The renewed interest in the early Methodists’ spiritual practices is not an exercise in nostalgia or even, I think, yet another attempt to find an identity that reunites a fragmented membership. It arises in response to the contemporary movement of the Spirit across all parts of the Church described as the New Monasticism or Missional Communities. Although a new initiative, it serves to remind those of us who claim the Wesleyan tradition as our own of our own birth out of a previous movement of the Spirit. Whilst we can’t simply transplant historical forms into modern contexts, anymore than we can find the ‘silver bullet’ to ensure church growth or personal success, there are lessons to be learnt and principles to be discerned that will help us to connect (or reconnect) with the Spirit as she moves in our own time.
The newly-launched Methodist Way of Life (MWOL) is a serious attempt to support Methodists in their desire to deepen their discipleship together. It provides a straightforward pattern to be taken and adapted in local contexts and offers a model of spiritual enquiry that was such a prominent feature of the initial Wesleyan mission. It helpfully shapes this enquiry using the pattern of Our Calling and, in doing so, reminds us that Methodist tradition undertook this kind of enquiry as a corporate practice as well as part of individual devotion. The Class Meeting and Band Meeting, once essential parts of the Wesleyan architecture of discipleship, struggled to find a place within Methodist Churches of all shapes and sizes beyond the middle of the 19th century.
The idea of renewing the ‘small group’ tradition in Wesleyanism is not new and has been invoked by the Cell Church movement among others. The recent Report to the Methodist Conference, Reaffirming Our Calling - Oversight and Trusteeship, resurrected the Class Meeting as an alternative for small congregations to manage their affairs. (Sadly, I fear the Report’s usage gives the term negative connotations, implying that the move from local Church is a sign of decline and failure and ultimately death.) In a Church context that felt over-populated by meetings pre-lockdown, the terms Class or Band Meetings might well be seen as yet another set of diary commitments, the purpose of which might seem unclear.
Keith Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has spent the last decade reflecting on how the Class Meeting tradition might be made accessible to modern Methodist audiences.
I’ve been inspired by his research and his call to refound small communities of disciples who covenant together to support each other’s growth in holiness and discipleship. In particular, he critiques the current trend in congregations for ‘information-driven’ groups, where attendees expect to learn but not necessarily to put what they have learnt into practice or to be held accountable for it. In short, these new groups are definitely not another form of the traditional Bible Study or housegroup, and it may not be possible to transform either of those forms into something more akin to the early Band or Class Meetings.
Putting all this together, I want to propose the establishment of Wesleyan Way of Life Communities, small, committed, intentional groups of Christians gathering midweek to reflect their faith and discipleship, to support one another and be mutually accountable, to discern God’s presence in their life and in the lives around them, and to be renewed for ministry and mission in daily life. Inspired by St Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual practice of the Daily Examen, I have put together a simple pattern of Community Meeting that would facilitate these objectives for its members. I would love people to use the material, either small groups of Companions or other Christians, and let me know how, and if, it works. Over to you ….