In continuing to read Norwood’s The Story of American MethodismI came across some interesting analysis of the decline of the class meeting. Norwood connects the decline of the class meeting with the decline of the circuit riding preacher. Norwood writes:
The high point of the class meeting coincides with the heyday of the circuit rider. Its decline dates from his dismounting. As long as the traveling preacher was on the go around his circuit and from appointment to appointment, the place of the class meeting was secure. The class leader was needed to perform those pastoral functions which are part of a balanced ministry. But when the preacher settled down in a parsonage as a stationed pastor, the class leader… became, at least so it seemed, an unnecessary wheel. Inadvertently, because of the settling down of the traveling preacher, Methodism lost one of its strongest supports, the active ministerial participation of the lay people. (132)
This is not portrayed by Norwood as a positive development. Norwood concludes the chapter musing that “Ever since, Methodists have been trying to decide whether they would be a great church or a holy people.” When I first read this, I thought: Are the two mutually exclusive? I guess it depends on your definition of a “great church.”
The important point, it seems to me, is not that we should work to return to a truly itinerant ministry. Instead, it is that there is something vital missing when the active ministerial participation of the lay people (to use Norwood’s phrase) is missing. I see the class meeting as a key to renewing, strengthening, and empowering a lively lay ministry.