This is the fourth 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 this post I will give you the top ten ways to guarantee that your class meeting will fail.
Yep, you read that right. Is there a lot of pressure in your church, district, or annual conference to start a class meeting in your church? But you don’t really like the idea? Well, here is how you can start one, but torpedo it. If you do these ten things, I guarantee that your class meeting will be an utter failure.
(In case you missed it, that was an attempt at humor.)
On a more serious note, the intent of this post is to identify some of the major things in small group dynamics that can undermine the vitality or long term success of a group. If you are serious about starting something like a class meeting today, you will need to think about how you are going to address some of the challenges that come with starting such a group. Some of the things I will mention can be pretty touchy, and may even make people angry if you call them out on it in the moment. One strategy that can help the group be aware of some of these dangers is to name them before they become a problem. There is a decent chance on any given day nearly everyone in the group will struggle with at least one of these things. Finally, humor can be a way to address serious things in a way that people can hear more easily. So, talking about how to guarantee the failure of a class meeting can be a disarming way to name some things that might make people feel a bit defensive.
Ok, without further ado, here are the “Top Ten Ways to Guarantee that Your Class Meeting will Fail”:
#10: Never start one.
This one is pretty straight forward. The easiest way to guarantee that your class meeting will fail is to talk about it and consider it, but never actually start one.
#9: Meet at an inconvenient or irregular time.
Another way to ensure that your class meeting will fail is to meet at a time that many people who would like to join the group simply cannot attend. This is probably the one that is most obvious, and least likely to be the downfall of a sincere effort to start a class. The more likely obstacle would be failing to meeting regularly and consistently. The group is most likely to succeed if the group meets at the same time and place every week. It may not necessarily be fatal to the group, but if the meeting place changes, someone will inevitably show up at the wrong location one week. Similarly, if the group is meeting at your house and the group does not meet at the same time each week, you will inevitably have someone forget when the group is meeting and show up at your house expecting to meet.
#8. Turn the class meeting into a curriculum driven group.
About 3 – 6 months after the group starts meeting, people will begin to get restless and wonder what is next. A well-intentioned person may suggest that the group read and discuss a book they just read that really inspired and challenged them in their walk with God. If and when this happens, there needs to be a gentle stubbornness by the group, and particularly the leader, that the group is not going to become a study group. Bible studies and other study groups are not bad, but they are not class meetings. For a class to succeed today, the group needs to have a deep commitment that the purpose of the group is to take a weekly inventory of how things are going in each person’s life with God.
#7: Forget the differences between classes and bands.
Classes are groups with men and women, married and single people all together. The group should have somewhere around 7 to 12 people in it. The point of the group is to weekly gather to support and encourage each other in the common goal of growing in faith and being transformed by the grace of God. The basic question of the group is: “How is your life in God?”
Bands are groups that are either all men or all women, and are sometimes also divided based on whether the members are married or single. Bands should have about 5 people in them. The point of bands is to bring actual sins that have been committed into the light, to encourage one another in the common goal of pursuing entire sanctification, or being made perfect in love for God and neighbor. The basic question of the band meeting is: “What sins have you committed since our last meeting?”
If someone thinks they are joining a class, but it functions like a band meeting, they will likely feel that they are in over their heads. Further, there is a greater degree of spiritual maturity required of the band than there is in the class meeting, so if people jump straight into the bands before they are ready, a host of issues can arise.
#6. Select the leader based on anything other than spiritual maturity and spiritual leadership.
The role of the leader in the class meeting is important. They are the one who will gently move the conversation on as needed, ensure that every person has a chance to talk, and otherwise facilitate the meeting. A class meeting that has a spiritual leader of maturity leading the group will have a key person in place to guide the group through its development and through challenges the group may face. This person is also a key person for helping to set the tone for the group by being the first one to answer the question “How is your life with God?” every week and by keeping the group focused on its purpose.
#5. Allow one person to dominate the conversation.
My guess is that this is one that basically every group will struggle with. For one thing, classes will be most comfortable for people who like to talk and process things by talking about them. This is one area that is particularly important to address up front. At the beginning of a new class meeting, the leader should stress that it is important that every person be given the opportunity to talk. The leader may even want to acknowledge that some people talk more easily than others, they may need to challenge themselves to be more concise and aware of how long they have been talking. On the other hand, those who are less comfortable talking may need to challenge themselves to talk a bit more. If this is addressed up front, then it will not seem as personal if the leader gently suggests that the conversation needs to move to the next person during a meeting.
When this needs to happen, and it will need to happen, the leader should not say, “You have been talking for too long, let’s move on.” Almost always, when someone talks too long, even though everyone else may be suffering over how long they have been talking, the person who is actually talking has no idea how long it has been. The best approach is to gently interrupt by thanking them for sharing, briefly identifying one thing they have said that was particularly appreciated, and then simply asking the next person the question, “How is it with your soul?” or “How is your life in God?” The person who is interrupted may feel embarrassed, but if the leader moves the attention to someone else, the person who is embarrassed won’t have to have the double embarrassment of having the attention be on them.
By the way, this one hits pretty close to home for me, because I am one of the people who processes things by talking. As a result, I have to really work to be aware of how long I have been talking. I also have to work on being concise. (I mean, look how much I just wrote about this… just be glad we weren’t talking about this one in person!)
#4. Have all the answers.
This is a catch-all for several ways to ruin a class meeting. In small group dynamics there is often an expert who emerges in the group. You probably know what I am talking about, someone who has all the answers. They are the only person who fails to realize when a rhetorical question has been asked. To them, every question has an answer. And they always know what the answer is. These people also have the best of intentions. They are passionate about their faith and are eager to share what they have learned with others. They really believe they are helping. However, one of the best ways to stifle a conversation is by being a know-it-all. Other people in the group will be less likely to be vulnerable and share doubts, anxieties, or concerns that they are having if there is one person who always has everything figured out and leaves no room for other people to be in flux, or working through things.
Another way this can manifest in a group is if the leader sees herself as a teacher, not a facilitator. This can be deadly, because if the leader is the one causing the problem, it will be very difficult for the group to overcome. So, if you are involved in starting something like a class meeting, know that it is not your job to have a solution to every problem that people in your class raise. You are not there to teach people how to be better Christians, you are there to walk with them as they seek God’s transforming grace. And, you are there because you need them to walk with you as you seek God’s transforming grace in your own life.
One more thing: If you have been in a lot of small groups and have never noticed that this is sometimes a problem of small group dynamics… you are probably the one with all the answers. (Sorry, someone had to tell you.)
#3. Hide during the meeting.
I don’t mean literally hiding, like behind the sofa… though that would certainly be a problem, and really weird. By hiding I mean either not talking or not being honest about what is really going on in your life with God. This doesn’t mean that the class meeting is the place for your to bring all the skeletons that have been in your closet. In fact, the class meeting is not the place for that.
Members who have had a bad week, may be tempted to gloss over their struggles by saying that things have been fine, or ok. If you are in a class meeting for an extended period of time, you will almost certainly have weeks where it is NOT well with your soul. It it ok to be honest about that. In fact, it is vital for the future wellness of your soul to be honest when things are not going well. When it is not going well in your life with God, this is the time when the class meeting may be the biggest means of grace in your life. If you are honest, you will realize you are not alone. You will receive sympathy and prayers from the group. And in verbalizing your spiritual malaise, you may learn about what is going on in your life with God.
Related to this, there is also sometimes a tendency in class meetings to feel like you have to one-up yourself every week. Resist this temptation. Simply be honest and real.
#2. View the group as a place to gather gossip.
One of the best ways to destroy a class meeting is by breaking the confidence of the group. It needs to be clearly said that what is shared in the class meeting is confidential. It is not a topic of conversation with friends or family members outside of the group. If there is some reason that talking with someone else might be helpful to the person who shared, what was said in the group can only be shared with someone outside of the group if the person who shared it gives their permission.
If you struggle to keep secrets, or to keep things to yourself, the class meeting may not be for you. Confidentiality is not optional.
#1. Be unwilling to be challenged to grow in your faith and be transformed by the grace of God.
The class meeting is an invaluable asset for people who desire to grow in their faith and seek to be transformed by the grace of God. When people gather together to support and encourage one another, God will also be there. The class meeting, however, is not for those who do not want to be changed. It is not for those who are content to profess faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on Sunday morning and then live the rest of the week as if there is no God. The class meeting is for those who want to a tool that will help them check in to see how their faith is impacting their life.
All of the concerns about what might go wrong cannot be addressed in advance. We are messy people. We are good at sinning. Something could go wrong. But, if we believe that the Holy Spirit is active and present with us, we don’t have to have everything mapped out in advance. We should be prudent in doing what we can to make a group like a class meeting as likely to succeed and be a blessing to its members as possible. However, we should also leave room for the Spirit to guide and direct each meeting.
Nearly in the top ten: Meet for more than 1.5 hours
Initially, the desire to allow the meeting to continue comes because something exciting is happening in the group. Someone has some sort of breakthrough and the group wants to allow them to process it. This is well and good, and even ok if it happens occasionally. However, it should be rare. If a weekly meeting consistently lasts longer than an hour and a half, people will begin to feel exhausted just by the thought of going to the group. The leader of the group should remember that a commitment to attend a group once a week for 1-1.5 hours is already a big time commitment. Leaders should work to formally end the meeting on time by closing with a prayer. Conversation can certainly continue among those who wish to stay, or talk at their cars. But formally ending the meeting gives those who need to leave the opportunity to do so.
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