Christian conferencing is the forgotten discipline, says scholar
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.––John Wesley regarded “Christian conferencing” as one of the five essential practices of the faith, said Dr. Kevin Watson, a professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
Speaking to a July 8 session of the National Gathering of UM Men, Watson said Wesley considered the gathering of small groups to be as important as searching the Scriptures, receiving the Eucharist, prayer, and fasting.
Watson told the assembly that early Methodists participated in two forms of Christian conferencing: 1) “Class Meetings” where 7 to 12 people would meet to answer the question “How does your soul prosper?” and 2) “Band Meetings” where groups of three to five were separated by gender to confess their sins and dig deeper into the faith.
“The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social,” wrote Wesley “No holiness but social holiness.”
Watson said that even as Methodism came to the American continent, class meetings and band meetings were considered essential practices, and they were the primary reason for the growth of the denomination.
In 1776, only 2.5 percent of the colonists were adherents of Methodism. By 1850, a whopping 34.2 percent of Americans were members of the Methodist Church.
Membership in the Methodist Church grew faster than the population of every state, said Watson. And the “class meeting was at the center of this growth.”
“Methodism's decline occurred with the discontinuation of class meetings,” said Watson. It’s only recently we have rediscovered the “tried and tested vehicle” to find hope, faith and healing.
“We are hard wired for connections,” said Watson. “And class meetings are places where people can grow in faith and holiness.” He suggested that if men don’t connect with others in Christian conferencing they will connect with less constructive groups.
Watson, the author of The Class Meeting, celebrated the ways in which UM Men have utilized his book to create small group meetings across the U.S. He said some people will be surprised to learn that men are more likely to join these small accountability groups than women.
“Men who love Jesus want spiritual brothers,” he said. “And you don’t need a seminary degree to lead a group of people.”
Watson says the reason some people resist participating in class meetings is because we have to let ourselves “be out of control,” but “every time I create that space God shows up.”
He invited the assembly to “take some time to find a brother and share what God is doing in your life. If you’re not in a class meeting consider starting one.”