This is the second post in a series on the contemporary relevance and practical application of the Methodist class meeting. In the previous post, I tried to make sure we were all on the same page by giving a brief history of the origin and development of the class meeting in early Methodism. In this post I will discuss the potential contributions I believe the class meeting can make for 21st century Methodism (or any Christians who are seeking to grow together in their faith). This post also will answer some of the questions I have received from you about the difference between the class meeting, small groups, and accountability groups.
The key contribution that the class meeting can make to contemporary Christianity is that it provides an entry point for every Christian to be in connection with one another in a way that is focused on the dynamic process of the Christian life. In general, the Christian life is a fluid process, people tend to either grow and mature in their faith or they tend to decrease in their commitment to their faith.
The class meeting is a helpful tool for increasing the likelihood that people will move forward in their faith for at least two key reasons. 1) The class meeting joins people together in small groups so that people are not lost in church. While this may seem most common or most likely in large churches, people can be “lost” in the smallest churches. In churches of almost any size, I suspect there are people who are connected with the church in some way, but who are not really known by other people in the church. This is largely unintentional, but when a church does not plan for ways to try to connect every person who is involved in the life of the church, someone is inevitably going to be left on the sidelines. The class meeting provides a structure that can connect everyone to a small group of people within the community of faith.
2) The format of the class meeting draws attention every week to the reality that the Christian life is not static. Every week each person in the class meeting is asked the simple question: “How is it with your soul?” Or, “How is your life in God?” In the classes that I have been a part of, simply getting into the rhythm of anticipating answering that question each week helps people to be more aware of how God is at work in their lives and how they are cooperating with God, or failing to cooperate with God. The content of the class meeting, then, is the lives of the people who are present. The goal of the class meeting is growth in holiness of the members of the class.
At this point, the difference between the class meeting and most Sunday school classes can be seen. To put it rather starkly, in the typical Sunday school class the content of the class is the Bible or a book of some sort. The goal is to learn new information. In my experience, people feel that a Sunday school class has been successful if at the end of the class they have learned something new, or have come to think about something in a new way.
In theory, and perhaps all too often in reality, someone could attend a Sunday school class for years, learning all kinds of information about the Bible or about Christian beliefs without growing in their faith one bit. Someone could be in a Sunday school class for years and their life with God could be worse at the end of the period of time than it was at the beginning – and it would be possible that nobody else would even know!
In the class meeting, there is no guarantee that the same person would be doing better spiritually. But they would have the opportunity to give voice to their struggles every week and the rest of the people in the group would have some idea of what was going on with them. They would be able to walk with them and pray for them.
The basic difference between the class meeting and Sunday school is that the class meeting focuses on transformation, on us becoming more and more like Christ. The Sunday school class focuses on information, on us learning information about Christ. To be fair, the intent of Sunday school is that this information will help us to live better lives as Christians. However, this is a second step, and one that often does not receive focus. I wonder if many Methodists have become so addicted to informational approaches to discipleship that they no longer think about how what they are learning is impacting the way they are living their lives.
It is difficult to provide a neat distinction between the class meeting and small groups or accountability groups, in part because the class meeting is a type of small group or accountability group. First, a class meeting is a small group, because it is a group that is small. However, a class meeting is a specific type of small group. The point here is that you can talk about a class meeting as a type of small group, but you cannot talk about all small groups as a type of class meeting. The key distinction is that in a class meeting the focus of the group must be on every person having the chance to talk about their life with God every week. If a small group gathers to read and study a book (no matter how amazing the book might be), it is not a class meeting.
Accountability groups are perhaps more similar to class meetings, in that it is generally assumed that an accountability group involves giving an account to the other people in the group. In other words, accountability groups are usually not dependent on curriculum or group study. Rather, accountability groups are oriented toward a voluntary decision to be accountable to a specific group of people for living a certain kind of life, the specifics of which are usually agreed upon by the group.
At one level, the class meeting is an accountability group. In our brief look at the class meeting in early Methodism, we saw that the class meeting was a place where people were held accountable for keeping the General Rules. And yet, at another level, the class meeting is actually a bit less intense than what most people have in mind when they think of being in an accountability group. In the early Methodist structure, the band meeting (a group of about 5 people that involved confessing specific sins) was more similar to the generally understood meaning of an accountability group.
The fact that the class meeting is a less intense form of accountability is a crucial point for understanding its potential contribution to contemporary Christianity. In most conceptions of discipleship or Christian formation, it seems to me that a combination of tools are used. There are usually classes offered that will teach people the basics of the Bible, Christian beliefs, or the particularities of the denomination of which the specific church is a part. However, what is often missing is a basic structure that will bring Christians of all levels of maturity together with the basic goal of living out their convictions.
To put it differently, most people who go to church are not willing to join an accountability group where they meet in order to tell each other the sins they have committed of which they are the most ashamed. The early Methodist approach to Christian formation recognized this and created something that was less intense so that every person could have a place where they did come together to talk at a more general and less invasive level about their life as a Christian. Methodism did not force every one of its members to confess their sins to their peers (or to anyone). However, they did require that every Methodist weekly give an account of how things were going in their walk with God.
In our context, I believe a structure similar to the class meeting would help people connect to one another. It also would help people to get into the habit of being aware of what difference the faith that they profess with their mouths is making in how they actually live their lives.
What do you think? Again, please feel free to continue asking questions about the contemporary relevance of the class meeting, or about this post in particular. You are welcomed to leave your questions as a comment, or email me directly at deeplycommitted at gmail dot com.