Unit 7.9 Wesley DNA: a vast migration of people from rural to urban areas


Unit 7: Methodist Historical DNA and Modern Cell Churches: Is There A Match?

Lecture: Prairie DNA

The historical process by which John Wesley=s discipleship system adapted to the frontier in the United States is described in the excerpt below from Chapter One: Systemic Problems from the Resource page at www.disciplewalk.com.

Third Systemic Problem: Traditional APrairie@ DNA

Rapidly growing cell churches credit their success to John Wesley=s use of class meetings in England. The churches of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference are also hereditary descendants of Wesley=s societies with very different characteristics. Expediency, a basic principle in Wesleyan DNA, led to a different adaptation to the prairie environment which is now highly resistant to change. Cultural DNA is information which defines norms and homeostasis.
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.[1] This kept them visible in a busy, urban world.[2]

 Methodists also attended the local Anglican parish church for worship and the sacraments. All of this activity made the Methodists very visible to their neighbors. The value of holiness was obvious due to the immediate improvement in quality of life. The goal of the movement was to Aspread scriptural holiness across the land.@[3]

The Wesleyan discipleship system was always more focused on holiness than evangelism; while field preaching drew large crowds, Wesley=s Societies statistically Aconstituted only a fraction of one percent of the populace@ in any given year.[4] The crowds did not enter the societies; they are not an example of rapid evangelistic church growth similar to the church of Acts or modern cell churches. Wesley=s emphasis on disciplined behavior, however, made them an influential fraction compared to the passivity of the typical Anglican clergyman. Wesley=s societies had high expectations of laity and low expectations of clergy.

[1]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.

[2]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.

[3]Hattersley, Life of John Wesley, 207. Cf. Weems, Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit, 128.

[4]David Lowes Watson, The Early Methodist Class Meeting (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992), 131. Wesley=s pattern by itself will not reverse the current membership decline.

[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 APrairie 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, AJohn 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, AA 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.

NOTE (my response)



The quote is from Major League Disciple Making: An Overview of the Best Research on the Cell Church, an online course developed for the Institute for Discipleship at www.BeADisciple.com in 2009. Course materials, including these lectures, can be downloaded here: http://www.disciplewalk.com/IFD_MLD_Class_Links.html

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.

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