I had a fascinating conversation with Patrick Eby, Wesley Seminary’s church history professor, on the way a lot of AME churches do class meetings and the way class meetings started with John Wesley himself. If I understand correctly, AME churches (African Methodist Episcopal) have classes and class leaders.
Wesley’s classes were small accountability groups that met to help encourage each other to do right and resist temptation. But, interestingly, in some AME churches, the classes don’t actually meet in small groups. Rather, the class leader contacts the members of the small group one-to-one.
When I first heard this fact, I thought maybe that was an effective variation on Wesley for our current context. How many people will sign up to be asked about their temptations in a group setting these days? But one-on-one, with a leader they trusted and respected, maybe that would work for accountability better. Then maybe the group could get together regularly for Bible study and more social functions.
Upon telling this to Patrick (who I would argue is the number two Charles Wesley expert in the world after his doctoral advisor John Tyson), he told me that this is actually how John Wesley’s classes worked in the beginning. Interestingly, he said that the classes started when Wesley would send leaders to individuals to collect a penny for, I believe, the New Room chapel in Bristol.
Then, with Wesley’s characteristic genius, he saw that this was an opportunity for spiritual formation as well. The leader began to inquire of their spiritual state as well as to collect an offering. Only those with some resources did this so that they might serve as a model.
But eventually, they began to meet in accountability groups. This is often the case. Something develops organically into something special, and we forget how they developed almost coincidentally (or shall we say providentially?).
Dr. Ken Schenck is a professor of New Testament in the School of Theology and Ministry at Indiana Wesleyan UNiversity. He also serves as an occasional adjunct professor for Wesley Seminary at IWU.