Wesleyan Wisdom: Why Mosaics are leaving the church

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

Why are we losing our young adults, those who author Addie Zierman’s identifies as “millennials”?

David Kinnaman, in his book You Lost Me, suggests that this group is more accurately called “Mosaics” because the people born since 1964 are so diverse in so many ways!  Thousands pack churches like Joel Osteen’s in Houston or the Elevation Church in Charlotte—mostly to hear motivational speeches reminiscent of Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale.  Thousands more are forming “atheist” “churches” around the country with a huge endowment to fund their new congregations. Thousands more are still in traditional Christian churches.  The term “mosaic” reflects the residual personal identity, beauty, and accent of each piece.  “Mosaics’ insist on this, for they want to be free to express their own views.  However, they are seeking meaning in their lives and can be vulnerable to “snake oil” religious sales persons who promise more than they can deliver.

Kinnaman says that Mosaics want relationships that are meaningful more than institutions that demand membership. Of course, prioritizing relationships over institutional authority and loyalty is not unique to the younger generations — it is also true of octogenarians!  No one today relates to a “company” or a “church” as much as we relate to friends, family, and sweethearts!  If our church is not immediately including new guests into existing groups, they will not stay long.

wesley-class-meetingThe genius of Methodism from the creative days of John Wesley in England through the 1840’s in America was the class meeting.  Unlike the “bands,” the class meetings were “co-ed.” This social equality of women with men was a cultural dramatic change.  Unique to England’s rigid social class structure, the class meetings were also heterogeneous in age, social standing, and spiritual journeying. Indeed, as Leslie Church’s study has proven, “to enter a Methodist society one must first abandon all idea of caste.” The nature of class attendees was diverse, with some who were quite mature in their faith journey, while others making a good start in their faith, and still others attending to escape a life of abuse and poverty.  They met weekly, usually in groups of twelve.  The class took on all the sociological and psychological  traits of a biological family. They “hung tight” and were “at each other’s back.”

The Methodist class meeting was unprecedented and its equal is non-existent in most churches today.  The Puritans were so obsessed with hell that they could not deal redemptively with sin. The Deists were so enamored with human dignity that they could not take sin seriously. Wesley recognized the reality and power of sin but insisted that we were created in God’s image and  that we need to see the word “salve” in the theological concept of salvation. He defined sin as “disease.”   He called conversion “taking the cure” and used clinical language more than courtroom language.

The meeting was in a home.  The leader was considered a “sub-pastor,”  and the job required faithfulness, honesty, integrity of character, and concern for people. The role of the leader was to set the tone of the meeting and ensure that openness and authenticity were hallmarks of the gathering. The leader started this by  insisting  on confidentiality in the gathering; that “what is said in this room stays in this room and if anyone is reported to be sharing it outside this circle, you will be asked not to come again.”  This might have sounded harsh, but it is the only antidote to gossip and required for building trust. The leader would then begin the group conversation by sharing the condition of his or her own spiritual life that week—growth, failures, sins, griefs, other inner battles.  After the leader modeled true authenticity about his spiritual condition, veteran members of the group did the same.  John Miley in the 19th century wrote, “The class meeting was a medium of expression for people who otherwise would never have the opportunity to speak.  The servant girl would follow his mistress in telling people what God had done for her and her struggle with her demons.”

The testimonials were not doctrinal, not biblical, not gossip, and not political.  The content was personal experience.  This included discouragement, struggles they were enduring, the self-discipline they were exercising, the acts of mercy and deeds of kindness they had done,  and any “dark night of the soul” there were experiencing.  No one could express shock—even in body language; no one could be offended even if a colleague shared how you had hurt him or her. No guilt trips, no bullying, and no self-righteousness.   A realism about human nature and conduct was built into the fabric of the meeting.  The content was much more like an A.A. meeting than a Sunday School class!

The meeting included a report on absentees and how follow-up should be made to determine sickness, schedule conflict, sloth, or spiritual lapse.  All class meeting members were expected to attend the Sunday “society” meetings.  The Methodist Book of Discipline did not use the term “local church” until the 20th century; prior to that, they retained Wesley’s word, “society.”

So why did the class meeting die?  I once asked that question to Dr. Thomas Langford, then professor at Duke Divinity School.  He answered immediately and succinctly –“Sunday School.”  With the advent of the Sunday School, churches began to build “education buildings,” move all activities to the church, include classes for the children, and lay the class meeting to rest.

We need, almost desperately, to revive the class meeting.  These meetings don’t require expensive facilities, in fact, they are better held in houses, apartments, conference rooms, restaurant dining areas, etc.  For Mosaics, the negative baggage they carry about the church makes them hesitant to come to a church building. Just as Wesley adapted to the needs of the people (through his field preaching), we too must recognize that unless we get outside our walls and created new spaces for authentic sharing and accountability, we are doomed to fail to reach Mosaics.

Can we cast aside the ways that we’ve always done things, and regain the true spirit of the class meeting?

Unless we do, it’s likely that Mosaics will keep leaving the church.


Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Joe Hamby
Joe Hamby

Don, you continue to inspire me with your passionate engagement with the future and mission of the United Methodist Church. Thank you. And thank you for the patient guidance you offered a young and very green associate pastor many years ago. With deep and abiding gratitude…

Lyle Johnston

Great article, Don. When I retired 2 1/2 years ago, I decided the Lutheran church 3 blocks from me was for me. It offered an 8 am. service and has a calendar that can wear an active person out: a retirees 8 am service, a mixed music service and a contemporary service, (something they started in the early 1990s – all total attendance averages 250), Bible studies, a pre-school and various other programs. The local UM church (6 blocks away) refuses to accommodate the younger generation, will not start an 8 am. service and go to a 10:30 contemporary service,… Read more »

Andrew Dragos
Andrew Dragos

Kevin Watson, a promising pastor-scholar who committed his doctoral research its study, has a real passion to reclaiming the Wesleyan class meeting. His academic treatment on the subject was recently published with OUP (http://amzn.to/1dWLHDG) and has a popular work with Seedbed (http://bit.ly/1eqCFNh).

Personally, I am interested in learning about approaches that integrate the class meeting with the rest of the rich life of the church. Curious how this rhythm works in the 21st century.

Paul Lawler

Great article, Don, with great reminders! You stirred the thought of an important quote from Mark Nysewander’s book, “No More Spectators” which he wrote on Christian discipleship. In his book, he noted the following regarding the waning commitment to discipleship among United Methodists: ‘ “By the late 1800s, at the general conference, two subtle decisions were made. These decisions exposed a significant plate shift in Methodism. It was changing from a disciple-making movement into a church of spectators. The general conference decided that attendance at class meetings should no longer be obligatory. To be a Methodist you just needed to… Read more »

Steve Manskar
Steve Manskar

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Haynes’ advocacy for a recovery of the Methodist class meeting as being essential for the future missional viability of The UMC. The General Board of Discipleship provides resources and training for a contemporary adaptation of the class meeting known as Covenant Discipleship groups. The purpose of the groups is form leaders in discipleship for the congregation, some of whom will serve as Class Leaders. Class Leaders work in partnership with the appointed pastor to disciple up to 20 other members of the congregation. They meet regularly with the members of their “class” to help and… Read more »

Rev. Carter Cortelyou

In response to WAD:

If theology is being debated in a class meeting or discipleship group, the leadership of the group is missing the mark. Haynes gets to this in the seventh paragraph of the article. Discipleship is not marked so much by espousing orthodoxy as much as the practice of lived grace.


The umc, in seeking to be all/anything to folks–just to get them in the door–has totally ignored the Good News of a Risen Savior. In order to continue to “grow,” the umc succeeded in creating an organization that is extremely top heavy and bunglesome rather than a sanctuary where seeking sinners can come and learn about the Savior–and finally bask in the knowledge of a forgiven soul when Jesus is invited in. No matter how badly “we” want to be anything to everybody, Hebrews 13:8 instructs that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.” No matter how desperately… Read more »

Roger Tanquist

I grew up in a Methodist parsonage and have been active in church for a lifetime. I had the privilege of being loved and accepted by many significant adults. I was in relationship with a group of people of all ages in the church. My heart breaks as I watch the old rules of legalism and exclusion prohibit that feeling of full acceptance for all people. As I continue to study the understandings of Biblical scholars, I cannot relate to our archaic rituals and creeds. I find myself identifying less with “Christianity” and more as a follower of Jesus.

Nadine Mack

Relationship, relationship, relationship. I endorse all people in the church to remember why the meeting/society paradigm brought so many to an active faith. In a class of 18- 30, rarely, do any share the darkness of their soul only share the health of their body. The journey in Sunday school becomes more about talking about religion than testifying about the new life Christ has given all believers. May we bring renewal in a way that encourages an active faith. As to above, Coates, it is only when we realize each person’s worth in the eye’s of Christ and break bread… Read more »

Thomas Coates
Thomas Coates

A wonderful idea– I believe we Methodists must encourage speaking about spiritual experiences and spiritual formation with its long Methodist, Christian history. And I am pleased to see more people impacted by covenant groups and spiritual formation (direction, mentoring), and the growth of the diaconate working to bring the church and world. However this does not address the underlying issues of why young people do not want to be affiliated with the church today. Whether it’s treatment of LGBTQ people (as LGBTQ young adults or allies), hypocrisy in reaching those on the margins (who do we let in the church/attend… Read more »

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