The class meeting has been getting a lot of attention recently. This is true in large part due to Kevin Watson’s book, The Class Meeting, which is being used by many United Methodist congregations. The book is a helpful resource for introducing people to the practice that was the “method” of Methodism. The class meeting was one of the distinguishing marks of the early Methodist movement, and of the Methodist Episcopal Church that emerged from it.
Class meetings were small groups of 12-15 members of a Methodist society who met weekly with their class leader. The leader was a mature follower of Jesus Christ who the society leaders discerned could be trusted with the spiritual formation and care of fellow Methodists. They led the weekly class meetings and served as role models for their class, and the other society members. Class leaders were leaders in discipleship.
I call the class meeting the “method” of early Methodism because the vast majority of Methodists received faith in Christ within the community of their class. The combination of support and accountability for the formation of holy habits described in the General Rules in a community of Christian love opened hearts to grace that prepared them to be able to receive and accept the gift of faith in Christ. After people received faith, the class provided the support, accountability, and love needed to grow and mature in faith, hope, and love. The class meeting is where people were inspired and equipped to live as witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world and follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion.
Class leaders were faithful lay men and women whose faith and witness to Christ were shaped by the love, support, and accountability of the Methodist class and society meetings. The discipline described in the General Rules and the support and accountability of the class meeting formed them into leaders in discipleship in whom others could see Christ working. The class leader’s job description is found in the General Rules:
To see each person in his class once a week at least, in order to inquire how their souls prosper; to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require; to receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the poor.
To meet the Minister and the Stewards of the society once a week; in order to inform the Minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly, and will not be reproved; to pay to the Stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding; and to show their account of what each person has contributed.
David Lowes Watson, in his The Early Methodist Class Meeting: Its Origins and Significance, says, “… there is little question that they became as skilled a group of spiritual mentors as the church has ever produced. What Wesley looked for in a leader was a combination of disciplinary and spiritual discernment, so that fellowship in the classes would be a means of growing discipleship” (page 101). Class leaders were like coaches who work directly with a team. They teach the players the fundamentals of the game and the help them make sure they practice so that habits and muscle memory are formed. Like coaches, class leaders lovingly encourage, challenge, and push the women and men in their class to live as faithful, dependable followers of Jesus Christ.
The fundamentals of the Christian life are described by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40,
He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
and 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 General Rules provided practical guidance for the Methodists to learn and practice Jesus’ teachings by
“First, doing no harm by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced …
“Secondly, 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 possible, to all people …
“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; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; and fasting or abstinence.”
The class leaders helped the members of their classes to grow in holiness of heart and life by living their faith in Christ through habitual practice of loving God and love whom God loves. Practice of the General Rules shaped the way the class leader and each class member responded to the question, “How does your soul prosper?” or “How is it with your soul?” Participating in the weekly accountability and support of the class meeting is how Methodists obeyed Jesus’ new commandment to love one another the way Christ loves.
The class leaders worked as partners in disciple formation with the other preachers, ministers, and stewards of the Methodist societies. They met weekly with the minister to update him about who is sick, or in need of pastoral attention. Consequently, the society leaders were well informed about the spiritual, physical, and social health of the society/congregation.
I don’t have space or time to tell the story of the demise of the class meeting and class leader. Suffice it to say that in the mid-nineteenth century the leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States chose church growth over the pursuit of holiness of heart and life. They decided the Methodist Church would become a “mainline” denomination along with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Lutherans. As a result, the Methodist Episcopal Church rapidly became the largest, most powerful Christian denomination in America. But that growth came at a cost. Scott Kisker describes the decline of Methodism in his book Mainline of Methodist?: Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission,
“Real Methodism declined within our so-called ‘Methodist’ churches well before people stopped wanting to join them. Real Methodism declined because we replaced those peculiarities that made us Methodists with a bland, acceptable, almost civil religion, barely distinguishable from other traditions also now known as ‘mainline’” (page 13).
Two of the Methodist “peculiarities” Kisker refers to are the class meeting and the lay office of class leader. I agree with his contention that The Methodist Church became Methodists in name only when we discontinued the requirement of the class meeting and class leaders. The result was relatively short-term numerical growth, but also a decline holiness needed to sustain missional vitality, which contributed to the subsequent waning in numbers and vitality experienced from the mid-twentieth century to today.
The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Unfortunately, when the denomination jettisoned the class meeting and class leaders it let go of a proven and effective means of Christian formation. Without the class meeting and class leaders, or anything to replace them, most United Methodist pastors and congregations do not know how to “make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Thus, “discipleship” has been reduced to occasional worship attendance, participation in programs, and financial support of the church and its program offerings. The discipleship described in the vows of the Baptismal Covenant is sidelined. The focus is shifted from following and obeying Jesus to church membership and supporting the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
Re-traditioning the class meeting and class leaders is a first step toward missional faithfulness and true Wesleyan identity for The United Methodist Church. It will equip the congregation in keeping its promise to “do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love” when persons are baptized, confirmed, or received into membership in the church. Grace will flow more freely through the congregation to open the eyes, ears, and hearts of the women and men God is calling to serve as class leaders and leaders in discipleship needed for its disciple-making mission. They will work in partnership with the appointed pastor to lead the congregation in the work of equipping the members to participate with Christ and God’s mission in the world.
Covenant Discipleship is a contemporary effort to re-tradition the class and class leaders. Covenant Discipleship groups are where class leaders and other leaders in discipleship are formed, called, and supported. Class leaders must be formed, equipped, and commissioned before classes can be organized as missional groupings of the congregation. The class leaders work in partnership with the appointed pastor. Forming church members into disciples of Jesus Christ is a team effort that must be led by the lay women and men God has placed in each congregation to serve as class leaders. Covenant discipleship groups are the first step toward re-traditioning the “method” of Methodism for The United Methodist Church in the 21st century. For more on this, please read my book Disciples Making Disciples: Guide for Covenant Discipleship Groups and Class Leaders.