John Wesley, Disciple-Maker
The industrial revolution in England began in the early 1700s. For those who owned the factories and mines, life was good. But beneath the belching smokestacks, in the shadow of the grimy mills, impoverished workers made up the vast majority of society. The ever-widening gap between rich and poor set into motion a powerful undercurrent, a brewing cauldron set to boil over in a civil war.
One of the worst consequences of the industrial revolution was the horrific working conditions for children. Many began working at five or six years old, and one member of Parliament reported that children as young as three spent eight hours a day working in brickyards and would never see the inside of a school room. Alcoholism among the poor was out of control, even among the youth. In 1736, every sixth house in London was licensed as a pub. This epidemic of drunkenness eroded what little decency was left among the working class. Into this country in 1703, John Wesley was born into a large and highly disciplined family.
Wesley's Younger Years
Wesley’s father, Samuel, was an Anglican clergyman and a great scholar. John could read Greek and Latin by age ten and seemed on his way to a great academic career. His mother, Susanna, bore nineteen children, eight of whom died in infancy, and she is well-remembered for raising her children with great discipline. She called her method “the management of the human will,” and she passed onto her children the discipline of strict time management. This upbringing explains John’s incredible work ethic that made it possible for him to accomplish so much. Susanna emphasized that the children “methodize” their lives.
John was admitted to Oxford University and graduated at age twenty-one. He applied for holy orders and was admitted into the priesthood of the Church of England. He became a tutor at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1729 and developed what became known as the Holy Club. Eventually, this Club grew into a movement called Methodism. This movement became the saving grace for the country, transforming a growing resentment in the underclass into striving for “social holiness.” The only kind of holiness Wesley would accept was social, meaning holiness that affected all of life—the way a person dressed, spoke, worked, and loved. In many ways, Wesley modeled what it looks like to be fully committed to Jesus’ command to make disciples and teach them to obey everything he commanded. And it is important to note that Wesley used Jesus’ ways and means in his own ministry and demonstrated their continued effectiveness.
How did Wesley use Jesus ways and means of discipleship? He developed three modes for growing Christlikeness in his followers.
The Society: The Cognitive Mode
Wesley’s first mode for discipleship was the cognitive mode, and to facilitate growth in this mode, he developed the society meeting, primarily times of Bible teaching intended to transform minds and hearts into God’s worldview (John Wesley’s Class Meeting—A Model for Making Disciples, 83–125). The aim of these meetings was to arm the general population with knowledge of God and help them understand truth, right and wrong, and the basics of healthy living. The meetings were held once a week at times that did not conflict with the Church of England’s worship schedule. Wesley was an Anglican, and he would die an Anglican priest. He never had any plans to begin a new church.
The society was open only to those who agreed to Wesley’s covenant. People could visit up to three times and then had to decide if they wanted to commit. If they did, they were interviewed and if accepted would receive a ticket for twelve meetings that promoted cognitive growth. Wesley believed that transformed had to begin in the mind (Rom 12:1–2). There was no feedback or discussion at the meetings. But the message was clear: people who wanted to live for Christ had to commit to his plan and his ways.
The Class Meeting: The Behavioral Mode
Along with addressing the cognitive, Wesley understood that Jesus called for behavioral change, so we also must confront behavior and provide a path for obedience. So the buy-in to join the society was a commitment to cognitive and behavioral change. Members of the society were automatically included in a class meeting. Wesley didn’t care much if people had all their beliefs straight at first. He was convinced that if people started behaving right, they would begin to think right.
The class meeting was considered the most influential instructional unit in the Methodist movement. Simple in its design, it was first developed as a fundraising plan for the Bristol Society. People would covenant to meet weekly with ten other people, and each member was required to give a penny a week. They had to attend the meetings, give the penny, and participate in the discussion. Just showing up when they could and speaking if they wanted was not allowed. Those who covenanted were held accountable.
Each class of ten to twelve had an appointed leader whose role was to be sure the group met once a week to ask about the state of their souls. The group would advise, reprove, comfort, and exhort each other. They would also discern how they could help the poor. Each meeting began with a hymn. Then the leader would state the condition of his or her soul and give a short testimony of the previous week, thanking God for progress and honestly sharing any failures, sins, temptations, griefs, and inner battles.
Visitors were allowed to come twice to a class meeting. But if they decided not to join, they were no longer eligible to attend. Also, those who did not join a class meeting could not attend the society meeting. At the end of each quarter, members were interviewed, and if they had not missed more than three meetings, they were issued a ticket for the next quarter. This method was quite labor intensive for the leaders, so to make things easier for them, no spectators were allowed. Everyone was a participant.
For many years, Wesley fought off pressure from his friends to create room for “hearers only.” Sadly not many years after his death, his followers made this change, and it sucked the life out of the movement. Wesley understood what Jesus taught and modeled—that we need to set the bar high if we want to grow mature followers. We cannot give the same status to casual followers as we do to committed disciples who are leaders in training (See Mark 3:13–14; Luke 10:1–10; John 6:60).
The Band: The Affective Mode
While the society was open to all, the class meeting required a greater level of commitment. For those who felt called to be more and do more, Wesley developed a third and more intimate mode of discipleship, the band. These were voluntary groups in which participants were matched by gender, age, and marital status. The band was Wesley’s favorite level of community, and he expressed remorse later in his life that he had not begun more of them. They were his method for going deeper and training members for leadership who had expressed this as a goal.
I believe the Jesus way is reflected in Wesley’s ways, particularly in the band. Wesley sought to provide opportunities to get people learning, talking, and then behaving differently. At the heart of each band meeting were questions that each person would answer:
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done which you’re not sure was a sin or not?
- Is there anything you want to keep secret?
Along with honestly answering these questions, a foundational principle of the system was active participation. In fact, this was the only real requirement for membership. The two reasons people could be expelled from the band group were unfaithfulness, meaning lack of attendance or commitment to the group, and dysfunctional behavior, both of which threatened the system. Wesley understood that ongoing disciple and accountability requires solidarity, and casual attendance is a serious threat to that sense of community.
 Much of this Wesley story is found in D. Michael Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting—A Model for Making Disciples (Nappanee, IN: Evangel, 1997).
This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.
Image credit: Unsplash.