One of the “drivers” of congregational vitality identified by the Call to Action Steering Team of The United Methodist Church was small groups (including programs for children and youth). Although Wesley did have some thoughts on ministry to children, the vitality of his movement was strongly centered in small groups of adults.
When we picture early Methodism what often comes to mind is an itinerating preacher speaking to a crowd of eager listeners or, at times, surrounded by an angry mob. Less often, we might envision a meeting of a Methodist society coming together to hear preaching, conduct business, and attend a Love Feast.
But if you really wanted to find Methodism in eighteenth century England, the place to look was neither the open air preaching nor the society meeting. The heart of Methodism was the weekly, small group meetings led by laity.
There has been much talk of small groups, or cell groups, in the church growth literature. What enabled the astounding growth of mega-churches throughout the world was in many cases their being constituted by small groups. These cell groups were seen as doorways into the church, and the multiplication of groups was essential to both outreach and inclusion.
There is much truth to these observations. Small groups certainly meet a very human need for face-to-face interaction. It is not clear networking sites on the internet can fully satisfy that need today. My hunch is that small groups can be supplemented, but never really replaced.
Even though small groups are identified as essential to congregational growth and vitality, much less is said about what those groups actually do. Certainly they bring people together. But to do what? Often times it is Bible study or prayer. Sometimes it is to engage in mission together. Almost always it is “fellowship.” But just having groups in which persons participate seems more important than their particular purposes or activities.
This was not true of Wesley’s groups. Their purpose was to enable persons to grow in the knowledge and love of God, to follow the way of salvation, to be open to receive grace, and be faithful in discipleship. They were able to do this because they were inextricably linked to a set of spiritual disciplines to which all Methodists were committed.
This discipline was centered on three rules. First, do no harm—that is, refrain from those habits or activities that take you away from God and neighbor. Second, do good to the bodies and souls of others—that is, do those things that promote the physical and spiritual well-being of others. These are the works of mercy. Third, attend the ordinances of God—that is, attend weekly congregational worship and practice daily devotions. This includes participating in means of grace such as Scripture, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conference. These are the works of piety.
The purpose of this discipline was to keep persons focused on God and on their neighbor, counteracting all those things in life that tend to pull us in other directions. Because Methodists would be asked in weekly meetings how well they had kept the discipline that week, they were much more likely to do it. Thus the weekly small group meeting was an essential aid in keeping the discipline.
The practice of works of piety and mercy were not ways to gain favor with God, but ways to remain open to God’s transforming work. It was as Methodists cared for their neighbor, studied Scripture, entered into prayer, and received the Lord’s Supper that the Holy Spirit worked in their lives, opening seekers to knowing Christ and enabling forgiven believers to grow in love. This growth in grace was something Methodists did together in small groups of classes and bands. Fellowship was crucial, but it occurred as a by-product of discussions centered on the discipline, and hence, on their relationship with God and their neighbor.
The importance of discipline for early Methodism is difficult to understate. John Wesley and Francis Asbury both routinely referred to “our doctrine and our discipline” as a shorthand for what was central to Methodism in their day. If we truly seek vital congregations, perhaps it should be central in our day as well.