Why Becoming a Church was the Worst Thing That Could Have Happened to Methodism


This is the fourth in a series of posts about following Jesus in the UMC. I am looking back to John Wesley’s three-tiered structure of discipleship for suggestions and hints of how Methodists ought to pray, plan, and proceed in the future.

I ended my last post by asking, “Is it time to bring back the society?”

Someone responded that she sure hoped we would come up with a sexier name. True that. A “society meeting” has a quaint, old-fashioned sound.

I’m sure we can do better, but that’s not the point. The point is that society meetings were created to foster and fan the flames of a desire to follow Jesus more closely. I’m not sure where, if anywhere, that happens in the current UMC, at least not in systematic, intentional way.

In this current blog series, I am building the argument that we not only need society meetings, but also class and band meetings, because these three tiers were crucial to Wesley’s whole discipleship system. They each had their own purpose and function.

Let me try to explain it a different way. In the book Launching Missional Communities, Mike Breen and Alex Absalom introduce the concept of the four spaces which we all inhabit: public, social, personal, and intimate space. Each of these spaces corresponds to a certain aspect of church life.

  • Public space: where we share a common experience and connect through an outside influence, typically in groups of more than 100 persons, for inspiration, momentum and preaching; in the church, this happens in public worship
  • Social space: where we share an authentic “snapshot” of who we are, show what it’d be like to have a personal relationships with us, typically in groups of 20-50+ people, for the purpose of building community, and training for mission; this corresponds to what Breen and Absalom call “missional communities”
  • Personal space: where we share private experiences, thoughts, and feelings, typically in groups of 3-12, for the purpose of support, closeness, and personal challenge; in the church, this happens in Sunday School classes, Bible study groups, or other forms of small groups
  • Intimate space: where we share “naked” information about who we are and are not ashamed, something that is experienced between a very few 2 or 3 people; Breen and Absalom assert that these arise spontaneously

The authors use this framework primarily for the purpose of emphasizing the necessity of missional communities (social space), but I was struck by how neatly this scheme corresponds to Wesley’s structure.

  • Public space: Sunday morning worship at the local parish Church of England
  • Social space: Society meeting at the local Methodist building
  • Personal space: Class meeting
  • Intimate space: Band meeting

Wesley focused on only the last three of these spaces because he knew that these are the spaces where real discipleship happens. He didn’t dismiss the importance of public worship, but he didn’t see that as his primary call. So he left public space encounters to the clergy. But here is precisely where we have it inverted – we act like the Church of England and focus primarily on clergy, institutional forms of church, and public worship.

If we were truly going to try to recapture the genius of the Methodist movement, we would not ordain clergy to lead public worship, nor would we put much focus at all on the Sunday morning experience, with its vestments and liturgy. We might rather instruct our people to attend the Episcopalian church down the street, the Presbyterian church on the corner, or the nondenominational megachurch on the freeway.

Instead, we would be starting Methodist societies with the goal of drawing people into a life of discipleship, perhaps along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We would invite people into homes and libraries and Starbucks. We would start lots of these groups, wherever the need arose. We would equip lay preachers to be the leaders of these meetings, and then move on to plant others. We would take every opportunity to speak to, listen to, and care for others.

Everything changed when Methodism became a “church” and we became responsible for clergy orders and Sunday morning worship. Now that people in our culture don’t seem all that interested in attending those events, then perhaps the opportunity for becoming Methodist again looms large in front of us.

Ironically, becoming a “church” was the worst thing that could have happened to us. And leaving “church” behind might also be the way forward.



  1. Joe Surdacki

    I enjoyed reading your post and agree wholeheartedly…maybe not with having people go to the Episcopal church, but with the focus on small groups. At one point in my life while still a member of CUMC, I was attending a small Men’s Bible Study at our church, a very large Men’s Bible study at a Mega-Baptist Church (preaching format), and a men’s accountability group (“The Brotherhood”) at a small African-American church. I reached out to those groups outside my church because they weren’t available at CUMC and it is where I found my greatest growth. The accountability group, I suspect, was much like the band meetings of John Wesley…

  2. Jeannie

    Very interesting post! Definitely helps us break out of our typical approach to fix what exists rather than do something completely different. People who have been involved in Covenant Disciple Groups or Companions in Christ groups would attest to the transforming power of those commitments and small-group experiences. We are not without models, patterns, guidance to move in this direction.

  3. Rev JIm

    What the church needs is to get back to the message of Jesus and the cross. To many churches are getting away from the basics. Its all about Jesus

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