Distinctives of Early Methodist Community Life
From a letter written to a friend in Africa who is helping the Methodist Church in his country.
By Ajith Fernando
One of the saddest features of society today is the fracturing of community life. The family is under fire; commitment to people and groups is considered an unnecessary nuisance. The result is that people are lonely and missing what God intended them to have when he made them human. Humanity cannot be divorced from community.
I strongly believe that many of the principles of early Methodist community life recaptured what God intended humans to enjoy in community. We should see whether we can bring back some of those features into the life of the church. We have tried to follow as much of it as we can in YFC. It has not been easy, and we have to keep adjusting and trying new ways of applying the principles as the ministry gets bigger and bigger. My early (1989) reflections on this have been recorded in my book Reclaiming Friendship (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991; Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994).
FOUR STRUCTURES OF COMMUNITY LIFE
The genius of the early Methodist movement was its fourfold community life. First there was the society which today we would call the congregation. That met on Sunday, and it is there that the truths of Christianity were proclaimed. Once the small group system came into operation the people got tickets based on their attendance at the small group. Only those who had tickets were given permission to go for the normal Sunday service–unless it was an open service which was open to all and had an evangelistic outlook. Of course the church was evangelising all the time in the places where the people were—rather than primarily within the confines of the church building.
The second group was the class meeting. This is the small group where Christian truth was applied to the specific situations in which the Christians lived. This started when meeting halls were being constructed and a leader would collect the donations for the building project by visiting the homes of members in his neighbourhood. The people began to share their problems with the visiting leader. Gradually Wesley saw the value of having a meeting for Methodist people in a given neighbourhood. This developed into the class meeting, and attendance at class meetings became compulsory for all members.
The class meeting was a heterogeneous group with rich and poor, young and old, married and single attending. This way they were able to apply the Scriptures in a much more enriching way than the homogeneous groups with which we are comfortable. Comfort was not an important value in early Methodism. Here young grew with old; new Christians with mature ones. This was a natural environment for growth, just like the family is. D. L. Moody has called this the most effective way of follow up of converts the church ever devised.
Soon, when the poor talked about their problems in the group, the rich began to find out about how the poor were being exploited in their workplaces. They were shocked and they decided to do something about it. This, in part, accounts for the strong social influence of the Methodist revival. The primary impetus, I believe, came from the social implications of the gospel as described in the Bible.
Third, there was the band. This consisted of a homogeneous group of people who banded together to be accountable to each other and, in Wesley’s words, to confess their sins one to another. There was a strict segregation of sexes because people talk about very personal things in the band. So young men met with young men; and young women met with young women etc. This is similar to the accountability groups of which we speak today. Wesley felt this was the most important group to be involved in. But it did not catch on as well as he wanted within Methodism. The class meeting was much more successful.
Fourth, there were the specialised bands. These consisted of groups of people who banded together because of a particular need in their life. There were those seeking salvation—what we would today call an evangelistic Bible study. There were those seeking the fullness of the Spirit or Christian perfection, as Wesley sometimes called it. There were backsliders who wanted to return to Christ or to the path of victory etc.
I believe that this fourfold community life was one of the secrets of the success of the early Methodist movement.
Early Methodist community life involved strict discipline and regular chopping of names from the lists of members if their lives did not accord with Christian practice. Wesley himself often went to societies and “examined” them. The result was that many names were taken off the members lists. For the past few years I have been reading through all of Wesley’s writings and extracting quotes for what (in about 10 years from now) will hopefully become a book of quotations. When I was studying Wesley’s journals one of the most startling differences I found was how little disciplining of members we do today in comparison to Wesley’s time.
HYMNS AS MEANS OF TEACHING THEOLOGY
I think there are some other features of Methodist Community life which merit revisiting. For example, one of the most effective methods of teaching doctrine to the early Methodists, many of whom were not very educated, was the hymn book. Methodism has no statement of faith—which became a problem as the movement grew and liberalism began to influence it. The doctrine was derived from select sermons of John Wesley (forty odd [44?] in British Methodism and fifty odd [53?] in American Methodism) and the hymn book.
There were hymns on all the different aspects of Christianity. The table of contents of a typical Methodist hymn book reads like the table of contents of a systematic theology book. This emphasis is sorely lacking in much of today’s singing. For example, among popular Sinhala Christian songs sung today, there are very few songs about holiness and songs expressing a desire or prayer to be holy. This is very common in Methodist hymnody.
I believe the church must take the pedagogic value of what is today called the “worship time” of a service. “Worship-time” is a term often used today for the time before the sermon. I think this is an error. Some use the term “worship-time” only for the time when they pray loud simultaneously. From start to finish it is all worship! And teaching biblical truth also takes place from start to finish in different ways.
THE JOY OF SALVATION
The freshness of the joy of salvation was another feature of Methodist community life. The great Methodist preacher, the Cornish coalminer Billy Bray, was an example of the joy of the early Methodists. When visiting a Methodist home, if he found that a man in that home had recently become a Christian, he would hoist him on to his shoulders and run round the house carrying him and praising God over his salvation.
The Methodist distinctive of the assurance of salvation was closely related to this celebration of the joy of salvation. This doctrine is wonderfully expressed in the hymn, “My God I am Thine.” It talks of being thrice happy in the heavenly lamb. Wesley said, “Singing is as much the language of holy joy as praying is of holy desire.” No wonder it was said in those days that you could tell a Methodist home by the sound of singing that came out of the home.
There were other structures to give expression to the joy of salvation. Methodism in USA developed the “hymn sing” which was a time when Christians gathered together just to sing hymns. The “love feast” which included testimony was another occasion to express joy. I believe that, because Methodism is so much of an experiential form of Christianity, we must not remove the important place that testimony has in community life. In our home church we do not have what used to be called love feasts but the monthly all-night prayer vigil has a lot of the features of a love feast. Here there are lots of opportunities for Christians to testify to God’s goodness in their lives.
I hope God will use you to help the Methodist church rediscover some of these glorious distinctives.