By Heather Hahn —
The United Methodist Church can experience revival by returning to the spiritual practices of Methodism’s early years, say two scholars leading an effort to develop passionate lay leaders.
In joining the mainline establishment, the church jettisoned many of the activities that made John Wesley’s movement so vibrant, said Scott Kisker, associate professor of church history at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
“Methodism was a method of helping people, a discipline that enabled people to have their lives transformed by the gospel and become holy,” Kisker said. “Mainline means we are an establishment religion that basically doesn’t see much difference between creating good citizens and creating Christians.”
In the 18th century, Methodist preachers took to the road to share the gospel and Methodist laypeople gathered each week for class meetings to discuss the state of their souls. Often the class leaders—rather than ordained clergy—performed pastoral duties for their communities.
It was all a bit countercultural. The early Methodists were the Jesus freaks of their day.
Kisker and the Rev. Steve Manskar, director of Wesleyan leadership for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, would like to see the church recapture some of that 18th century spirit.
To help with this revival, Manskar and Kisker will lead the Wesleyan Leadership Conference on October 14-16 at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. The theme of the conference derives from Kisker’s book Mainline or Methodist? Rediscovering our Evangelistic Mission. Manskar is working to get United Methodist congregations across the country to establish Covenant Discipleship Groups, based on the model of lay-led class meetings.
“Lay leadership is essential,” Manskar said. “That’s where the revival is going to come from. We need to have laity taking the lead in the visiting, the caring, and the mission of the church.”
Small group vitality. The conference comes on the heels of a recently released Congregational Vitality study that identified small groups as one of the main “drivers” of church growth, attendance, and giving.
Such a finding would not have surprised John Wesley. Kisker said small groups were a key part of Methodism from the beginning.
Wesley started out with band meetings, intimate groups divided by sex and marital status where people met weekly to confess their sins.
At band meetings, participants each had to answer five questions:
• What sins have you committed?
• What temptations have you met with?
• How have you been delivered?
• Do you have any questions?
• Do you have any secrets?
“It was a way to experience God’s grace,” Kisker said, “and have more compassion on your neighbor.”
Wesley next added class meetings where people could discuss how well they were following Jesus’ teachings. At a time when professional clergy were scarce, class meetings led by lay men and women became one of the core units of Methodism.
Membership in the Methodist church required membership in a class meeting, Kisker said. A person who missed three class meetings risked being dropped from the church rolls.
However, as the church grew in size and its members grew in prosperity, Methodists started to want to be more like their Presbyterian and Episcopal neighbors, Manskar said. They stopped wanting to attend class meetings each week, and they wanted pastors who no longer traveled but served one congregation.
By the middle of the 19th century, many of the circuit riders had dismounted, and such practices as field preaching and class meetings had fallen by the wayside.
In the process, many laity lost their passion for discipleship. The church still attracted new members. But as a percentage of the U.S. population, it stopped growing sometime after the Civil War, Kisker said.
“I think we became more about building an empire and less about creating disciples for Jesus Christ and redeeming people,” Kisker said. “We became more about building a church instead of building the church.”
Applicable today. The practice of class meetings still works amid people’s busy 21st century schedules, Kisker and Manskar said.
Kisker is part of a class meeting with fellow members of Hyattsville (Maryland) United Methodist Church. The group usually gathers in a member’s house on Friday evenings.
“We’ve seen some amazing things happen—people making dramatic life changes,” Kisker said. “One woman who was a lawyer decided she was going to become a nurse.… I just think making yourself aware of what God is doing in your life and having someone who asks you about it every week is pretty profound.”
Manskar hopes Covenant Discipleship Groups will lead others around the country to have similar profound experiences.
In these groups, members hold each other accountable for following Wesley’s three simple rules: Do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God. The goal, Manskar said, is “to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, which has a weekly attendance of about 200, has seven such groups of four to seven members.
They meet for about an hour each week. Members go around in a circle sharing what they have done in the past week as acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion. Then they discuss their spiritual promptings and share prayer requests.
Dan Thielen, a member of one of the groups, said the gatherings help him think about what is important in his life.
“We support each other through the bad times and pat each other on the back in the good times,” he said.
The Rev. Michelle Hargrave, the church’s senior pastor, said she and others have seen their faith deepen because of their Covenant Discipleship Groups. She is a member of a group with six other women.
“It’s such a foundational piece of Wesley’s own thinking, and it lives out in our lives so concretely,” Hargrave said. “That’s a pretty exciting tool for the church.”
The Wesleyan Leadership Conference costs $95. Further information is available at www.gbod.org/wesleyanleadership.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.