Wesley’s discipleship system trained people in holiness and spiritual maturity where they lived.

This entry is part 58 of 118 in the series Diagnosis, Dialogue, Decision: A DMin Project

John Wesley was a complex man living in complex times. The Industrial Revolution brought a vast migration of people from rural to urban areas. The Methodist Societies became a spiritual village within the city for many dislocated people.[1] Wesley blended methods from Anglican religious societies and Moravian sources to create an evolving discipleship system that came to embrace laity in ministry first as small group leaders and then as lay preachers.[2] Wesley’s discipleship system trained people in holiness and spiritual maturity where they lived. Salvation was a process first of prevenient grace, then justifying grace and finally sanctifying grace. Methodists remained fully engaged with people at each successive stage of grace and helped one another to move onward toward perfection.[3] Wesley’s primary goal was to change the behavior of individual people toward holiness; the class meeting was an expedient innovation that began as a tool to raise funds but soon became Wesley’s tool for individual supervision in holiness.[4] They used tickets with expiration dates to control who remained within the Society.[5] Class meetings provided a living human network for the direct spiritual supervision of each person each week.        

            Wesley kept his people busy.[6] This kept them visible in a busy, urban world.[7]





[1] The quote is a selection from David O. Kueker’s Fuller Seminary Doctor of Ministry project submitted in September, 2007, entitled Diagnosis, Dialogue, and Decision: A Threefold Process of Revitalization For the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
It is shared here in recognition of its 12th Anniversary along with comments to update and provide perspective on the material. The original project was a Training Manual/Study Guide of three Seminars supported by three chapters of research and an Introduction. The material is available for download at www.disciplewalk.com/Resources.html. In 2009 it was provided for purchase as a softcover book entitled Designing Discipleship Systems: Christian Disciple Making For Any Size Church, Any Theology through CreateSpace.com.

[2][3] [4][5] [6][7] [8]

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

[1]A question for historical investigation would be whether there are significant differences between Wesley’s practice of Methodism in urban and rural areas. It is possible that I term “Prairie DNA” began in rural England where the stimulus of a smaller rural population brought forth these patterns. If so, then Asbury would only be practicing the form of Methodism with which he was familiar.

[2]Steven W. Manskar, Small Groups and Accountability: The Wesleyan Way of Christian Formation, http://www.gbod.org/smallgroup/Manskar_Accountability.pdf (accessed June 18, 2007). Cf. David Hunsicker, “John Wesley: Father of Today’s Small Group Concept?” Wesleyan Theological Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring 1996), under http://wesley.nnu.edu/wesleyan_theology/theojrnl/ 31-35/31-1-09.htm (accessed May 1, 2007).

[3]Hunter identifies four stages in Wesley’s process compared to nine for Willow Creek. George G. Hunter, III, Church for the Unchurched (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 154-156.

[4]John Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), 8:252-255. There was a problem in Bristol with raising funds for the debt on the New Room. Captain Foy proposed that the Bristol society be subdivided and that each member give one penny. He asked to be assigned eleven of the poorest individuals whom he would visit each week; he would pay the penny for any unable to make a contribution. Each week class leaders met each person in their class, reviewed the behavior and spiritual condition of each individual, reported that condition to the stewards, and turned in an offering from each person. Eventually the decision was made for the class to meet as a group so that those who would seek to deceive the leader about their behavior could be immediately be confronted with the truth by their neighbors. The class meeting was never educational in purpose or focused on bible study, but always on the modification of behavior toward holiness. Roy Hattersley, The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 200-201. Unlike the cells of a modern cell church, class meetings did not select their own members, select their own leaders, develop apprentice leaders or multiply into two class meetings.

[5]Wesley, Plain Account, 256, 259-260. Wesley created boundaries so that people sorted themselves into groups at the level best suited for them; certain behaviors were required to get a ticket that would allow a person to participate in different activities of the Society. Requirements of obedience made certain that no strangers were present. Participation in a penitent band on Saturday nights cleared the way for return.

[6]Wesley provided his followers with a wide variety of activities in addition to the class meeting so that Methodists always had something holy to do instead of yield to temptation. These activities included twice daily sermons preached at five a.m. on the road to work and in the evening, a variety of small groups called “bands” to practice more intense spiritual discipline, monthly half-night prayer meetings, visitation of the sick and a variety of other community ministries. The complex Wesleyan discipleship system evolved to fulfill what was lacking in the typical Anglican parish, thereby supplementing rather than separating people from the church. One must wonder what would have evolved if Wesley, like Asbury, had been a bishop able to appoint ministers to his liking to parishes under his control. When Methodism was freed of the tension of remaining in the Anglican church and became a church itself, it dropped in time most of what characterized Methodism as Methodism under Wesley. Cf. Wesley, Plain Account, 251-252, 255, 257-261.

[7]Wesley’s movement used a variety of methods, from the five a.m. preaching to social service, to keep Methodism in the forefront of awareness in urban environments filled with competing recreational distractions, temptations and competing churches. They created a “go” organization which penetrated their communities and drew people into beneficial relationships.

Series Navigation<< Francis Asbury preached the gospel on the empty prairies during a vast migration of people from urban to rural areas.a different adaptation to the prairie environment which is now highly resistant to change. >>
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