When I explored the boot camp analogy in my last essay, I appealed to both ancient and contemporary models of spiritual formation and their use of images of athletic and military training. We can also legitimately appeal to the origins of Methodism and its rigorous formation of Christian disciples.
Although programs like Disciple Bible Study and Covenant Disciple have begun to reclaim for United Methodism some of the formative power of our originating spiritual disciplines, we still have a long way to go before we fully recover their essential aspects. Listening to Wesley reveals our founder to be more radical than any of our current recoveries.
Compare any typical membership class in our churches today with Wesley’s practice of putting inquirers into groups. The contrast is something like that between a pleasure cruise and a boot camp. ([In the following, quotations from Wesley are in italics.)
Although there were no doctrinal or confessional requirements to join a Methodist “Society,” potential members had to declare a fervent desire to flee the wrath to come, to be saved from their sin. Wesley assumed that this was just the beginning, for he expected the desire wherever this is really fixed in the soul…will be shown in fruit. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.
Therefore, the first step after being admitted to the Society was to be placed in a “class” of about twelve persons where it may the more easily be discerned whether they are indeed working out their own salvation.
Classes met once a week at least, and a leader would inquire how their souls prosper…[would] advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require, and receive what they are willing to give toward the relief of the poor.
In an article he wrote for the Arminian Magazine, Wesley described the purpose and some of the tasks of class meetings. The particular design of the Classes is — to know who continues as members of the Society; to inspect their outward walking; to inquire into their inward state; to learn what are their trials, and how they fall by or conquer them. To stir them up to believe, love, obey; and to check the first spark of offense or discord.
He quite explicitly called for self-examination and measurement of spiritual progress: To inquire whether they now believe; now enjoy the life of God. Whether they grow therein, or decay; if they decay what is the cause; and what the cure. Whether they aim at being wholly devoted to God; or would keep something back.
Wesley even provided a series of questions to help class members to begin opening their hearts to each other: 1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting. 2. What temptations have you met with? 3. How were you delivered? 4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not? 5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
Many contemporary Methodists appeal to the “openness” of the Wesleyan tradition. We point to the fact that there were no conditions for joining the early Methodist societies other than the willingness to flee the wrath to come. We then translate this into our time, alongside our advertising slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” and assume that there are very few conditions to becoming a Methodist. A review of the history of membership in our tradition quickly contradicts this rosy picture of easy membership.
Any congregation, pastor, or small group leader who wants to deepen the spiritual formation and discipline of fellow seekers after God would do well to go to school (or should we say “boot camp”?) with Wesley to learn the arts of group spiritual direction.
Helpful summaries of Wesley’s small group method can be found in D. Michael Henderson’s book, John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples (Evangel, 1997), and Kevin M. Watson’s The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (Seedbed, 2013). An excellent introduction to spiritual development in early American Methodism can be found in A Little Heaven Below, by Lester Ruth (Abingdon, 2000).