Exploring Early Wesleyan Movement in Youth Ministry : the Class Meeting

If you have heard me speak at a workshop or keynote event or been in the proximity of me while I have been on my soap box there has been a theme you probably heard. A theme that there is some holy mystery from the early Methodist movement that is part of our DNA we need to capture again to help our youth navigate the current culture and spiritual crisis.

In the start of the Methodist movement you would have found yourself in the midst of an industrial revolution which brought with it culture shifts and issues of crisis. People were moving away from family units and farming communities to the industrial and urban areas. This broke up, what to that point in time, was the center point of spiritual and church life. The young people led the way with this movement, not the elder states people or the institution of the church. These young folks had the foresight to see a need for mentoring guidance in their movement, which led to John Wesley being given the leadership authority of the movement. Though John Wesley was a younger clergy person he was one considered to be quite the dynamo of a spiritual leader to set up this transformational movement.

So What Can This Teach Us Today?

In today’s youth we should be okay with saying that what we are doing is not working. Many times it does and we have a core of youth who are dedicated to the church, the youth community as well as their spiritual life. But are we really tending to the soul? Or are we doing some activity based version of the traditional education system that trades a recess for pizza and the pledge of allegiance for the UMYF benediction? There is something deeper that we are missing than the power point and catchy ‘talks’ in our youth ministry. My thoughts center around the care for the soul.

In the earliest of the Methodist movement you were not invited to be a part of a bible study or mission trip. You were invited to become part of a class meeting.

What is a class meeting?

wesleyan class meeting memeA class meeting in the Wesleyan sense was a gathering of 7-12 people who would get together once a week for a check in on their spiritual lives. The question you regularly answered in a class meeting, which I am sure many have heard before, “How is it with your soul?” The answering of that question by the individuals would give a sense of belonging, accountability, testimony and transformation for the individual as well as the group. Only after a six month period within the class meeting were people accepted into membership of the movement and then given more responsibility. It was considered at that point where the leaders of the class meeting could attest to the persons transformation. As well the new person to the movement could speak to their own spiritual transformation and personal change.

If you were a person within the Methodist movement at this time you would be inviting someone to your class meeting, not your worship or bible study. This relational meeting is where the Methodist movement saw the importance of transformation happening, not in the spoken sermon or the institution program. But that face to face meeting where the only agenda item was to ask how are you doing.

So Why Don’t We Do This Now?

‘This sounds great Gavin, why are we not doing this?’ That is a great question, for some reason we have disposed of many of the great things of our early movement DNA. The class meeting, from a language/semantics angle is not a very appealing ‘naming’ of a gathering of people. Honestly, if you invite someone to a class meeting and give them a traditional Wesleyan class meeting they are libel to feel cheated that there was not some in depth study course work. Class meeting, as a name, does not work for us in our American sense. The adoption of Covenant Meeting (and Covenant Disciple) has been used to shift the language and give rise to the class meeting form. The Covenant Disciple group meeting is not a pure class meeting in set up but is our closest modern comparison. However, that still, somehow does not seem to have caught on. The ‘small group’ phenomenon in youth ministry has come around, but there again we make these program teaching times more times than not.

Another thought on why we do not do class meetings is that we are in a culture where every action needs to have some tangible result. The class meeting at its core does not have a lesson plan or study guide. Coming together to talk about how the spirit is working in our lives is great for the teenagers that experience that, but stinks for the youth worker who has parents asking what you are teaching their child this week. Believe me, I know this first hand practicing what I preach here.

Another thought on why we do not do class meetings is that we have had a few generations that had values of keeping their ‘baggage’ to themselves. Our teenagers are open books, they will tell you anything and everything. They want help in navigating their troubles and triumphs. However, their parent generations do not share these sentiments as something of value. You keep to yourself. You certainly do not share with others outside the family.

So, Can This Work Today?

Absolutely!! And it is not very hard. And it is very hard.

You can absolutely do this. I have helped lead this change and seen some awesome transformation and some serious struggles. In my largest youth community I have led we shifted our traditional UMYF setting to a youth led small group (with adult leaders supporting) and the youth went through a traditional set up that centered on asking “How is it with your soul?” The results were great and terrible. They were great because the youth were loving it and taking on all types of ownership and leadership beyond the youth ministry. It was terrible because we had many youth who grew up in, and were comfortable with, a culture that did not ask much of them except to show up. We also had a number of leaders who had to ‘un-build’ all their training of years of youth leadership to NOT try and teach and take over, but to listen and relate. New youth started to come as they were ‘invited’ not to our church per-see, but to that particular youth’s class meeting. A movement was happening.

It is very hard because you have some serious culture shifting that, most likely, needs to take place. We have a premium on program within youth ministry today. Parents shop their churches not for what transforms their child but what cool things they can be involved in. Pastors need to know that something is happening in the life of the church and it is easiest to say that ‘we are teaching this or that’ than to say, youth 1 and 2 are struggling with self-image and eating disorders and cannot come to terms with a Christ that we say loves them. Not to mention youth 3 does not even believe in God right now, even though they were confirmed last month. It is messy, and we do not like cultures of messy. You might say, but this is how ministry should be, absolutely I agree, but agreeing with me and not tending to changing the culture will get you fired. Promise.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

You can find all kinds of resources out there that can help you navigate some of this ‘recapturing’ of the Methodist movement. I suggest the works of Kevin Watson, who has a great article primer here,  as well some excellent books on Blueprint of Discipleship and Reclaiming the Wesleyan Tradition. You can also read his article on Wesleyan Class meeting for the 21st Century. Tune into Steve Manskar at the GBOD as he is the go to person on Covenant Discipleship these days. Subscribe to his email newsletter to get his latest thoughts and historic background on transforming disciples in the Methodist Movement.

If you want to talk to me more about this exploration and re-imagining of our youth ministries feel free to contact me at gavin (at) youthworkercircuit (dot) com or through my wesleyan based resource and curriculum site http://youthworkercircuit.com

**the image for this article is an internet meme that someone created during General Conference a few weeks back. I am a sucker for making fun of ourselves. as well i am a fan of others who feel a reclaiming of our past movement practices will help us to navigate and transform our future.

 

5 comments

  1. Good thoughts Gavin. I’m hopeful that as a (UM) church we we learn to rediscover the Class Meeting.

  2. Love it. We’ve recently started something similar. It has less structure and bible lessons, and more baggage and openness. Glad to see it’s not a new concept.

  3. Speaking into my own article. I asked a few Wesley scholar folks to read over my article. They liked where the overall article was going and the call for the class meetings. However, they were less than pleased with my loose John Wesley history. Agreed, I’m a hack academic (more a practitioner) so take my factual JW stuff with a dose of loose historic account. &:~)

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