The Genius of Methodism

“…class leaders and class meetings were the genius of the original Methodist movement. They were a highly effective means of pastoral nurture and oversight, first in John Wesley’s early societies, and then in the family of Methodist churches throughout the world. The story of how they gradually lost their prominence, until their virtual omission from the 1939 Discipline was a mere formality, thus demands telling and re-telling–a task which remains a very open field for Methodist historians.

“This is not to say that class leaders and class meetings disappeared from Methodism as a whole. The African American and Korean traditions in North America, to say nothing of other Methodist churches around the world, have continued to recognize their importance, and have retained them in their polity and practice. Even so, their restoration to the United Methodist Book of Discipline (in 1988) means that the mother church of Methodism, the church in direct succession to the Methodist Episcopal Church, has taken a momentous step towards recovering this most distinctive of all Methodist traditions: shared leadership of the church of Jesus Christ by clergy and laity, working together in creative Christian collegiality.

This passage is found on pages xv & xvi of Class Leaders: Recovering a Tradition by David Lowes Watson. At the time of the writing he was celebrating the 1988 General Conference’s approval of a petition to return the ministry of class leader and class meetings to the life of United Methodist congregations. However, he lamented that the conference watered down the legislation by replacing “may” with “shall”, thus making class leaders and class meetings optional.

What happened, and continues today, is that while the paragraph (256.1b) survives it is ignored. My guess is that most clergy and lay congregational leaders are not aware of its existence or meaning.

Another problem with class leaders and class meetings is that they do not fit into a church that is more focused on attracting and serving consumers than on forming disciples of Jesus Christ.

Class leaders and class meetings teach us that consumers are not disciples.  Attracting crowds of consumers and telling them they are disciples does not make them disciples, as much as we’d like to believe that is so. The mission of The United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Taking this mission seriously means congregations must stop focusing on serving consumers and begin the hard work of forming them into disciples of Jesus Christ. We know from our own history that class leaders and class meetings are the best and most faithful way for congregations to cooperate with the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the church’s mission.

David Lowes Watson has done the hard work of contextualizing the ministry of class leader and the class meeting to fit contemporary North American Culture in his books, Forming Christian Disciples: The Role of Covenant Discipleship and Class Leaders in the Congregation and Class Leader: Recovering a Tradition.

This is why I’ve invited David to be the keynote speaker for this year’s Wesleyan Leadership Conference.

4 responses to “The Genius of Methodism

  1. Every great revival of the faith has been accompanied by a passionate return to the roots of that tradition. When we who have this passion follow it, the revival will flow. At the present, too few church leaders seem even interested in the depth of faith that comes with the class/band experience in their own lives, let alone the lives of their church folk. But there is a change in the offing—especially among those who are younger. They truly hunger and thirst for the living Gospel experience, and the Holy Spirit is ready to live in them. I am not sure that Dr Watson’s approach will be effective with these younger folks, whose culture is far less the normative late 20th century oldline church than a movement of the heart for authentic communion with God and a vital community of believers.

  2. Thanks very much for the comment. I agree wholeheartedly with everything you have said. I disagree, however, with the last sentence. The system of covenant discipleship groups, class leaders, and class meetings is very well suited for the church of today. I think it is especially appealing to young people because it builds communities centered in Jesus Christ and his mission for the world. It develops genuine community of the Holy Spirit for which so many young people yearn today.

    • We use a modified form of class meetings that focus simply on 4 questions: What has God been doing in your life? How have you responded? How have you helped your neighbor? How have you helped the church? I got these years ago from the Tongan Methodists who were using these in 2001. This is less structured, formal, and contractual in feel. It also places the focus on God’s movement rather than on what we do. With clergy groups, the last question becomes, what have you done with for yourself? If this is of any use to others, be blessed in its use.

  3. Patrick Moore

    “Attracting crowds of consumers and telling them they are disciples does not make them disciples, as much as we’d like to believe that is so. ” Wow, that is a powerful statement.

    I am an Elder and considering coming to the conference because I want to see lay persons take the lead in “making disciples.” I do share Howerw3’s concern however; not so much about relate-ability to young persons, but to all persons still attended congregations in the 21st century. The consumer mentality is rampant in all age groups.