WESLEY’S SMALL GROUPS AS KEYS TO NURTURING GODLINESS AMONG CONVERTS FROM ECONOMICALLY POORER BACKGROUNDS
A Case Study from Sri Lanka
The rapid growth of the church in the non-western world has happened primarily through people seeing God meet their needs through the display of his power. The church is facing many challenges as it seeks to nurture the new believers into mature, Christlike Christians. Some of those who profess a dramatic conversion to Christ continue with their old habits such as telling lies, acting dishonestly, taking revenge and abusing their wives. Though holiness has been preached the fact that its outworking is often not evidenced suggests that some key elements of the Christian message have not entered into the worldview of the new believers.
It is well known that John Wesley viewed the primary calling of the Methodist movement as being to spread scriptural holiness in the land. This certainly happened in Britain and North America so much so that Methodism was given the name “the holiness movement.” Can this become a reality in cultures which do not have any background knowledge of a holy God informed by the teachings of the Bible? Wesley liked to call the Methodists “Bible Christians.” This is what evangelical Christians are called today in Sri Lanka. But the behavior of many of our Christians often contradicts the teaching of the Bible.
SHAME AND HONOUR IN OUR CULTURES
I believe a major reason for the slowness of our new believers to demonstrate in their lives major aspects of the biblical teaching on daily living is the cultural background where right and wrong are evaluated based on whether a given action produces shame or honor rather than whether it makes one guilty before a holy God. The guilt orientation gives a more personal awareness of sin which acts as an incentive to holiness. Shame and honor are more community-oriented values.
Sometimes when a father does something wrong, everyone in the family knows it. They may talk about the problem but they do not attribute wrong to the father as he must not be shamed and his honor must be preserved. A girl who is sexually abused by an uncle or step father tells her mother about it. The mother tells her not to talk about that again as it would bring dishonor to the family. She may even scold her saying that for this to happen she would have first provoked him through her behavior. We had a President in Sri Lanka who is reputed to have kept files detailing all the corrupt practices of his ministers. He did not bring these up until they fell out of line and appeared to be disloyal to him. Sin was brought up not because it was morally wrong but because if was politically expedient to bring it up at this time. In this culture when someone’s sin is brought up by another it is viewed as an act of disloyalty or of political maneuvering rather than something coming out of a commitment to the sinning person, to God or to morality.
The above examples show that the strong community orientation in our cultures can serve as a disincentive to the accountability which fosters holiness. Yet, in the Bible, holiness is very much of a community value. Over the years I have come to the conviction that we must labor to transfer the community solidarity that is strong in shame cultures so that it applies to personal holiness also. Earlier it was considered a shame to own up to having sinned. What if by pressing biblical principles we develop an attitude of shame over not owning up to our sin? What if people once used to ignoring personal sins now view these sins as bringing shame?
In my thirty-two years as leader of Youth for Christ (YFC) in Sri Lanka and twenty-eight years on the leadership team of a Methodist church in the outskirts of Colombo, I have worked primarily with the urban poor from other faiths. We have attempted to follow John Wesley’s system of nurture through small groups. There have been groups focusing on applying the Scripture to day-to-day life (which Wesley called Class meetings) and on those focusing on accountability (which Wesley called Bands). The ministry of YFC currently has about 275 small groups. This was harder to do with consistency in the church. However, I can confidently say that all those who made it to some level of maturity were part of this small group system. I am convinced that the nurture structures advocated by Wesley are effective in helping new converts, from cultures where shame and honor are important values, to adopt the Christian value system, which results in holiness of heart and life.
NEW CRITERIA FOR SHAME AND HONOR
Practicing community in this way helps develop new criteria for identifying shame and honor. Wesley placed a strong emphasis on “rules” for the various group within Methodism. These practices were considered normative for Methodists especially when they met for their regular meetings like leaders’ meetings and local preachers’ meetings. Therefore, he included questions about the personal lives of the members of the society especially its leaders. The format for the meetings included questions about the beliefs and practices of the people. While these questions are still asked, at least in some Methodist churches in Sri Lanka, not many regard them with much seriousness.
In my study of the journals of John Wesley one of the most striking differences I saw between the church then and now was how little we discipline our members today. Wesley would “examine” the societies during his visits. That is, he would ask the leaders about the conduct of each member and decide what should be done about that member. The membership of many members was revoked as a result. Today disciplining is often associated with shame and honor. When a person is disciplined motives are attributed to the action taken: “The minister is against him because he criticized his wife.”
Disciplining is part of the culture of a biblical community and the result is that there is a fear of sinning in that community. This is what happened after Ananias and Sapphira died (Acts 5:5, 11). Paul told Timothy, “As for [elders] who persist in sin [after carefully establishing that the sin was actually committed], rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). I must confess that this is one directive that we have found very difficult to follow. Because of following it there was a holy fear of sinning in the early church that is missing in today’s church. Through his practice of questioning and examining, Wesley initiated new criteria for shame and honor. He brought personal life into the public eye and affirmed that people could not profess to be Methodists, if their personal lives do not give evidence of pursuing scriptural holiness.
This is an essentially biblical methodology where shame and honor is used in the promoting of holiness. Paul, for example, said that sexual sin “must not even be named among you as is proper among the saints” (Eph. 5:3); that filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking was “out of place” (Eph. 5:4); and that “it is shameful to even speak about things they do in secret” (Eph 5:12). When rebuking the Corinthians for unholy behavior, he said, “I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34; see also 2 Thess. 3:14). Even in biblical times honor and shame was used to foster holiness, just like Wesley did by bringing members’ personal lives into public scrutiny through his probing questions to be asked at meetings.
The community solidarity in Christ fostered by Wesley’s small groups served as an incentive to adopting Christian values. Wesley’s Bands have been described as belonging to the affective mode. His “Rules of the Bands” begins with the words: “The design of our meeting is to obey the command of God, ‘Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed’ (James 5:16).” Wesley recommends questions to ask about the personal life. This was what we today call a personal accountability group. So the Band was a homogenous group consisting of the same kind of people—young men, or young women, or adult men, or adult women.
For three decades, I have been preaching about the need for Christian leaders to have this kind of accountability relationships and I have even written a book on this. The constant response I get from leaders is that they cannot trust people enough to talk to them about their weaknesses and sins. Many describe how they have tried to do this and got hurt through the betrayal of trust. I am convinced that we need to create a new culture where people will trust each other so as to be willing to be vulnerable before them.
For such a culture we need a fresh understanding of grace. Grace tells us that we are all sinners but that God has done all that is necessary for our sins to be forgiven and forgotten. If we have such a strong sense of grace we would not be afraid to bring up our sins before trusted people. Those who hear of such sins would not go gossiping about them because they know that their own identity is only because of grace that was showered upon them despite their sinfulness. For a forgiven sinner to gossip about the sins of others would be the height of hypocrisy. This grace perspective pervades the New Testament which is unafraid to highlight the sins and weaknesses of the key leaders of the early church.
In early Methodism, attendance at Class meetings was compulsory. No “tickets” for the Sunday society meetings were given for those who missed more than three meetings in a quarter. These Methodists were serious about their community life. And the small groups helped them to get serious about it. Wesley’s Specialised Bands placed further incentives to pursue together towards a common task such as overcoming alcoholism. This has been described as operating on the Rehabilitative Mode. Today we call this group therapy. A group of peers is formed so that they can help each other to overcome a problem they commonly share.
APPLICATION ORIENTED BIBLE STUDIES
A major achievement of Wesley’s famous Class Meeting was that it helped people to apply the Word. Michael Henderson describes this as operating on the behavioral mode. Many new believers among the poor are semi-literate in that they are unable to grasp and internalize what the Bible teaches by reading it. It is very humbling at the end of a Bible study to notice how little of what the Bible teaches has gone into the mind. Many of these people revered the teaching in the books of their previous religion but no one expected them to adhere to all that was taught. Though many Sri Lankans daily recite that they will not lie, lying is very much a part of their daily lives. It would be something new to have teaching, which is intended to influence their personal behavior.
Application-oriented Bible discussions help such to internalize the teachings of the Bible. Here the teaching in the Bible is brought right down to their personal behavior at home and at work. They discuss about how they are going to respond to specific situations they are facing. Then the truth of the word can go into the lives of people who may not be used to learning from intellectual discussions about biblical concepts.
Many of today’s small groups do not really grapple with the text of scripture and with how to apply it to daily life. Usually today’s meetings have times of praise (called “worship”), testimony, praying for the needs of people and a short “devotional.” We are missing a good opportunity to foster holy living among Christians.
SOLIDARITY HELPS DEVELOP SELF-ESTEEM
Poverty, combined with a class system that looks at the poor as inferior, can severely damage a person’s self-esteem. What they sense is a far cry from the significance and identity that comes with being a child of God. Like many other Christian values, this is not something that people automatically grasp after conversion. Not having much to be proud about they often do not have self-esteem to keep them from doing shameful things. Self-esteem, as we shall see, is a great incentive to holiness. Lacking it, they may betray those who have sacrificially helped them by stealing from or lying to them. Often those who have been betrayed by the poor get disillusioned about helping them.
The key to overcoming this problem is practicing what the Bible says about a new community where earthly distinctions have been broken (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22). There is great power when a poor person, who is despised in society, enjoys fellowship in a small group together with rich and socially esteemed persons. They realize that they are treated as equals with the rich and that they are even helping the rich spiritually by what they share and do. When they sense that they are treated as equals in Christ self-esteem begins to grow. That, in turn, gives them new standards for behavior. It becomes below their dignity as princes and princesses in God’s kingdom to steal and lie and betray their brothers and sisters in Christ. We must not expect to be successful in raising up a generation of saints from among the poor if we do not attack the terrible class distinctions which are still prevalent in the church.
It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with the great wealth that comes to economically rich people by such close fellowship with the poor. Let me only say that, by confining their growth experience to highly specialized homogenous groups, Christians will miss a lot of the enrichment that is available to them. Wesley’s Class Meetings were heterogeneous groups based on geographical location. Rich and poor, young and old, men and women met to apply the scriptures together and enriched each other out of their own unique experiences.
ATTACKING SOCIAL EVILS
Another bi-product of having rich and poor Christians meet together in the early Methodist class meetings was that influential people heard first-hand of the sufferings of poor laborers. This caused them to develop a social conscience, which led to actions to rid society of social evils. It promoted societal holiness. While a student in a Buddhist University in Sri Lanka, I looked into an Encyclopedia of Economics in the university library to see whether it had anything to say about John Wesley. I will never forget my joy as I read that the Wesleyan revival may have helped prevent a repetition of the bloody French Revolution in the United Kingdom. This was because necessary social changes resulted as a bi-product of this revival.
MAINTAINING THE ETHOS
Fellowship of the kind advocated by Wesley is not easy to maintain over a long period of time. As movements get bigger, the members naturally tend to lose some of the discipline required for such accountability. This challenge is intensified by the fact that, given the radical individualism that pervades contemporary life, this kind of community accountability is somewhat out of step with life in contemporary church and society. The Methodist system of changing ministers every few years can result in an occasional minister not being as enthusiastic about Wesleyan-style accountability. This adds to the challenge. But if the lay leaders doggedly persevere in meeting for such fellowship it can survive the challenge until a minister who is more open to it arrives.
In YFC we have not yet had the problem of leaders who are out of step with this aspect of our ethos. I have been the leader of the movement for thirty-two years of its forty-three year existence. So the ethos was generally accepted, at least in theory. The challenge has been to maintain the principles of accountability and fellowship as the movement has grown in size. We have tried to meet this challenge in several ways.
- Like Wesley I have tried to write frequently about our ethos to the body of Youth for Christ through letters, memos and articles.
- I travel regularly to our centers primarily to teach the staff. Unlike Wesley, I let those who supervise these center to “examine” (see above) the centers. During my visits to the centers I have tried, like Wesley, to focus on teaching the staff and volunteers and on visiting the homes of the leaders. I have also tried to spend long hours chatting to them about the things of God. Therefore, whenever possible, I have tried to spend most of my time in their homes. One of my big challenges has been to prevent the leaders from keeping me busy with public programs, which reduces the possibility of my spending time in fellowship with the leaders.
- We have attempted to have deep fellowship among the twelve or so national leaders through two-to-four day long leadership team meetings held three times a year and majoring on spiritual fellowship and strategy rather than on business. My hope has been that the priority given to fellowship by the leaders would result in that emphasis trickling down to the rest of the movement. Maintaining this “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) among the leaders has been the hardest and most absorbing challenge I have faced in all my years of ministry.
- I have consistently shared publicly about the blessing I have received from my “band” of five friends who have known each other well for thirty to forty years (reduced from six after the death of one). I have hoped that my sharing may challenge some to seek such spiritual accountability with others.
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Ajith Fernando is a Methodist local preacher from Sri Lanka who has been National Director of Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka, since 1976. He also lectures regularly at theological colleges and speaks in conferences in Sri Lanka and abroad. He has written fourteen books and his books are found in fourteen languages.