THE CLASSES OF JOHN WESLEY
(Excerpt from an article by Maurice Smith www.parousianetwork.com)
Jesus never concerned Himself with large numbers of converts. In fact, as best we can tell, he never concerned Himself with more than twelve. Why? First, because knew how fickle the easily-led masses could be. He knew that the same masses who would hail Him with loud Hosannas on Palm Sunday would trade Him for a murderer and cry out “Crucify Him. We have no king but Caesar” only one week later. That’s fickle. Second, Jesus knew that the day would eventually come when the Holy Spirit, working through even one of those twelve disciples, could sweep thousands into the Kingdom of God on a single day. But that day, He knew, would never come if He did not pour Himself into 12 illiterate fishermen, zealots, tax collectors and peasants, and if He did not prepare them to be clothed with power from on high.
It is ironic, but it should not surprise us, that whenever the Church has focused upon the masses we have eventually lost them. The history of the Church in America and its traditional love of crusades and mass meetings should be proof enough of that. But we press ahead with mass meetings in the firm but failed belief that “big is better.”
The wisdom of Jesus’ model of 12 has been demonstrated in church history during times of revival. John Wesley’s ministry of evangelistic preaching coincided with another great outpouring of the River of God’s Spirit in the 1700s. His preaching ministry was so successful that in the year 1743 alone one thousand new members were added to his London Society. This kind of rapid growth presented a problem for personal pastoral care and supervision. How were so many “awakened” seekers to be supervised and encouraged and false professors weeded out? Wesley was adamant regarding the necessity of constant, personal pastoral care (i.e., discipleship). “How grievously are they mistaken who imagine that as soon as the children are born they need take no more care of them,” he wrote. But how could he personally minister to so many?
The answer began in Bristol where Wesley’s Society had grown to 1,100 people. A society member by the name of Foy suggested that one person call on eleven others during the week to inquire of their status. The Bristol Society was quickly transformed, “In a while, some [class leaders] informed me that they found such and such a one did not live as he ought. It struck me immediately, ‘This is one thing, the very thing we have wanted so long.'” These weekly visitations soon became weekly class meetings, “This was the origin of our classes at London,” he wrote, “for which I can never sufficiently praise God, the unspeakable usefulness of the institution having ever since been more and more manifest.” Soon, every Methodist Society was broken into smaller Classes of 12 persons who met weekly with a Class Leader for pastoral care, examination, encouragement and exhortation. According to Wesley, “Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ and naturally to ‘care for each other.’ As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for, each other.”
The “Class,” consisting of 12 people pursuing the discipline of Christian godliness, became the centerpiece of Methodism for the next 100 years, until the mid-1800s. It was in the Class that the “awakened” were discipled, examined and instructed, and where they shared mutual fellowship and learned to bear one another’s burdens. It was in the Class that the “Rules” (those standards of behavior expected of every Methodist) were read and where individuals were examined to see if they were sincere in their desire to live according to Methodist discipline. Eventual membership in the greater Methodist Society was contingent upon a probationary period in the Class. People whose lives appeared to genuinely mirror their profession would be recommended for full membership. Those who continued in their old ways and demonstrated no willingness to change their walk would eventually be excluded from the weekly Class and the quarterly Love Feast.
Take note: The River of God’s Spirit is about to flow in unprecedented power and blessing. But are we prepared to receive it? In his book, The Second Coming of the Church, Dr. George Barna argues that the Church today is completely unprepared to handle the anticipated fruit of revival. Where are the classes and small groups needed to absorb, encourage and equip these new converts? According to Dr. Barna’s research a majority of the people who make a decision for Christ in one of our evangelical churches are not to be found in any church context within eight weeks of making that decision. Our current church infrastructure is not adequate to handle the results of “normal” activity, much less the overwhelming stress that comes during times of revival, or from times of crisis and upheaval. It reminds me of God’s word to Jeremiah, “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses?” (Jeremiah 12:5) If we have been tired out and exhausted by the “normal” requirements of daily Christian living and ministry (“running with the footmen”), how do we expect to “keep up” with the intense demands placed upon Christian leaders during the intensive times of revival and great out-pourings of the Holy Spirit that He plans to send upon the Church (“competing with the horses”)?
I believe that the experience of Wesley suggests that God is raising up the house church/simple church paradigm at this particular time in history in preparation to receive and to disciple the fruit of the coming revival. I believe that House Church represents a return to the importance of investing ourselves in a handful of people who, in their turn, will do the same with their own handful, etc. etc.
So, let me ask you. How many people are in your House Church? If it’s more than 12 then you’re doing better than Jesus ever did, so be encouraged.
What’s your goal? Is your goal is to impress the crowd, your traditional church friends or the faculty back at the denominational church planting office? Or is your goal to usher in a Kingdom? To impress the crowd will require big numbers. To usher in the Kingdom of God requires only 12. Choose which it will be. A simple House Church of 12 committed disciples or families could change the world.
“We should not expect a great number to begin with, nor would we desire it. The best work is always done with a few. Better to give a year or so to one or two men who learn what it means to conquer for Christ than to spend a lifetime with a congregation just keeping the program going. Nor does it matter how small or inauspicious the beginning may be; what counts is that those to whom we do give priority upon our life learn to give it away.”