by D. Michael Henderson

It’s amazing the power of what’s been done before. I believe I first heard the term “chronological snobbery” from John Piper. He used it in an effort to communicate the danger of the cult of “now” and our culture’s obsession with the latest and greatest.

This embrace of the temporal should certainly be warred against in the church which all too often in its ever-reaching quest to be relevant sometimes overreaches and begins to dilute the power and purity of its essence by embracing trends and movements that may prove damaging in the long run.

This book is a reminder – perhaps a rebuke even – to the church, particularly the Methodist tribe – of some of our roots and things that have been used by God in the past to accomplish life and cultural change. It’s a study of John Wesley’s strategies of group discipleship that turned 18th century England upside down and according to some actually aided in the creation of an informed, industrious and respected middle class for the first time in history.

Wesly formulated his group discipleship method through trial and error and constant comparison to how he interpreted the movement of the early church in the New Testament. From his tireless efforts to communicate the Gospel of Christ to the outcast and lower rungs of England’s 17th century society, he was able to witness the Lord doing an amazing work to elevate the status and spiritual life of the people to whom he involved in his comprehensive system of whole life discipleship.

Wesley’s approach at its highest point had five distinct rungs of involvement, with the highest rungs only attainable by those who had proven faithful at the entry levels. His distinction for advancement was ignorant of class or economic level (a drastic departure for England’s society at the time) but was rather completely centered in the willingness of the individual to grow, change, and develop.

The five rungs were:

  1. The Society – a large group that assembled mainly for teaching and instruction by a qualified teacher.
  2. Class Meeting – members of the Society would break apart and be led by layman in these groups that targeted the behavior. They were expected to apply what had been taught in the Society, as well as meeting the standard of conduct that Wesley and his leaders had drawn up for them (and these were comprehensive).
  3. Band – these were smaller groups intended to address the affective, or emotional. They were intended to challenge the disciple in his or her love for Christ.
  4. Select Society – this was a level for leadership that involved training and mobilizing to meet the needs of the other levels.
  5. Penitent Bands – these were still in development by Wesley, and they were the most sparsely implemented. Essentially, they dealt with special cases of addiction and behavioral issues (a significant precursor to the recovery movement and things like AA).

Wesley’s methods (which led his followers to be called “Methodists”) were so successful that after a beginning of only 20-30, it involved tens of thousands by the time of his death.

Author Michael Henderson identifies eight foundational principles that enabled the successful propagation of Wesley’s system and the influence of the gospel through it:

  1. Human nature is perfectible by God’s grace.
  2. Learning comes by doing the will of God.
  3. Mankind’s nature is perfected by participation in groups, not by acting as isolated individuals.
  4. The spirit and practice of primitive Christianity can and must be recaptured.
  5. Human progress will occur if people will participate in “the means of grace.”
  6. The gospel must be presented to the poor.
  7. Social evil is not to be “resisted,” but overcome with good.
  8. The primary function of spiritual/educational leadership is to equip others to lead and minister, not to perform the ministry personally.

It is Henderson’s expansion of each of the above eight principles that makes the book a dynamic and profound read.

In this day of explosion and continued renewal of small group ministry in churches, leaders must and should review the successes and mistakes of the past – particularly those of Wesley – in order to be a good steward and practitioner of the truths that were learned and applied to the 18th century society of England.

The transferral of many of these concepts to 21st century small group ministry might revitalize ministries and churches as they seek true transformation in the lives of members and participants. The study of Wesley’s methods might also help us avoid his mistakes and excesses.

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