On Monday May 1st of 1738, John Wesley wrote in his journal the rules of the new group that eventually called themselves Methodists. Somehow over the intervening centuries we seem to have lost our commitment to these simple principles, so much so that many of our church members today would be greatly offended by suggesting these rules and would quit outright if we made any attempt to enforce them.
In obedience to the command of God by St. James, and by the advice of Peter Böhler, it was agreed by us—
1. That we will meet together once a week to ‘confess our faults one to another, and pray for one another that we may be healed’.
2. That the persons so meeting be divided into several ‘bands’, or little companies, none of them consisting of fewer than five or more than ten persons.
3. That everyone in order speak as freely, plainly, and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.
4. That all the bands have a conference at eight every Wednesday evening, begun and ended with singing and prayer.
5. That any who desire to be admitted into this society be asked, What are your reasons for desiring this? Will you be entirely open, using no kind of reserve? Have you any objection to any of our orders? (which may then be read).
6. That when any new member is proposed everyone present speak clearly and freely whatever objection he has to him.
7. That those against whom no reasonable objection appears be, in order for their trial, formed into one or more distinct bands, and some person agreed on to assist them.
8. That after two months’ trial, if no objection then appear, they be admitted into the society.
9. That every fourth Saturday be observed as a day of general intercession.
10. That on the Sunday sennight [Note: seven days later – i.e. the following Sunday] following be a general love-feast, from seven till ten in the evening.
11. That no particular member be allowed to act in anything contrary to any order of the society; and that if any persons, after being thrice admonished, do not conform thereto, they be not any longer esteemed as members.
In the churches where I have attended as a lay person and those where I have been a pastor I have encountered people who felt that “small groups” were an intrusion into their privacy, a burden on their time, or were simply unnecessary or un-Methodist. Clearly, at least according to the founder of Methodism, they are none of those things. Many books and articles that we read today about ‘church growth’ preach small groups as a means to growth as if this is a new idea but if you substitute ‘small groups’ as you read the general rules whenever you encounter the word ‘bands’ (defined as 5 to 10 persons) you discover that the idea is not new at all. It is, however, a sound principle that allowed the early Methodist movement to grow so returning to this principle is certainly a good idea.
It is also interesting to note that this group was not a church and assumed that in addition to membership in the group that one would also belong to a church. Attendance therefore would be expected at church on Sunday morning, small group every Wednesday, prayer meeting one evening each month and a love-feast (which likely involved a time of public confession, sharing of communion, and a covered dish dinner) which lasted for three hours once each month. Two centuries later, it seems that in many of our churches, showing up on Sunday morning more than twice a month is almost too much to be expected.
Finally, our modern members would be shocked and appalled to find that membership meant something. Members in this society were tested and carefully evaluated before being admitted, they were allowed in only after a two month trial (or a probationary period), could be publicly admonished for behaving in ways that were contrary to the group’s sensibilities and could be removed for continuing to do so. Some of our members today often seem to expect that anyone should be admitted for any reason and should remain so for life unless they choose to leave regardless of the problems that they cause for everyone else.
I know that times have changed and the society we live in today is markedly different than the one Mr. Wesley lived in in 1738, but I wonder that if Mr. Wesley were alive today and enforced these rules, if half our members wouldn’t quit (or be thrown out) within a week. On the other hand, it worked quite well the first time. It just might be worth trying.
What do you think?