John Wesley’s Model for Discipleship
An exploration into John Wesley’s Class Meetings: Societies, Classes, and Bands for Church renewal
John Wesley initiated an instructional system, or in todays terminology a system for coaching or apprenticeship that brought about a sweeping spiritual renewal to eighteenth-century England. His methods for nurturing and equipping Christian disciples brought moral formation as well as personal transformation to tens of thousands of working class individuals and a nation as a whole. “Methodism started as a movement culminating from ideas and institutions within the history of Christianity, and the social and political situations to ask the questions of, WHY and HOW?” “Methodism,” as the movement became known recognized that at its core existed a method, one that was transformational, and effective. Within this research I hope to uncover what Wesley’s model for discipleship was and offer a contemporary word of exhortation to include examples for implementation in todays context.
Early in the Methodist revival movement, “Wesley found the role of spiritual guide thrust upon him. ‘In every place people flock to me for direction in secular as well as spiritual affairs,’ Wesley wrote to a friend, ‘and I dare not throw… this burden off.’ This role Wesley willingly embraced.” People looked to Wesley for spiritual guidance because he modeled the life they wished for themselves. He simply addressed the needs of those people who came under his spiritual direction to the best of his ability, combining and modifying existing pastoral methods into an effective structure.
As Wesley went around on his circuit riding adventures he wouldn’t just preach, see people converted, and then leave. Alternatively, Wesley took great pains to organize those who responded to his preaching into small groups, mini communities of believers and seekers. “These groups would meet with each other to grow together in heart holiness and in the disciplined life of loving service.” Gregory Clapper states that, “There’s no question that these little churches within the church were the secret of early Methodism.”
Wesley knew that our past spiritual defects, our pride, and ignorance was best revealed to us within honest, loving, reflections with those who know us well. Clapper claims that for Wesley it was only with such “self knowledge” (a term that Wesley used as an equivalent for true repentance) that we could be set free from our egoistic reception of the gospel and grow in grace and love. The Methodist bands, classes, and societies demonstrate Wesley’s commitment to community and the grace that results from sacred fellowship.
In Wesley’s view, to fully become the people God created, “requires Christian nurture (education, socialization, a series of conversions); nurture is a social process. Wesley’ own childhood had taught him that man is not a solitary creature. He requires being cared for, and this care must be personal and loving, but open to widening vistas of social experience. This means that small groups are the natural and optimal settings for personal and interpersonal maturation: first the family and then the opening, widening arc of voluntary associations and involvements.”
Wesley’s groups specifically, the “societies” fared better than any other revival of the eighteenth century because of their unique foundations for the Christian nurture of their members. Albert Outler quotes Wesley as saying, “Converts without nurture are like stillborn babies. Follow the blow, never encourage the devil by snatching souls from him that you cannot nurture.” To follow up on the initial conversion experience would be membership in a ”class” or “band.”
Unique to Wesley’s “method” was a combination of several overlapping meeting styles to organize a ladder of personal spiritual growth. Any committed Christian, no matter their level of maturity in the faith, intelligence level, or background could ascend the ladder to spiritual maturity if committed to the method. The stages or steps of Wesley’s ladder of discipleship were small interactive gatherings of participants within the models of: “the societies, “class meetings” “bands,” “select bands,” “penitent bands.” Each gathering was designed to achieve specific growth goals, and each gathering had its own meticulously defined roles, and methods in order to achieve those goals.
Many historians have called the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, organizational geniuses, but why? “Historians often say that the secret of the Methodist movement was its small groups.” In the eighteenth century the Wesley’s were exceptionally fruitful at working within the oral tradition of a working class, semi-illiterate civilization. There weren’t any handbooks for small group or class leaders at the time. The church provided the context for the ministry structure. “A connection was to be made between the order of salvation and the ministry structures of Methodism. The church was to cover it all- birth, life, and death. The church has the opportunity and responsibility to mediate these structures.” To achieve the mission of the church Wesley designed a particular model for discipleship.
“Wesley’s originality appears in four major areas: his openness to offer the gospel to all; his immense organizational skills; laced with a touch of pragmatism; his model of discipleship; and his utilization of the laity, both men and women.” Through his insights and gifts Wesley took the ailing structure of the Anglican religious societies and rejuvenated them, giving them a focus and goal through the structural means of fulfilling his program for effective evangelism and discipleship.
Methodism began as an organization within the Church of England. Societies already existed in England, started by Anthony Horneck in the mid seventeenth century, “the religious societies were also small groups of laity who represent an almost spontaneous fusion of moralism and devotionalism, with a zeal for the promotion of ‘real holiness of heart and life.’” Societies were the group that included all Methodists in a given area. The term “society” is much like the term “congregation.” The society included all of the official members and also followers or “seekers” who attended other functions led by the group.
The Methodist society was the centerpiece of group identification. As the society would relate to the other groups/models for discipleship within the Methodist structure, the society was the center of all other activities. The society was the umbrella group of Methodism where all of the other groups came under its supervision. The primary function was to be an educational channel where the beliefs of Methodism were taught, through: lectures, preaching, public reading, hymn singing, and exhorting. The audiences were often in excess of fifty or more participants arranged in rows, and separated by gender. This model did not allow for personal response or feedback.
Wesley commented in the Rules of the United Societies that, “Such a society is no other than a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their own salvation.” Societies did not hold meetings that would come in conflict with the Anglican worship schedule as to not bring about competition or opposition. This careful scheduling demonstrates Methodism’s submission and loyalty to the Church of England. “The Methodist Society at Oxford where both John and his brother Charles studied was established in High Church mold with frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper and reading of prayers. But nowhere in pre-Aldersgate days did Wesley carry his High Church zeal so far as when he was in the American colonies.”
The society became a type of local congregation that met in chapels, halls, and homes of those who Wesley formed into small groups as a ministry beyond his preaching. In Methodism to be apart of the church was to be apart of a “society.” To be in a society the only requirement was to have a desire to flee the wrath to come.
The society was subdivided into classes of about twelve persons. Every member of the society was expected to participate in a class regularly or they would be expelled from the society. In the class men and women, rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated met together. At first classes met in homes, stores, schoolrooms, anywhere they could all meet together. When Methodist chapels became more prevalent the classes would meet in small rooms connected to the chapels.
Members of the classes met weekly to give an account of the state of their souls (personal spiritual growth), but had to do so within the confines of the rules and procedures Wesley had carefully developed. The class began with a hymn, then a leader would begin the meeting by reporting on their walk with God the previous week, and then others would follow suit. The testimonies usually consisted of honest and open communication within an atmosphere of love and concern for one another. The class would close in prayer and a song.
A great deal of the success of the class system had to do with the leadership. Here are a few key principles as established by Wesley: The leaders were appointed. In the bands the leaders were elected by the group, but not in the classes. The majority of these lay leaders were women. Selection of leadership was based on moral and spiritual character, as well as common sense. In the classes, there was also plural leadership, that is, more than one leader. Spiritual oversight was shared. Groups were not started unless there was leadership to manage the group.
The goal of the classes was personal holiness and nurture, not doctrinal issues however; Methodist doctrines, sermons and practices could be explained. The class meeting proved to be such an effective tool for personal spiritual growth that it became the essential element within the Methodist movement, the mode of transformation where the Wesley’s messages could be internalized. When the Methodist revival movement came to America the success of the Sunday school absorbed the energy and life of the class meeting forcing it into the background. In todays context the class meeting is best expressed as our Sunday school classes, and small group Bible studies.
The bands were smaller same-gender groups of no more than six people who were committed to personal holiness and holding one another accountable in their goals. “Bands” came from the idea of the bands around a barrel. The point is for the church to provide the structure for grace to be mediated to the people. Wesley felt that the bands were the Methodists best attempt at mirroring the New Testament Church. Wesley D. Tracy (footnote 2 above) records five (of the eleven) questions asked to those interested in joining a band: “1. Have you the forgiveness of sins and peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ? 2. Have you the witness of God’s spirit with your spirit that you are a child of God? 3. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you? 4. Do you desire to be told all your faults, and that plain and home? 5. Is it your desire and design to be, on this and all other occasions, entirely open so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?
Wesley also wrote questions for the bands, theses are paraphrased for modern language: 1. What spiritual failures have you experienced since our last meeting? What known sins, if any, have you committed? 2. What temptations have you battled with this week? Where do you feel most vulnerable and weak, presently? 3. What temptations have you been delivered from this past week? Please share how you were victorious. 4. Has the Lord revealed to you any sinful attitudes, motivations, or lifestyle that you would like for us to join with you in discernment? 5. Is there any spiritual concern that you hat you have never been able to talk about with others or God? Wesley D. Tracy (footnote 2 above) claims that the revival and camp meeting emphasis in America diminished the bands in the nineteenth century. The Sunday schools became the purveyor of almost all of Christian nurture.
Michael Henderson brings up an old adage that, “the societies aimed for the head, the class meeting for the hands, and the band for the heart.” Henderson also states that although the class meetings were the most beneficial instructional models within Methodism, the band was John Wesley’s favorite. It never attained the favoritism Wesley had hoped for with others. The bands did however; function as a vital ministry within the society during his lifetime. The band was the earliest mode of Methodism, from which other ministries were birthed. For Wesley the band was to function as the place for close conversation and soul-searching, and as always with the goal of spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.
The penitent bands, or “the backslider’s band” was a group within Wesley’s model for discipleship designed specifically for those who couldn’t overcome particular sins. Michael Henderson claims that is was for those who “lacked the willpower or personal discipline to live up to the behavioral demands of the class meeting but still had a desire to overcome their personal problems.” This group would meet on Saturday nights; one could surmise this was to keep them from their destructive routines. In today’s context the penitent bands would be similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. The aim of the penitent band was to heal and build up its members to the mainstream of society again.
The actual format of the penitent bands is all but lost to the modern Methodist. Henderson’s research does give us Wesley’s vision of the penitent band as follows: “And yet while most of these who were thus intimately joined together, went on daily from faith to faith; some fell from the faith, either all at once, by falling into known, willful sin; or gradually, and almost insensibly, by giving way in what they called little things; by sins of omission, by yielding to heart-sins, or by not watching unto prayer. The exhortations and prayers used among the believers did no longer profit these. They wanted advice and instructions suited to their case; which as soon as I observed, I separated them from the rest, and desired them to meet me apart on Saturday evenings,” (125).
The Select Society was also a small group but only established for the benefit of leaders within the Methodist movement. The determined and committed were the only ones invited. Unlike the other models the Select Society had no rules, no defined agenda, and no particular leader. Concerns of the leadership team could be discussed. Wesley’s initial goal was to help lead this group to perfection, to grow in love for one another, to improve on leadership skills, and to vent as needed.
Aside from the society, class, and band models Wesley encouraged other means of discipleship for holiness and moving from grace to grace. Family religion, twin souls, and the service of spiritual fathers and nursing mothers were other models. In the family Wesley recommended family worship and study twice a day, in the morning and the evening. As the week moved on Thursdays were to be used for one-on-one, parent-to-child teaching. Saturdays were used to debrief on the weeks learning.
Wesley even provided written material to aid families in their filial faith, he provided: A Collection of Prayers for Families, Prayers and Devotions for Every Day of the Week, Prayers for Children, Lessons for Children (included 200 Bible Studies), and instruction for Children (included 58 lessons to assist in the Christian walk). Wesley insisted that at the end of each family study that the parent lay their hand on the child’s head and pronounce a blessing in Jesus’ name.
Twin Souls is a model found through the reading and study of Wesley’s letters. Within Wesley’s letters one-to-one spiritual guidance is gleaned as an important concept to Wesley. Wesley introduced Twin Souls for the means of mutual spiritual direction. The principle that Wesley found at work within Twin Souls is that our Lord has blessed us with each other in relationship that we may strengthen each others hand in Him.
“Spiritual Fathers” and Nursing Mothers,” were terms Wesley used for faith mentors. Many times Wesley would connect a new convert or downtrodden soul to the care of a mature saint. Wesley Tracey calls these mentors “God’s Ushers” who would offer whatever guidance they could. Wesley would often offer additional guidance. Faith mentoring may be the great hope for winning and nurturing souls within our postmodern context.
Mildred Wyncoop claims that Wesley was a mentor and that we should take note of the definition of “mentor” and find ways of imitation in our personal ministries. “A mentor is a guide and critic. His task is to introduce his charge to sources of information; to prevent the student from drifting into unfruitful, erroneous byways; and encourage him to exploit is own potential as he learns to master his field. A mentor is satisfied when his student outpaces him.” The mentor is to tap the resources of creativity and personal fulfillment in their student. He or she is a transformer opening doors to transformation and freedom.
In today’s culture a recommitment to the small group models to include faith mentoring appear to be promising methods for conversion both within and outside the church. This would mean that we commit more time with fewer people and teach the faith through counsel, coaching, mentoring, and modeling. However, in order to fulfill such a high calling and privilege one must be guided by the Spirit of God, established in prayer and the Word of God, known for holiness of life, patient, able to listen, and understanding. The big idea is to impart the righteousness of Christ through unconditional love to lost and hurting people toward the goal of transformation.
Wesley Tracey reminds his readers that, “Wesleyan Spirituality isn’t made for monks, hermits, or ascetics” (p. 333, footnote 2). Wesley’s method for discipleship was to avoid such spiritual systems. The church is to be a community of disciples who make disciples. We accomplish this mission through faithful worship, nurture, face-to-face study groups, fellowship, soul friends, faith mentors, and service.
 Class notes Jan.7th 2013, J-Term, ppt. one ‘History of Methodism’
 Tracy D. Wesley. “Spiritual Direction in the Wesleyan Holiness Movement.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 2002. Vol. 30, No. 4, 323-335. Rosemead School of Psychology. P. 324. Accessed 1/14/13. ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu
 Clapper, Gregory. “Making Disciples in community,” The Wesleyan Paradigm for Renewal Chilcote, Paul. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002. Pg.111.
 Outler, Albert. “Pastoral Care in the Wesleyan Spirit.” Perkins Journal. Vol. 25 No. 1 fall 1971, p 4-11. Accessed 1/14/13 ATLA Religious Database, ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu
 Albin, Tom. “Finding God in Small Groups.” Christianity Today, Aug2003, Vol. 47 Issue 8, p42, 3p. Accessed 1/15/13 ATLA Religious Database, http://ehis.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu
 Harper, Steve. Class notes. DO 690 John Wesley’s Theology for Today, Ecclesial Theology II. Church provides us with a context, A. Ministry Structure. 2009.
 Hunsicker, David. Wesleyan Theological Journal, “John Wesley: Father of Today’s Small Group Concept.” 31 No. 1 spring 1996, p 203. Accessed 1/15/13 ATLA Religious Database, http://ehis.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu
 Heitzenrater, P. Richard. Wesley and the People Called Methodist. p.21. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995
 Henderson, D. Michael. A Model for Making Disciples. P.84. Nappanee, Francis Asbury Press, 1997.
 Beals, Duane. Wesleyan Theological Journal. “John Wesley’s Concept of the Church.” 9 spring 1974, p 28-37. Accessed 1/15/13 ATLA Religious Database, http://ehis.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu
 Henderson, D. Michael. A Model for Making Disciples. P.112 Nappanee, Francis Asbury Press, 1997.
 Henderson, D. Michael. A Model for Making Disciples. P.125 Nappanee, Francis Asbury Press, 1997.
 Wyncoop, Mildred. “Wesleyan Theological Journal.” John Wesley Mentor or Guru? 10 spring 1975, p 5-14. Accessed 1/18/13 ATLA Religious Database, www.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.asburyseminary.edu