Being Vital by Recovering a Lost Practice

ClassMeeting_grandeIn 2010 a study was released by the United Methodist Church that revealed that one key factor that vital congregations shared was starting and maintaining small groups. This finding is something deeply Methodist because the revival and amazing movement built by John Wesley was in many ways a small group revival.

At the center of this move of God was a simple practice: the class meeting.  Throughout England and then stretching across the ocean to the Americas, God transformed lives and called people to scriptural holiness in these meetings.  Then, over time those meetings began to fade, the church became less of a movement and grew into the form that we know today.

Every Wesley scholar has their own theory as to why and what caused the fire to cool and the movement to slow but all concede the power of the class meeting in transforming lives and hearts.

Now in 2013 we are striving to rediscover the power of small groups.  Many churches struggle from video series to book study to stewardship campaign and back again always hoping for curriculum-based transformation, and finding something less than they had hoped.

Kevin Watson, a scholar and author of a new book on the Class Meeting believes that the answer is not in finding the right curriculum, but reviving the class meeting in the 21st century.  Watson says that focusing on curriculum is misplacing our focus on knowledge rather than transformation. “But the Christian life is not primarily about knowing the right things. It is about living in Christ” he says in his new book focused on helping us revive the practice.

In an interview on our sister site YouthWorker Movement, Watson says that “the problem with American Christianity isn’t that most people don’t know enough, it’s that they aren’t living out the stuff they know about their faith.”  And that, says Watson, is the focus of the class meeting: transformed lives.  Instead of a curriculum, groups need to follow Wesley’s simple rules and spend time asking “How is it with your soul?”

The book is unique as it straddles the line between curriculum and history text. It seeks to teach a group how to be a class meeting by teaching them about the class meeting with the ultimate goal being that the group would continue meeting (yes, without curriculum) after they finish learning how to do class meetings in the 21st century.

If you are interested in more, check out the interview at YouthWorker Movement and order The Class Meeting by Kevin Watson (available 11/15/13).

Jeremy Steele, UMR Columnist

The Rev. Jeremy Steele is the author of Reclaiming the Lost Soul of Youth Ministry and the Next Generation pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, AL and a regular columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. You can find more of his writing and a list of all the places he contributes at his website:


  1. I haven’t yet read Kevin Watson’s book—it’s probably a good one—but nevertheless I want to share the following concerns. In 1989 I published a book entitled Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom, voted as one of the top ten helpful books in that year by the Academy of Parish Clergy, and enthusiastically I was part of the movement to help seminaries incorporate spiritual formation programs into their curriculum. Several decades ago, there was a very robust spiritual formation movement that highlighted small groups and the class meeting model—and this virtually was touted as the “magic bullet” for the renewal of the church. After that, DISCIPLE Bible study caught fire, and was promised to renew the church; the UM Church continues to decline in membership. Today, I bring a hermeneutic of suspicion both to long-term pre-packaged Bible study programs, and to the small group movement—because both of these endeavors have, by and large, overlooked the priority of the poor in human history, and the priority of standing in face-to-face relational solidarity with people and places abandoned by Empire. In his day, John Wesley lamented the reluctance of Christians to encounter and embrace poor people in their own midst.

    Mainly because of unjust public policies and practices that promote the American Empire, inequality in the U.S. and around the globe is eye-popping and grows worse by the day; this is a matter of life and death—bodies and souls are at stake. We need not only to be asking the individualistic question “how is it with your soul?” – we need also to be asking “how is it with the world, with our neighborhoods and our communities, and how is God calling us to be engaged?” There’s no neat linear pathway from prayer groups and class meetings to knowing how to respond—a qualitatively different kind of training is called for, and this kind of training is missing in the church.

    Christians need to be equipped with the arts and skills of public political life, so that collectively they can more faithfully and effectively live out their public vocation, and keep the covenant they make in their baptismal vows when asked: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Christians have to be taught how to generate, organize, and wield God-given power, and use it constructively, collaboratively, collectively, and redemptively to enact the Beloved Community. Until the church has an infrastructure that trains and helps Christians to prayerfully and effectively engage in public life to reduce injustice, then our fellow human beings will continue to perish while we sit in our small groups praying. Scripture writers—and especially Jesus himself—have something harsh to say about this brand of spirituality. I wonder why we spend more time training Christians in how to pray than we spend training them in how to get unjust policies changed that literally are responsible for the deaths of our neighbors near and far. This is not a matter of pitting prayer over against public praxis. We can do better than we are now doing to integrate orthokardia (right worship of God) with orthopraxis (right practice with the poor and nonpersons of history). Based on having lived and taught through a generational cycle, I’m not convinced that recycling the class meeting model every several decades is what’s needed.

  2. Kevin's work is indeed critical for our day and I am encouraged that there are serious conversations happening around the Methodist family concerning the need for small groups that really help make disciples. One of the movements that is working to reclaim Wesleyan transformational small groups is the Inspire Movement from the United Kingdom. "The vision of Inspire is to develop the spiritual life of mission-shaped disciples who abide deeply with God, and live missionally in the world." Inspire is sponsored by the British Methodist Church, but has extensive ecumenical involvement. Seeds are being sown in the United States as well with Inspire Fellowship Bands forming in Kentucky, Georgia, Texas and Arizona. You can read more here:

  3. Fred Wideman says:

    No one doubts that the challenges today's church faces is in connecting. It is challenging to connect in authentic koinonia. Overcoming cultural, economic, and language barriers in order to celebrate a common gift of grace seems to be the invited way forward. But there is a lot of hill and valley stuff in the way and fear in the heart. I confess to wanting the magic bullet that will do this faith community building for us. If only it was as easy as marketing and sliding in a DVD without heading into today's Judea, Samaria, and earth's end places.

    I suppose the movement of the early Church was nurtured and spread through small groups and families. But they had a mission and were called to go outside themselves. It may be that some of our present challenges forming small groups is a lack of missional purpose to make them relevant and significant enough to warrant the investment of time. It is one thing to assure that a small group is a safe place. But if small groups become a place for people seeking safety, then the mission may be compromised.

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