The decline of the class meeting matters because disciples of Jesus Christ are called to live different lives, not just think different thoughts. Here is a way of thinking about what is at stake: A year from now, would you rather know more about the kind of life you want to live, or have made progress in living that kind of life? If your goal is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and most of your focus has been on finding the church that will best meet your needs, figuring out which translation of the Bible is the best, or reading the best books on discipleship that you can find, but your life is the same as it was before—I would argue that you aren’t becoming a disciple. Nothing other than following Jesus Christ can make you his disciple.
Here’s another way of illustrating what I’m trying to get at: Imagine a person who sets a goal to run a marathon. They might spend time researching the best kind of running shoes to wear, the best shorts, the best approach to training, and the healthiest food to eat. They might subscribe to Runner’s World and even read it. But no matter what else they do, there is one thing that is absolutely essential to being able to run a marathon—running.
A person can research and buy all the gear that they want, but if they don’t actually start running, they are not making real progress toward completing a marathon. It is that simple. I am worried that our approach to Christian discipleship is too often like a person who prepares to run a marathon by buying shoes without actually running in them. Please don’t misunderstand me; just as good running shoes are essential for long-distance running, the Bible and the church are essential for discipleship. Discipleship, however, is about a way of life, not only the life of the mind. Disciples follow Jesus. They are sent out in ministry by Jesus. They heal the sick. They feed the poor. They tell people about Jesus and what he has done.
I am convinced that a recovery of the class meeting would be used by God to help people who are interested in Christian discipleship to make real and meaningful progress toward becoming deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ.
Another reason I am so excited by the possibilities of a recovery of the class meeting is because returning to this practice would do more than improve the quality of discipleship of those who are already committed Christians. One of the most important contributions the class meeting can make to contemporary Christianity is that it provides an entry point for every Christian to be in connection with a small group of people in a way that is focused on the dynamic process of the Christian life. In general, the Christian life is a fluid process. People tend to either grow and mature in their faith or decrease in their commitment to their faith.
The class meeting is a helpful tool for increasing the likelihood that people will move forward in their faith for at least two key reasons:
1. The class meeting joins people together in small groups so they are not lost in church.
While this may seem most common or most likely in large churches, people can be “lost” in even the smallest churches. In churches of any size, there are people who are connected with the church in some way, but who are not really known by other people in the church. Though this is almost always unintentional, when a church does not plan for ways to try to connect every person who is involved in the life of the church, someone is inevitably going to be left on the sidelines.
The class meeting provides a structure that can connect everyone to a small group of people within the community of faith. And even more important than whether people are connected is whether they are in a relationship with Jesus Christ and are growing in that relationship. The focus of the class meeting on each member’s experience of God provides a helpful weekly reorientation for each person and for the entire church that this is the most basic and most important thing that a church should do—help its members enter into a relationship with the living God and grow in that relationship.
2. The format of the class meeting draws attention every week to the reality that the Christian life is not static.
Related to what has just been said, in a class meeting each participant is reminded every single week of the importance of living their beliefs. Answering the question, “How is it with your soul?” Or, “How is your life in God?” every week helps to keep “the main thing the main thing.” In the class meetings of which I have been a part, simply knowing that I will answer that question each week helped me to become more aware of how God was at work in my life and how I was cooperating with God’s grace, or failing to cooperate with God’s grace. The content of the class meeting, then, is the lives of the people who are present.
The goal of the class meeting is the growth in holiness of the members of the class, helping each person grow in their love and knowledge of God and in their love of others. Regardless of where someone finds themselves spiritually, they can recognize the truth of their current relationship with God, and then seek to move forward.
Participating in a class meeting does not guarantee that you will become a mature Christian. It is not a magic bullet that is guaranteed to make you a saint. But participating in a class meeting will create space in your life for you to give voice to your victories and struggles. This discipline will result in your being more aware of what is going on in your own relationship with God. It will also help you know what is happening with other people in your faith community. One of the major benefits of this is that you will be better able to pray for others and they will be able to pray for you with increased specificity.
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