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Τι doctoral research reveals why t h e Wesleys 1 system.
M A L L G R O U P S —in which 6 to 12 people regularly gath er to talk about their spiritual journeys, study the Bible, and pray—have become an integral and dynamic part of modern American church life. They have helped trans form thousands of churches and millions of individuals. Though many think they were invented in the last couple of decades, they've been around in one form or another since the early 1700s, with the ministry of Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley. June marked the 300th anniversary of John Wesley's birth, and CHRISTIANITY TODAY took the occasion to look at one of Wesley's most enduring legacies. To explore the Wesleys' small-group innovations—and what they might teach us today—we asked senior writer Tim Stafford to talk with Tom Albin, dean of The Upper Room in Nashville. Albin did doctoral research at Cambridge University on the small groups of early Methodism, and he helps lead one of the most significant renewal groups in Methodism. Why do historians often call the Wesley brothers organi zational geniuses? They often say that the secret of the Methodist movement was its small groups. But when I began my research, I found that nobody had gone deeply into what made those small group structures work. In the 18th century, the Wesleys were remarkably effective within the oral tradition of a working class, almost semiliterate culture. There were no manuals for class leaders produced during the lifetime of the Wesleys. To answer the question, you had to look to letters and diaries for clues. So what were the early groups like? There was a rich diversity of groups that emerged within the first five years. The trial band, for example, distinguished a sincere seeker for God from somebody who was just casually curious. You were on trial to see if you really wanted to know and love God. A group of four to six people met weekly with a leader. They prayed, they sang and worshiped, and there was always an ele ment of spiritual accountability. If they could do that faithfully over the course of two to three months, they were recommended to be a member of the United Society and the class meeting. In the trial band, you find exactly the grace and power of the sincere seeker that one finds today in the 12-step groups. What does it take to be a part of AA? YOU have to say, I've got a problem and I need help from on high. And I'm sincere enough that I'll do the 12 steps.
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and somewhere in the process the Holy Spirit enabled you to give your life to God. How do I live faithfully as a disciple. how do I live as a disciple. How did one get there? You have to desire with all your heart that God give you sanctifying grace. "I want God in my life. Jew or A u g u s t 2 0 0 3 | C H R I S T I A N I T Y T O D A Y 43 . the level of confidentiality is much higher. So what's going on during those two years? Well. They made it really easy for people to get out. You could call it small-group spiritual direction. You're getting a clearer view of who God is and what the life of faith is. You're praying. The issue t h e n becomes. You're absolutely convinced that you want and need Jesus Christ in In the band meeting. so they are the ones who can best help me figure out how to live a faithful Christian life in this culture. W h a t happened then in the class meeting. and you bring your questions. It's as though once you have been filled with the love of God you're living Galatians 3:28. you're singing. then you're ready for a band meeting. men and women. "I went to this pastor and they weren't interested.Groups we iL IMTERWIEW l¥ TIM S T A F F O R D W h a t were the requirements for getting into a trial band? You just had to be sincere. how do I relate as a single man? In a class meeting there could be 12 to 36 people. New Christians could answer the question. all the m e m b e r s are b o r n again. and you will be healed (James 5:16). The band meeting is also separated. as in Romans 5:5. every week you're talking about how things are going with your soul. the grace that goes before belief. The class meeting was for convincing grace. The trial band explored and experienced prevenient grace. you're getting spiritual advice. but you also have made a commitment to pursue a personal relationship with Jesus. If you missed more than three meetings in a quarter. and significantly challenging for people to get in and stay in. but I had no one to guide me in the divine life. now that I've been justified by grace through faith? Gender and marital status become significant. so that in Christ there is no male or female. Everybody is my same gender and my same marital status. In fact you could say t h a t the whole Wesley revival was really a revival of pastoral care and spiritual guidance. The diaries are what clued me in to this." The whole Wesley system was set up to help the people who really wanted more of God. and there's another theme verse: confess your faults to one another and pray for one another. You didn't have to say you believe in Jesus Christ as your only Savior and Lord. After this comes the final step. when one became a member of the society? your life. and even by marital status. you were out. Where before I knew as a single man what the culture told me were appropriate relations for men and women." The phrase no one to guide me opened my eyes. now that I'm a member of the kingdom of God. a band meeting was four to eight. Over and over the person says. every week you're getting together. the select band is not separated by gender or marital status. They created a system w h e r e sincere seekers could receive guidance and instruction. W h a t distinguishes the band meeting? Each one of the Wesleys' small groups related to one of their major theological concepts of grace. justification. the select band. how do I grow in grace. You just had to say. and I read this book. Between the time a person joins the United Society (and gets assigned to a class meeting) and when they experience converting grace. Interestingly. or else to have already experienced the love of God poured out by the Holy Spirit. In the band meeting. that you accept the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God. and you're hearing other people talk about it. or new birth is about two years. When you've experienced justifying grace. Not only are you responding to the wooing of the Spirit. and I went to this person and they couldn't help me.
Why did they shrink? The Methodist movement demanded a high degree of commitment. but you also have to have a meeting.edu/sociology/graduate or call (254) 710-3811. The Methodist movement was all about cre ating a channel for people who had the desire and commitment to experience God and live the life of a disciple.000 mem bers. including: • a doctoral specialization in the sociology of religion • increasing faculty and research resources • full-tuition waivers and generous graduate stipends Discover more about the university's commitment to advance graduate education. spiri tual friends who can help you develop new ways to pray that suit the kind of per son you are. Do we need structures that demand accountability? No. He wrote every single name. As a seeker. It seems that all these small groups demanded a high commitment level. more of the life of the Spirit. the class meeting. if you had come to me and said. I would seek to get you into the sphere of influence that matches your personality type. When the movement began to become a denomination. he knew that their name was coming off. The early Methodists would see the select society as spiritual adulthood. I respond to the call of God when I am ready. slave or free. I sat in Wesley's chapel. and a small group that can support me as I grow in grace and discover my place in the body of Christ. They can't find a group that's clear enough about the spiritual journey to say. Where are the sincere seekers finding a welcome? Where are they finding a community? And w h e r e do they find someone to guide them in the spiritual life? You could argue that any given congre gation today probably has 10 to 15 percent of the people who are ready for this type of Methodist movement within the con gregation. It presses us to ask ourselves. I'm having trouble with my prayer life. and they don't have anybody to guide them." In AA you have to have a mentor. but I would also ask. I would try to help you into the sphere of influence of living human guides. and more within a Christian context. He would ask why. I would have asked you what books you had read. as outlined in its Baylor 2012 Vision. because the difference between a cult and what I'm describing is exactly the issue of voluntary. the whole thing changed. It's not the church telling me I have to do this or else. If someone d r o p p e d out of some small group. but the formational focus of the select society is the heart. I would still ask what books you had read. and how did they pray? And then. learning environment. When British Methodism became a denomination in the late 18th century. So people have to go elsewhere if they are really keen to learn and grow. go to: www. The high require ments for membership of a movement had to be adjusted: Are you going to kick me out of t h e U n i t e d M e t h o d i s t C h u r c h because I don't show up every Wednes day? Would you deny me the sacraments? Would you excommunicate me over not giving my penny a week for the poor? W h a t difference has learning all this made for your own ministry? When I was a pastor. I now understand Christian spiritual formation and discipleship to involve three interrelated dimensions: knowledge.WHERE GRACE AND C O M M I T M E N T MEET Greek. very few congre gations have one available. and who are the people who taught you to pray. There are people who long to go deeper with God. every year. the band meeting focuses on the will. all 2. The trouble is.baylor. Welcomes Welcomes BAYLOR . How long did this kind of small group structure last? It continued through the Wesleys' lifetime. and into prayer practices that suit that personality type. the small groups shrank into a single category. experience. I think we need structures that allow more voluntary accountability. Φ Baylor University Doctoral Program in Sociology Dr Rodnev Stark to its faculty Baylor's sociology program strengthens its 40-year tradition of excellence with new ventures. "If you really want to connect with God. based on what I learn about your personality and your for mative influences. What are your prayer practices. and I would then have recom mended the two best books that you hadn't read yet. The focus of the class meeting is on the mind. Now. The basis of my ministry was that knowledge leads to transformation. Every year they would rewrite the society book with t h e list of m e m b e r s . faculty. You've given all of yourself at a different level. sociology doctoral studies and Vision 2012. and where are the meetings? That's the key question for those who desire more of God. looking at the society lists in John Wesley's handwriting. here's how you do it. So where are the mentors. Voluntary accountability is very important to me. For more information about Baylor.
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