This is the fifth post in a series on the contemporary relevance and practical application of the Methodist class meeting. In the first post, I gave a brief history of the origin and development of the class meeting in early Methodism. In the second post I discussed the potential contributions I believe the class meeting can make for 21st century Methodism and compared and contrasted the class meeting to Sunday school classes, small groups and accountability groups. In the third post I discussed the target audience for the 21st century class meeting. In the fourth post I revealed (with tongue somewhat in cheek) ten ways to guarantee that your class meeting will fail. In this post I will discuss one of the main concerns that people have with any form of accountable discipleship – the fear that they will be judged.
One of the main fears or concerns that keeps people from joining a group like a class meeting is that they are afraid they will be judged. Part of the fear is that if I knew who you really were, I would never be able to accept you or continue to love you. And if I don’t meet your expectations, will you exclude me? Will I be told I am not good enough?
Judged. Excluded. Nobody likes to feel either judged or excluded. Most people will actively avoid placing themselves in situations where they know in advance they will feel judged or excluded. And The United Methodist Church has spent millions of dollars on an add campaign that, among other things, tries show that the UMC is neither judgmental nor exclusive.
So, how does this relate to the class meeting?
If we are honest, the class meeting is unavoidably a place where judgments are made. And it is a place of exclusion. But it makes all the difference in the world what judgments are made and what is excluded.
In contemporary Methodism, one of the quickest ways to dismiss something is to label it as judgmental or exclusive. Could it be that there is a place for both in the Church and in the Christian life?
Again, what we are excluding makes all the difference in the world. The first Methodists were obsessed with trying to figure out how best to exclude sin from peoples’ lives. They were clear that there are things that are not of God, that keep us from growing in our relationship with God. If we are to pursue growth in holiness, these things must be excluded. They are not neutral. It is not a matter of indifference if they are allowed to reign over our lives.
I doubt that many people would argue that Christians should not try to remove sin from their lives. The next part may be more contentious. One way of understanding early Methodism is that it excluded people who were not serious about following Christ. The Methodist movement was not designed to make people comfortable in listless apathetic discipleship. Rather, it was designed to help people experience the fullness of the abundant life that God offers every single person in Christ.
Hear me carefully: I believe that contemporary Methodism should welcome every single person, should reach out to every single person with the good news of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. The gospel is not only for some, it is for everyone. In that sense the message of contemporary Methodism should be radically inclusive. But I do not believe that contemporary Methodism should pass out cheap grace. I do not believe we should tell people that it is ok if they profess faith in Christ, but do not allow it to impact the way that they live their lives.
I don’t have the implications of this fully worked out. I think that Methodism needs to wrestle a bit with whether excluding people who are not interested in following Christ may be necessary in order to help those who are to grow in their faith. Ultimately, the way I would see this working right now, it would not literally involve excluding people from the UMC, but it would involve intentionally not catering to people who are interested in the church only because it makes them feel comfortable, because it is their country club. The efforts and energies of the church should be fully focused on proclaiming the good news and inviting people into the new way of life that is available in the light of this news. This way of life excludes sin in order to more fully love God and serve others. In American culture today, I believe that something like the class meeting has enormous potential to help people live more fully into this new way of living.
What about judgment?
I want to say two things about judgment, as it relates to the class meeting for the 21st century. First, the fear of being judged, seems to me, to be related to a deeper issue – trust. Imagine having lunch with a perfect stranger, someone you have never met. How would you feel if they began to express concerns about the way that you were living your life? Probably not good.
Now imagine having lunch with the person you trust and respect more than anyone else in the world. How would your reaction be different if they expressed similar concerns? I hope your reaction would be very different. There are a handful of people in my life, who, if they sat me down and expressed concerns about the decisions I was making, I would listen very carefully. There are people whom I trust and respect so much that my instinct would be that they could see things about my life more clearly than I can. I would listen and likely take their advice because I know that they love me. I know that they care about me more than about whatever part of my life we are discussing.
My point is this: I am not sure it is healthy to avoid ever being in situations where you are judged. In my own life, I know that it would make me incredibly vulnerable to self-deception or to rationalization. When it comes to being judged, the identity of the person making the judgments makes all the difference in the world.
Having said that, I don’t think the contemporary class meeting is best conceived as a place where other people make judgments about your life. In the classes I have been a member of, it has been rare for someone to judge me or call me to account for something.
This leads to the second point about judgment, the primary person judging you in a class meeting is yourself. The class meeting is a place where you take a weekly inventory of your own life. You make judgments about how things are going in your life with God. Some weeks you will judge that things are going very well, that you have been particularly aware of God’s grace and have cooperated with this grace. Other weeks, for whatever reason, you will judge that things are not going very well. On other occasions, you may be doing everything right, and yet, God seems strangely distant. The point is that in a class meeting, it is not the group’s job to tell you about your relationship with God, or evaluate it. Rather, you are telling the group about your experience from the past week.
Sometimes judgment and exclusion are the bogey men of the Church. Our fear of them can cause us to forget that they are descriptive terms, that can describe harmful events in some contexts and healthy, even necessary, events in other situations. The class meeting has the potential to be a place that is judgmental and exclusive in a negative sense. However, if this happens it is a malfunction of the class meeting, and not its best use. On the other hand, the class meeting has the potential to create a place where we can gather together to make judgments about our own lives with God, with the goal of removing (or excluding) the things that are hindering our growth in grace and nurturing the things that are an asset to our discipleship.
What do you think?