John Wesley is famous for many things, not least his Methodist societies, a remarkable 18th century innovation.
A common vision
Wesley shared a common vision with Nicholas Ferrar. An admirer of Little Gidding, he described how
I saw a family full as much devoted to God, full as regular in all their exercises of devotion, and at last as exemplary in every branch of Christian holiness.
Wesley is famous for turning this vision of the family of God into reality through his Methodist societies. So where did the story begin?
In 1739, the city of Bristol was a rapidly growing commercial centre with a large population of new urban immigrants. It was a crowded and confusing place to live, with many neglected social and economic needs and little or no active church presence. John Wesley arrived on 2nd April to share the 'glad tidings of salvation', and for the first time he would preach in the open air, attracting as many as 3,000 people to his first public event. To preach out of doors was a new thing, and the Anglican establishment viewed it as a seditious act. But Wesley felt that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him - 'to preach the gospel to the poor' - and nothing could stop him. That is spectacular enough, but...
Wesley's legacy has as much to do with small groups as large crowds. His characteristic emphasis on 'deliverance, recovery and liberty' was most effectively realised in more intimate gatherings. He was a bit of a celebrity preacher and enjoyed having a large audience, but he learned quickly enough that most people came to faith through close relationships with caring people. In fact, probably more than anyone before him in the modern era, Wesley appreciated that Christianity was essentially social in nature.
In one of his sermons, he described the Christian as a mirror of God - an image that reflects the social nature or Trinity of God. We reflect what we receive: the capacity to love and be loved by others.
Just as the divine persons enjoy a bond of fellowship, so do we, especially through the indwelling Holy Spirit. This is what Wesley understood our participation in the divine nature to mean. So it made sense to him that Christians would come to faith through the active love of others - through the 'channels of grace' uniquely found in one-on-one relationships and in a community of faith that was mobilised to continually extend its fellowship to others.
Wesley was very practical about this. If anyone could make the Trinity and divine love into lived realities in the everyday experience of people, it was this fiercely pragmatic organiser. He first drew up a four-fold structure of small groups - each with its own level of spiritual intimacy that corresponded with a particular stage of growth and discipleship.
The participants, ideally no more than twelve in number, became more aware of how God had already been at work in their lives - of the grace that had been received even prior to their belief.
The emphasis was on teaching the basics of the Christian faith - 'mind work' as Wesley sometimes called it. The combination of sharing previous life experiences in the trial bands, learning about the faith in the class, and developing stronger relationships day-by-day with other seekers, prepared the group members for the 'converting grace' of the 'new birth' in Jesus Christ. The journey could last two years and was, as always, deeply relational. The more one felt a sense of belonging to the group, the more one came to know at an experiential level what it meant to belong to God.
Individuals acted in response to their conversions with a new resolve to train the will towards God, grow in grace and support one another in discipleship. The level of confidentiality increased sufficiently that Wesley thought it was sometimes helpful to break out into smaller and more homogeneous sub-groups based on sex and marital status. Accountability was a major factor here.
Individuals pursued 'sanctifying grace' - the glow of divine love and a self-denying responsiveness towards others. The emphasis here was on deep spiritual formation and group fellowship, living out Galatians 3.28: 'There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.'
These groups formed all over England and Wales in the mid-18th century, and they involved people from all classes of society. Women were as involved in the leadership of the groups as men - with everyone 'obedient to their heavenly calling', whatever that may be. Ultimately, this activity led to the great 'revival' that would spill over from the Methodist society structures into the life of other dissenting groups and the Church of England. Certainly there was plenty of tension and conflict along the way, but over time it became clear that this fresh expression was beneficial not only to the church, but to society as a whole.
One of the most important lessons learned
One of the most important lessons learned by Wesley, in his own words, was
that orthodoxy, or right opinion, is, at best, but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all; that neither does religion consist in negatives, in bare harmlessness of any kind; nor merely in externals, in doing good, or using the means of grace, in works of piety (so called) or of charity; that it is nothing short of, or different from, 'the mind that was in Christ'; the image of God stamped upon the heart; inward righteousness, attended with the peace of God; and 'joy in the Holy Ghost'.