In my writing and teaching about reclaiming the Wesleyan class meeting, I am sometimes asked about the potential for online class meetings. The class meeting was a small group of seven to twelve people that was centered on each person answering the question “How does your soul prosper?” (For more on the class meeting, click here for a previous series I wrote.)
The more I have thought about the class meeting, the more I have become convinced that the class meeting is more of an archaeological relic from when early Methodism’s days as a movement focused on justification by faith, the new birth, and growth in holiness. Today, most United Methodists do not have the vocabulary to talk about their personal experience of God. I’ve been in class meetings where we revised the original question so it was either “how is it with your soul?” or “how is your life in God?” People who do not have previous experience with a group like this often struggle to find the words to answer the question.
I mention this because I am often asked by people who want to be in a class meeting, but are struggling to find the critical mass to start a class, about the potential for an online class meeting.
Here are my initial thoughts (with the caveat that these are very much still in process for me):
I think there is some potential for online class meetings, but I would have a strong preference for class meetings that meet in real life. Here is my guess: Groups that meet in person in someone’s home have a much better chance of being successful in the long run than do those that are started by people who have met online and cannot meet in person because of geographical distance.
There are two scenarios where I think online class meetings would be most likely to succeed. 1) Technology could be used to sustain community that would otherwise be interrupted by a move. Imagine, for example, an amazing seminary that requires its students to participate in weekly class meetings during their time in seminary, the seminary I teach at does have this requirement! Here, many of our students have formed close friendships and want to stay accountable to one another, even as they are sent out from SPU. Given a context where people have met together for years and have built deep relationships, I think an online version of the class meeting could be used to help people continue the community that has been built.
2) Technology could be used to help pastors participate in a class meeting themselves, especially if they have never participated in one previously. There are a host of issues here that could be explored further. There is disagreement, for example, about whether pastors should or should not be involved in something like a class meeting with their parishioners. I think it would be better for the church if the pastor is in a group like this within their congregation; however, I am more of a pragmatist than a purist on this. I would rather a pastor be in a group than not, so if it helps a pastor enter into a class meeting by joining a group of other pastors, then by all means they should do it! And if it is not feasible to meet in person because of geographical proximity and scheduling issues, then an online meeting could work really well.
Before I sketch what I think would be the ideal way to organize an online class meeting, I want to make one qualification. One of the values of the class meeting is that it was a way to ensure that every person who was associated with “the people called Methodists” was connected to a community of people who were seeking to be saved from their sins and would watch over one another in love. A concern I always have when discussing online class meetings is that it will be a way for people to play it safe and join together with those they are already comfortable with, rather than risking inviting people around you to try something new. In early Methodism, the class meeting was one of the major pieces of the early Methodist movement. Better to start a class meeting in any form than not start one. But in my mind, it is even better to start one with people in your local church, to invite and encourage them to grow in their love and knowledge of God. I believe that a return to a form of small group practice like the class meeting is one of the best hopes for Wesleyan faith communities, but can only bring renewal to local churches to the extent that they are connected to local churches.
Conducting an online class meeting:
Here’s how I would organize an online class meeting. First, contact the people you would like to be in the group. Agree on a consistent time to meet weekly (remember to take time zone differences into account, if applicable). The best news about trying an online class meeting today is that technology makes it possible to meet as close to in person as possible. I would use skype, facetime, or some other online chat forum to meet. It is ideal if participants can see each other, but not essential. I do think it is nearly essential that the group be able to hear each other’s voices. Instead of sitting together in a circle, or around a table, you will be sitting in front of your computer. But you will still be able to answer the weekly question, pray for each other, and even sing (as long as I don’t have to lead the singing)!
Ultimately, I think online class meetings offer both potential and peril. The potential is that the virtual format may help some folks stay connected to Christian community that God has used to help them grow in holiness. It could also help people find a class meeting to participate in if they are in a culture that is not willing to try a class meeting. And best of all, everything that is essential about the class meeting can be preserved (i.e., people talking to each other about their relationship with God and their pursuit of growth in grace). The peril is that virtual classes could discourage vulnerability and intimacy. They could also encourage people to avoid their literal neighbors and inviting new people into the group.
A good rule of thumb is that you are doing something right if the class meeting is both a means of grace to you personally and it is also used to invite people into a deeper relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.