The United Methodist Church is a connectional denomination. The idea of connection is rooted in the movement led by John Wesley in England, beginning in 1739. Through his practice of itinerant preaching he organized a network of Methodist societies across Britain. The societies were connected to one another through their common mission (“to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”), discipline (shaped by the General Rules, class meetings, and class leaders), and spiritual direction provided by John Wesley.
The first annual conference was held in London in June 1744. John Wesley invited a select group of Anglican clergy who were also Methodists to meet with him and his brother, Charles. Their agenda was “to consider how we should proceed to save our own souls and those that heard us.” The questions that guided the conversation were: “What to teach? How to teach? What to do; that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice?”
Those early annual conferences were very different from what we experience today at a typical United Methodist annual conference session. I attended my annual conference session a couple weeks ago. A few days later a young pastor asked to meet me at a local coffee shop. During the conversation he lamented that there was no real discussion of discipleship or mission during the conference sessions. He was troubled by the absence of any substantial discussion of how the conference is equipping congregations to carry out the mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
I told the pastor that his comments brought to mind a lecture I attended many years ago. It was given by a prominent United Methodist scholar and historian. He argued that North American Methodists forgot how to be truly connectional when they abandoned the class meeting in the late 19th century.
Connection is relationship. Connectionalism is a reflection of the relational nature of Christian discipleship described by the Baptismal covenant. Since its inception in 1739 the class meeting was the small group in which Methodists met weekly with their class leader, a seasoned disciple of Jesus Christ who guided them in living the Christian life. These small groups, and the men and women who led them, were the heart of the Methodist connexion in Britain and America. They were the place where everyone knew you by name and helped you to grow in holiness of heart and life. People in the class understood what John Wesley meant when he said,
… Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.
By Christianity I mean that method of worshipping God which is here revealed to man by Jesus Christ. When I say this is essentially a social religion, I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist at all without society, without living and conversing with other men.
The people called Methodists understood that their faith and discipleship were deeply personal, but they were not private. They knew that Christ called them into relationship with him and with one another. Jesus describes this connection in John 13:34-35
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
The class meeting is where Methodists learned how to live the Christian life. They helped each other grow in holiness of heart and life as they watched over one another in love.
North American Methodism in the late 19th and 20th centuries succumbed to the rugged individualism celebrated in the dominant culture. They became embarrassed by the relational interdependence of the class meeting. By the turn of the 20th century the Methodists discontinued the requirement of the class meeting and eliminated the office of class leader. In the process they removed the heart of Methodism and the soul of connectionalism.
The mission of Covenant Discipleship groups is to help congregations re-tradition the class meeting and class leaders for the 21st century. Covenant Discipleship groups are the small groups that form and equip leaders in discipleship the congregation needs to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Some will answer to call to serve as class leaders. They are the discipleship coaches who work alongside the pastor the model and teach members how to live the Christian life by witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world and following his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Re-traditioning the class meeting for today will restore the connection and breath the new life of revival into The United Methodist Church.