Modeling John Wesley's Small Groups

One of the things that contributed to the quick spread of Methodism in its early days was the class meeting. Wesley was very intentional and particular about placing individuals into these small groups in order to foster and encourage their spiritual growth. One of the main aspects of these groups was accountability, which Wesley understood as foundational to faith development. Dr. Kevin Watson (@kevinwatson) writes extensively about John Wesley’s class meetings and their applications for the church today at his blog and will be publishing a book, scheduled to be released in fall of 2013, in collaboration with Seedbed.

For nearly the past three years I have been the pastor of the second campus of a United Methodist church in the northeast part of Indianapolis. It is a great group of people who have developed a strong desire for going deeper in their faith but struggled to figure out how. As their pastor, I found myself struggling with the same thing but from a different perspective.

Over the past eight months we have experienced significant growth with a number of young families beginning to attend the church, many of whom have young children. We have a weekly study on Wednesday nights that has consistent attendance but with none of our young families attending. Recognizing the need to get these individuals connected to the church and each other, I took my inspiration from Wesley’s class meetings and started a men’s and women’s small group on Thursday nights.

The goal of these weekly small group meetings is twofold; connect with God and connect with each other.

The evening is setup so that a family can arrive at church together and leave together, with small groups for the men and women (and programming for their kids) happening in-between.Sharing a meal together creates an important opportunity to connect with each other so each week someone is responsible for providing dinner for his or her small group.

The small group time focuses on the, “How is it with your soul?” question by creating conversation centered around daily life, scripture, and accountability. At times this conversation happens casually, other times it comes through sharing prayer requests, or discussing a book together.

The groups were formed through targeted invites, meaning there were no announcements in the weekly bulletin or mentions from the pulpit in order to have shared life-experiences and the possibility for meaningful accountability.

This model of small group ministry has proved successful for us so far. Almost weekly I receive feedback from one of the small group members talking about how much he or she appreciates the small group, or how great it has been to connect with other men and women from church. These small groups have changed the atmosphere on Sunday mornings by creating relationships that carry over from Thursday evenings into the rest of the week.

Ten weeks in, we have retained every individual from both groups but find ourselves facing a new challenge, how to add new individuals. The concern is the change in group dynamics and accountability as new people join. What has been your experience? Does your ministry setting use a Wesleyan model of small groups or something else entirely? What is working in your context?

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Matt Lipan is the Lead Pastor at Gateway Community Church, a new United Methodist congregation in Indianapolis, IN. He received his M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Leadership. Matt's blog, In The Neighborhood of Holy, is like a casual walk through the neighborhood exploring the places where faith + culture intersect. Look for conversations on music, leadership, culture, Wesleyan theology, discipleship, church, and everything in-between.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting. I am a Youth Director at a UMC in Central Texas and this fall will start something similar. 3wks of bible study/how is it with your soul conversation, then a missions emphasis for each of our small groups the 4th Sunday of every month. This is something new to our congregation and student ministry. I would love to have some interaction with you or others exploring these types of “Missional Communities”.

    What is the best way to contact you?

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and share. I think your model sounds interesting and has lots of potential. Feel free to connect w/me on Twitter (@mattlipan) or via email: matt.lipan[at]gmail[dot]com.

  2. Great article. Wesley is one of my heroes. In my book Church Zero, I actually make the case that this is exactly what the 1st Century church did and that nobody came closer to Acts than John W.

  3. Thanks for this post!

    It is very encouraging to read about the implementation of contemporary Wesleyan class meetings, Matt! One of the things that I am praying comes out of my book with Seedbed (thanks for mentioning it, by the way!) is a network of people who are doing this. I think this is happening more than most realize and it would be fantastic to have folks connected to each other who are retrieving this practice. I am becoming convinced that this is something the Spirit wants to use to bring renewal to contemporary Methodism.

    • Thanks Kevin! Looking forward to your book and insights on this movement and think a network of those practicing this model of small group ministry is a great idea.

  4. Matt – Excellent! Our small, rural church here in OK is starting 8 weeks with “A Blueprint for Discipleship.” We did 8 weeks of “Life’s Healing Choices” last Fall as an entry point. I too am waiting to see what Dr. Watson puts in the offering with his forthcoming work. Would love to compare notes with you as I have started DMin work at ATS with a dissertation focus on what type of leader it takes to initiate, model and sustain modern class meetings. I am also taking a look at how recovery group models fit with Wesley’s class model. They are so similar in many ways. I believe, as Kevin does, that class meetings are the revival tool for the UMC. The question is what kinds of leaders does it take to shepherd the move and break the mold that is strangling our spiritual side. Be blessed Matt & Kevin!

    • Thanks Jim! Those 8wk studies sound like great ways to engage people. Your focus on the small group leader is really interesting to me because I do think a certain combination of personality & skill set can make a big difference. I’d certainly be curious to hear more about what you’re finding.

      I’ve wondered similar things about the recovery group models and honestly think many of them do a better job of understanding and living practical accountability than a number of church groups.

      Feel free to connect w/me on Twitter(@mattlipan) or via email: matt.lipan[at]gmail[dot]com. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Great article! I planted a UM church in San Antonio and we wrestled for a while on a discipleship system that fit our community. We ended up following a Wesleyan outline – we offer “normal” small groups each semester that run 10-12 weeks in homes to connect people, to do sermon based Bible study, and for prayer and care. We think of it like the class mtg. Then we offer a year long process with me (the pastor) that is mainly by invitation to those involved in small groups who want a deeper level of spiritual formation. This group stays together for a calendar year and works through a systematic spiritual formation process and we pull our church leadership from those who have completed this process (we call it “The Path”). This would be likened to Wesley’s bands. My next step is to see if we can implement something looking like the select bands for deeper accountability, etc. Good luck to you and blessings on your ministry Matt.

    • Thanks! It sounds like you have an intentional plan in place w/different options for each individual along the faith journey. I really like the idea of pulling your church leadership from “The Path” process and would be curious to hear more about your outline for this year long group. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  6. The way John and Charles Wesley did it was to take the men and women out of their gender specific groups ( band society) , after they were sanctified , and put them in a coed (select society) for leaders. The new leaders started new coed groups for the new people , called methodist class society. When these new people were saved they were moved into new gender specific band societies until they were sanctified and the process starts again.
    Keep up the good work !

    • Thanks for sharing Bob! This certainly helps with how to not only connect new people but move individuals along in an intentional discipleship pathway.

    • I actually think the way the Wesley’s did it was have co-ed groups for people who wanted to know Jesus or know Jesus better. Then, the ones who wanted to go deeper in holiness were placed in gender-specific bands.

  7. Any further thoughts? We are bringing this up to speed with revived John Wesley’s Small Groups aka class meetings. I was raised in UMC (part of Asbury Revival) and am fascinated by the basic method leading to geometric growth during rise of Methodist church.

  8. Thanks for this post. Here in the Philippines, we are having a great deal of interest with Discipleship. Reading from your posts help me understand more the Wesleyan Model. I pray I can connect with you more!

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