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There is a hunger in the church for meaningful community, where people can find support and comfort from others as they seek to grow in faith in the midst of the spectacular, tragic, and mundane events of real life. When I talk with church leaders about the importance of small group formation for Christian discipleship, people typically agree that small groups are important and that their churches would benefit from more small groups focused on life change. But they want to know how this kind of community can be created.
This question has come up repeatedly, for example, when I talk with church leaders about the role of class meetings in early Methodism, and my belief that they are of ongoing significance for contemporary Christianity. Class meetings were small groups that had seven to twelve people in them and met weekly to answer the question, “How does your soul prosper?” (Or, how is your life in God?) These groups were of such importance in early Methodism that for decades they were a basic requirement for membership. They were a key place where people learned about their need for salvation in Christ and the reality that salvation is freely offered to all through faith in the amazing grace of God. They also helped forge a deep sense of community as Methodists found faith in Christ and pursued a deeper relationship with the Triune God. (For more about the class meeting and how to start groups like these, check out my recent book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience.)
Attending to basic tasks like training class leaders, gathering the critical mass needed to start a class meeting, and casting vision to start groups that are focused on a particularly Wesleyan approach to communal formation is essential. And I address these and other practical aspects of starting class meetings from the ground up in my recent book.
And yet, I’ve realized that when people ask questions about the basic process of starting class meetings, they are not just asking about the very practical details of how to start a class meeting. There often appear to be questions behind these questions. Do people really want this kind of community? Would others really want to be a part of my life in this way? And would they actually let me into their lives?
When people do get a taste of healthy Christian community, it is often like water in a dry land. It is quickly absorbed and serves to make one more aware of a deep longing to be known, seen, heard, cared for, and most of all loved. Many Christian are hungry for this kind of connection with others.
To be honest, creating this kind of community is also very difficult. It takes time – lots of time – and effort. It takes consistency and intentionality that are often only given to one’s immediate family. The challenge increases because many Christians aren’t used to talking to each other about their relationship with God at all, much less bringing major life decisions, or the things they are most ashamed of or struggle with to a group. Pastors and lay leaders, then, raise questions about the feasibility of groups like the class meeting because they are aware of just how wide the gap is between the ideal form of Christian community and the current reality of most of the people in their church.
The class meeting is ideally suited for just such a context. The class meeting helps people who are more comfortable keeping their faith to themselves than discussing it with others, but who do have a desire for deeper connection with other Christians to take a step. It is a step that a leader can reasonably expect someone to take without getting in over their heads. But it is also a step that will help the person begin to experience the kind of community for which God created each of us.
I am increasingly convinced that two essential ingredients to a successful small group are a willingness by all group members to be vulnerable with each other and a willingness to invest meaningful time in the group. Class meetings help people grow in significant ways in both areas. As people begin to learn to talk about their relationship with God with each other, they make themselves vulnerable. And as they commit to a weekly one hour meeting, they take a step toward investing time in others and allow others to invest in them.
The Christian life was never intended to be lived in isolation from others. I have found time and time again that God uses other people to bless my life and help me grow in my faith. This should not come as a surprise because the doctrine of the Trinity expresses the basic Christian belief that God’s essence is a community of self-giving love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Working towards this kind of community is challenging. But those who have experienced the benefits of healthy Christian community can testify that the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
My hope is that the church will increasingly pave the way for all Christians to experience deeper community with their brothers and sisters in the faith.