Despite best efforts to design the most attractive, impressive, and appealing programs for people to grow in Christian faith and discipleship, there is nothing more effective at transforming persons for Christ than the Wesleyan small group. Still, as pastors and church leaders seeking to help our congregation grow in grace and knowledge of Jesus, we scour publisher’s catalogs searching for the latest curricula from notable authors. We attend conferences and events featuring headlining worship musicians and dynamic speakers. We adopt new initiatives as they come into vogue, promoting them until the next thing comes along. And we do this all in the quest for finding just the right thing that will help fill the gap that the last program did not fulfill. But the purest and simplest, the most tried-and-true method for helping persons experience a life transformed by God to its fullest is one consistent with Wesley’s class and band meeting.
In a recent series of posts, I’ve explored the particulars of transformation—not simply its importance for Christians—but insights from transformational learning theory in the field of contemporary adult education. Theorists posit that transformation is initially prompted by a motivating factor that they call a discrepant event. It might be a moment, or a series of moments, through which a person realizes there is a viable and desirable alternative to the way she experiences life. Yet, realizing the possibility for change or even having the motivation to change is not enough to facilitate transformation. Integral to the process of change is ongoing reflection and evaluation. Learning theory identifies two distinct, yet mutually reinforcing processes, critical reflection and rational dialogue, to aid in achieving the desired goal. This post examines how the Wesleyan class and band meeting are inherently, by design, primed to promote and produce transformed lives.
Long before any twentieth-century educator conceived of transformative learning theory, Wesley developed a strategy for discipleship that helped eighteenth-century persons called Methodists experience transformed lives. Organized around The General Rules of the United Societies—(1) do no harm, (2) do good, and (3) attend on the ordinances of God—the Methodist Society relied on class and band meetings to help persons live into their commitment to the General Rules.
In terms of transformational learning theory, the General Rules constitute a discrepant event by offering Methodists an alternative to secular life and the ways persons typically live in the world. And while the General Rules both proscribe and prescribe activities and behaviors to foster holy living, the General Rules are less a performative checklist than they are a way of experiencing God’s grace in ordinary and everyday moments of life. The General Rules provide a guideline by which disciples can order their lives to seek God’s grace that can further assist them in their pursuit of deeper discipleship.
Just as experiencing a discrepant event is not enough to effect change, the General Rules do not transform lives. In deciding to become a member of the Methodist Societies and ascribing to the General Rules, early Methodists participated in class meetings, as well as band meetings, if they chose to grow deeper in faith. Within the class and band meetings, persons covenanted to “watch over one another in love.” In terms of transformational learning theory, they engaged in critical reflection as they evaluated their lives, confessing sin that was present or crept into their lives. Through coming together in true Christian conferencing to give an account of their lives to one another, they did more than simply confess sin. They encouraged, supported, and nurtured each other—even challenged and confronted when appropriate. Learning theorists would say these disciples engaged in rational dialogue as they spoke into one another’s lives, exhorting each other to live out their Christian commitments. By coming together corporately, to examine their lives in conversation and prayer under the direction of the Holy Spirit (opening up the possibility of extra-rational dialogue!), Wesleyan small group members did the hard work of helping facilitate the transformation that God was working in their lives.
Wesley’s class and band meetings did not rely on a new, prepackaged curriculum each year. The curriculum of discipleship is the disciple’s life which is responsive to God’s grace to practice holy habits, creating rhythms and patterns that can be reinforced and, subsequently, trusted throughout life. Wesley’s class and band meetings are intentional, guided by a particular set of principles to help Christians be saved to the uttermost—or, as we would say today, “live our best life now.” Wesley’s class and band meetings are timeless, adaptive to Christian communities in a wide variety of contexts. Wesley’s class and band meetings are primed for transformation in the lives of participants who regularly submit themselves to the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit in the presence of a community committed to grow in love of God and neighbor.