loren Eric Swanson: John Wesley's Class Meetings by D. Michael Henderson

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

John Wesley's Class Meetings by D. Michael Henderson

John Wesley was a man with a mission and a vision—“to redeem the nation” and “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.”[1] In a country where in “1736 every sixth house in London was licensed as a grogshop”[2] England was a country of drunkenness, despair and moral decay. Children as young as 3 1/2 worked in the mines, the mills and brickyards and “[l]ess than one in twenty-five had any kind of schooling…”[3] The rural poor migrated to the cities in droves looking for works as the primitive wheels of the industrial revolution began to turn, creating urban slums never seen before. "The reins of economic power were completely in the hands of the wealthy few. Beneath the sophisitcated veneer of the governing classes, the English populace was gripped in a vise of poverty, disease, and moral decay." Where was the church?

The Church of England catered to the upper strata of society. Churches were subidized by the government and of th 11,000 pastors who were on the payroll, 6000 of them never set foot in their parishes but resided in England or on the continent, farming out their ministry to underlings.

Wesley’s goal was formidable but his mission was clear. Preaching to the masses alone was insufficient, as his contemporary, George Whitefield, who would often preach to crowds exceeding 20,000, had proved. (Ben Franklin once calculated that he could be heard by 30,000.) Near the end of his life Whitefield called his converts “a rope of sand.”[4] Building on Whitefield’s “field preaching,” Wesley added his class meetings and it was these class meetings that shaped a people and began the redemption of the nation.

The shaping of Wesley
John Wesley is the product of his parents. His father Samuel was a Anglican clergyman and scholar. His mother, Susanna Wesley took parenting seriously and believed that “the mastery of the child’s will to be the decisive factor in character-molding.”[1] Self-will was the root of sin and misery. Understanding “will” shaped John Wesley’s methodology. In contrast with his Calvinist antagonists (and they were often so) Wesley believed that people were free moral agents who could choose or reject God and the accompanying life-changes. He was optimistic enough to expect change but realistic enough to provide grace when his converts stumbled.

Wesley was also shaped by his contact with the biography of Catholic nobleman Monr. de Renty (1611-1649). “Throughout his life, Wesley continued to refer to de Renty as the epitome of Christian holiness coupled with concern for the poor and effective methodology.”[2] De Renty’s small groups formed the model for Wesley’s class meetings. More importantly de Renty helped shaped Wesley’s spiritual growth model.

The focus on the Anglican groups was personal growth through careful attention to themselves; de Renty concentrated on personal growth by ministering to the needs of others. The Anglicans hoped that Christian service would be the eventual outcome of their quest for personal holiness; de Renty viewed Christian service as the context in which personal holiness developed…. [F]or Wesley, de Renty’s model of growth-through-service enabled him to steer his groups around the dangers of morbid introspection and mysticism.[3]

In the providence of God ,Wesley was also introduced to the simplicity and organizational skills of the Moravians. As with the case of a good mentor, Wesley eventually broke away from them but it cannot be denied that he was greatly influenced by their lifestyle and methodology.

Something to think about
John Wesley may well be the understatement of the past two and a half centuries. His revolutionary concepts and methods of what church could be, shaped not only what has become a denomination but how a generation came to think of themselves as equals in a stratified society. Bankers and coal miners sat side-by-side in small groups confessing their faults to one another. Women were given leadership roles, once only the province of males. There is much to learn from Wesley.

Issues to consider in launching spiritual movements
Target audience: Though highly educated Wesley chose to work with the poor because he followed the example of Jesus. The outcasts were ready for Wesley’s life-changing message.

Style of communication: “I design plain truth for plain people; therefore, of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings…”[4] Most people would rather be instructed than impressed.

Place of Scriptures: “…his appeal would be almost entirely based on Scripture rather than Scripture plus the accumulated thoughts of the learned…”[5] This is a key decision.

Growth model: Wesley believed, like his historical mentor de Renty that growth comes through service as opposed to growing into service. “Mission was not the end product of his discipleship, but the means to further it.”[6] Before going to Georgia he wrote, “My chief motive (in going) is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen.”[7] This is a very important distinction for Wesley that separates him from most evangelicals today. As a friend of mine said a few days ago, “Most pastors are equipping the saints for works of service that they will never do.”

Systems: Jim Collins says that good systems cause good things to happen even when no one is paying attention to them. That means, once a system is in place, like Wesley’s classrooms, etc, he could easily (or at least efficiently) oversee 30,000 believers. One thing I’m learning about systems is the place of small groups in externally focused ministry. If service outside the church becomes part of the DNA of every small group in a church, then the ministry of each small group takes on a life of its own. Without this someone always has to be pushing programs.

Wesley was big…not just for his time but for the ages. Thank you John Wesley.

[1] P. 35
[2] P. 48
[3] P. 50
[4] P. 71
[5] P. 73
[6] P. 46
[7] P. 46
[1] P. 21
[2] P. 19
[3] P. 19
[4] P. 30


At Thursday, November 29, 2007 1:41:00 PM, Anonymous Skipjack68 said...

Hi Mr. Swanson,
I stumbled into your Blog Site while trying to look up more information Monr. de Renty. He had some influence on John Wesley according to this book,"A Model For Making Disciples". We are currently using this book as a guide in Sunday School study. We are not that far along in the book, (page 51)as a few paragraphs spark quite a bit of discussion. Our last book, "Purpose Driven Life" took well over a year for the same reason.

I was struck by the fact that de Renty was made a Saint and seemed have a great deal of influence in England, even though he lived in France and was active in his Christian life for relative short period. (+/- ten years?) Of course back then, communications were so limited compared to ours today so how did the word get around. I guess it was that 358 page biography that Wesley abridged to 67 pages. Anyhow, de Renty must have been very busy to fill 358 pages in such a short time.

I did Google up a little more information from a Catholic Church page. Then I came on your Blog in reference to de Renty.

We are all enjoying learning more about John Wesley, who founded our Methodist Church.

By way of comment on Henderson's book, I made the statement to the class that I had the feeling that his book was rather a hard read, considering that it was written for a general church audience. (I assume that.) I felt that a lot of the words used were above my education level. I thought that was unique to me, but the others in my class laughed and agreed with me. I said that he reminded me of the column written by the conservative newspaper columnist George Will.

George's column is right on target for me, except his vocabulary goes well beyond mine. Considering that he is writing in a newspaper that reaches persons at different levels of education, I think he loses some readership. I think that also applies to church membership too. Not all of us have that great an education, so to reach the most, maybe Henderson should have written to the level or nearer the level of the least educated. Does this make any sense?

We are enjoying your book, big words and all. I just wondered if anyone else mentioned this or am I wrong in believing that I measure up to average in vocabulary.

Thanks to Henderson for writing about John Westley. I am also trying to get some information on Dr. Vincent Phiel. About 50 years ago, he wrote an article in a magazine that greatly influenced me joining the Methodist Church. This book has made Sunday School time a time I look forward to.

Palatka, Fl.

At Sunday, August 07, 2011 1:56:00 PM, Blogger Jeania Moore said...

Hello, My name is Jeania M. and I was wondering if you still had a copy of the book John Wesley's Class Meeting. If you do, would you be so ablighed to send one to me. My E-mail is jniamoore@mynikken.net. Or you can contact me at (718) 524-8025. Please leave a message if you don't get me, as I don't know what your area code is and I don't answer calls I don't recognize, only because of Teller Marketeers. So if you would be so kind. I would greatly appreciate it.

God Bless you and may His face shine upon you.


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