people and living in closer proximity than any time in history. However, we are almost entirely without connection. Even though the most introverted around us craves some level of connection, we have withdrawn into our corners and cubicles, often settling for Facebook friends rather than real relationships. We make tenuous ties that can be snapped and “unfriended” with a few simple clicks. It is time for us to reconnect with our roots and the people around us who need to be invited into communion with Christ.
Class meetings were the foundation of relational discipleship for John Wesley, Methodism’s founder. They were originally led by hand-picked leaders Wesley had personally discipled. This empowering of lay leadership allowed for relational discipleship to extend to every member of the society. Class leaders visited homes, offered instruction, encouragement, pastoral care, and spiritual discipline as needed. (Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist)
Class meetings provided pastoral care for every member of the society and those seeking to become part of the Methodist movement. Class meetings included spirited biblical instruction and acted as a catalyst for missional action as the members were “spurred on to perfection.” Additionally, class leaders provided personal mentorship related to families, financial instruction, and addressed lifestyle issues. By visiting house to house, class leaders were able to observe the family dynamic of each member of their class.
In comparison to other revival movements of the day, the Methodists were able to spread faster and last longer in large part due to the relational nature of class meeting discipleship. In most revival movements, the movement only lasts as long as the emotionally-charged spiritual response continues. With class meetings, Wesley was able to provide ongoing spiritual nurture and accountability to accompany the movement’s powerful preaching.
Lastly, the empowering of lay leadership, a hallmark of Methodism, began to take root. Almost all class leaders were laity, discipled by trained clergy and lay pastors. This decentralization of authority allowed for greater reach into communities previously ignored by the parish church. By creating lay Methodist missionaries going into every corner of the city and involved in commerce, factory work, and local government, the movement penetrated the heart of the community.
New Faith Communities seeks to recover the practice of relational discipleship practiced by Wesley and his early followers and help people reconnect with God and each other. As a core practice, relational discipleship provides for care, saturates our lives with scripture and prayer, and encourages practices of worship and mission. Most importantly, it allows everyone to fully participate in the act of disciple-making. Please be in prayer for our planters and their teams as they seek to make disciples for the transformation of the world.