Many of us continue to deal with the effects of the pandemic in our schools, communities, and churches. No matter the location or size of the church, one universal and lingering effect of the post-pandemic reality is that church attendance has not rebounded as well as other aspects of our pre-COVID19 lives. Recent studies show, regardless of the size of the church, attendance is usually 25–50% of the pre-COVID19 attendance numbers. In my conversations with church leaders from different contexts around the world, one theme seems to be consistent as to why people are not returning: many lacked a place of meaningful connection to others in the church. Even those who were active in worship or in a ministry program, but not in intentional discipleship, are not returning in large numbers. The power of a discipling small-group community is evident more than ever, both in the churches where these communities existed and the places they did not. How should churches respond next? Our Wesleyan/Methodist history of small-group discipleship has much to offer.
Many churches utilize small groups for a variety of functions: education, fellowship, mission, and social activities. But it was the early Methodists who began the modern-day small group ministry to fulfill a high calling: The transformation of souls for the transformation of others—that is, making disciples who make disciples. This movement began in response to a real need in the early Methodist revival.
After John Wesley’s “heartwarming” experience on Aldersgate Street in May 1738, his whole ministry changed. His preaching was on fire, you might say! He was considered much too enthusiastic by many of his church colleagues and fellow ministers and was subsequently shunned by many. As a result, several churches refused to allow him to preach in their sanctuaries.
However, this did not deter Wesley from preaching to those who needed to be awakened to the gospel’s power. Less than a year after the experience that started the Methodist revival, Wesley was urged by his fellow minister George Whitefield to preach in the open fields. He was in the city of Bristol when he “submitted ‘to be more vile’ and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.” That day in the open air outside the city, he preached to 3,000 people. Seeing the strong movement of God in this he preached in more and more in places considered outside of normal church ministry: city centers, open fields, the entrance to coal mines, etc. The response was strong, and many people committed their lives to Christ.
But Wesley had a problem: how to disciple all those people? He was resolute in the idea that it was a travesty to make people aware of their need for salvation without providing follow-up for working out that salvation. Referencing Jesus’s admonishment in Matt 23:25, he said that doing so made them twice as fit for hell than before. Wesley was not satisfied to merely provide information without providing opportunities for transformation. Yet, providing avenues for true transformation with such larger numbers of people was a challenge.
Wesley’s answer: To grow bigger, think smaller. He organized the larger numbers of people into small groups that could provide opportunities for spiritual growth. The largest groups were called “Societies” and were frequently used for preaching and teaching to larger groups of people. “Class Meetings” were groups of about twelve people who gathered weekly to minister to the poor, use the Scriptures to shape one another’s lives, and ask about one other’s relationship with God that week. “Band Meetings” were groups of four or five and provided the highest level of accountability to the members. It was this structure and the spiritual growth that it fostered that was the powerful engine for the Methodist movement. These early small groups were so powerful because they were led by the laity and designed for multiplication. They were not created to be a destination, but an avenue of growth for both current and future members.
Church and ministries face a variety of challenges today, of which COVID19 is but one. Some are wondering if they will survive at all. The ones that will only survive, but grow stronger from our current difficulties, will be the ones that emphasize transformational discipling communities. This will require some to abandon unhealthy programs or old models of ministry. That’s perfectly okay. With great change comes great opportunity.
The pattern of Wesleyan small groups provides a venue for meaningful connection while allowing members to watch over one another in love as they grow together in Christ. As churches look to adjust to contemporary needs, this is a perfect opportunity to rebuild ministries with the structures that carried the first Methodist revival and can do so in the next one!