[b]John Wesley's Class Meetings And Cell Groups[/b]
Introduction & Background
The time period of Wesley's ministry encompasses the greater period of The Great Awakening (as it is known in America) or The Evangelical Awakening (as it is known in the U.K.), but it would be a mistake to conclude that the two were identical, co-terminus or that Wesley somehow "brought about" the revival. This outpouring of the Spirit had manifested itself during the ministry of Jonathan Edwards in New England in the 1730s and in the preaching ministry of George Whitefield which preceded Wesley's own ministry of itinerant evangelism. Throughout England and America the Spirit of God was moving to "awaken" sleeping sinners and to convict them of sin, righteousness and judgment. It was into this river of the Spirit and of men that Wesley, Whitefield and others would cast their nets.
Wesley's View of Evangelism
John Wesley (1703 - 1791) regarded evangelism (and therefore the salvation of an individual) as more of a process than an event (he had long and spirited discussions with his Moravian friends over the issue of instantaneous regeneration and salvation), unlike most evangelism today where the focus is upon an event that results in a decision which is assumed to coincide with regeneration. This process of salvation had been Wesley's own experience. Wesley regarded all of his searchings and efforts prior to his Aldersgate experience in 1738 (his education at Oxford, ordination to Anglican ministry in 1728, leadership of the Holy Club, missionary activity to Georgia in 1735) as the time of his "awakening" to the things of God during which the Spirit of God was working on his conscience. This "awakening" finally culminated at "about quarter before nine" in the evening of May 24, 1738 when he felt his heart strangely warmed and realized that he trusted "in Christ, Christ alone for salvation."
Casting The Nets
In his subsequent preaching ministry (i.e., his "net evangelism") throughout the chapels, by-ways and fields of England Wesley regarded those who responded as people whom the Spirit had "awakened." Whether or not they were "regenerate" could only be determined over a period of time during which the individual must be given pastoral care and close examination. All of these "awakened" respondents were invited to attend Wesley's Society meetings. "There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies," Wesley wrote; "a desire 'to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.'"
A problem soon arose. Wesley's preaching ministry was so successful that in the year 1743 alone one thousand new members were added to his London Society. This kind of rapid growth presented a problem for personal pastoral care and supervision. How were so many "awakened" seekers to be supervised and encouraged, and false professors weeded out? Wesley was adamant regarding the necessity of constant, personal pastoral care. "How grievously are they mistaken who imagine that as soon as the children are born they need take no more care of them," he wrote. But how could he personally minister to so many?
Fishing With Rods
The answer began in Bristol where Wesley's Society had grown to 1,100 people. A society member by the name of Foy suggested that one person call on eleven others during the week to inquire of their status. The Bristol Society was quickly transformed, "In a while, some [class leaders] informed me that they found such and such a one did not live as he ought. It struck me immediately, 'This is one thing, the very thing we have wanted so long.'" These weekly visitations soon became weekly class meetings, "This was the origin of our classes at London," he wrote, "for which I can never sufficiently praise God, the unspeakable usefulness of the institution having ever since been more and more manifest." Soon, every Methodist Society was broken into smaller Classes of 12 persons who met weekly with a Class Leader for pastoral care, examination, encouragement and exhortation. According to Wesley, "Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to 'bear one another's burdens,' and naturally to 'care for each other.' As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for, each other."
The "Class," consisting of 12 people pursuing the discipline of Christian godliness, became the centerpiece of Methodism for the next 100 years, until the mid_1800s. It was in the Class that the "awakened" were discipled, examined and instructed, and where they shared mutual fellowship and learned to bear one another's burdens. It was in the Class that the "Rules" (those standards of behavior expected of every Methodist) were read and where individuals were examined to see if they were sincere in their desire to live according to Methodist discipline. Eventual membership in the greater Methodist Society was contingent upon a probationary period in the Class. People whose lives appeared to genuinely mirror their profession would be recommended for full membership. Those who continued in their old ways and demonstrated no willingness to change their walk would eventually be excluded from the weekly Class and the quarterly Love Feast. This was accomplished by a system of "tickets." A written ticket (eventually printed) would be issued once every three months, by Wesley or by the Class leader, to those Class members who were in good standing. This gained them entry to the Class meeting for the next three months and to the quarterly Love Feast. Then new tickets would be issued. Those members who by their lives had demonstrated growth in grace were given new tickets. Those who failed to attend meetings or whose lives had otherwise called their profession into question were not issued new tickets until they had demonstrated genuine repentance and a desire to renew their pursuit of Christian godliness.
It was Wesley's Class meeting that most closely resembles the Cell Church today, and the larger Society meeting that most closely parallels the "Cellabration" concept (hence completing the "two wings" that we refer to today). This dual structure represented the backbone of classic Methodism until the Classes began to unravel in the mid-1800s.
In my next post I will discuss some of the lessons I think we can glean from Wesley's experience that are relevant for our home & cell church ministries today. But here is one lesson that I think is immediately relevant. Wesley's Class structure did not bring about the Evangelical Awakening of the 1700s. Instead, the Class (or "cell) structure was a highly effective tool for receiving, organizing, and discipling (we might say "following up") the apparent fruit of Wesley's on-going ministry of itinerant evangelism. Where ever Wesley and his appointed "lay-preachers" preached and people responded, societies were formed and were broken down into classes of 12. The genuine fruit of evangelism was preserved, and "false fruit" was weeded out.
Many of us in America believe that awakening and revival are coming. But is the Church prepared for it? In his book, The Second Coming of the Church, Dr. George Barna argues that the Church today is completely unprepared to handle the anticipated fruit of revival. Where are the classes and small groups needed to absorb, encourage and equip these new converts? According to Dr. Barna''s research a majority of the people who make a decision for Christ in one of our evangelical churches are not to be found in any church context within eight weeks of making that decision. Our current church infrastructure is not adequate to handle the results of "normal" activity, much less the overwhelming stress that comes during times of revival, or from times of crisis and upheaval. It reminds me of God's word to Jeremiah, "If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses?" (Jeremiah 12:5) If we have been tired out and exhausted by the "normal" requirements of daily Christian living and ministry ("running with the footmen"), how do we expect to "keep up" with the intense demands placed upon Christian leaders during the intensive times of revival and great out-pourings of the Holy Spirit that He plans to send upon the Church ("competing with the horses")? I believe that the experience of Wesley suggests that God is raising up the home & cell church paradigm at this particular time in history in preparation to receive and to disciple the fruit of the coming revival.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon