This is the fifth 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. The first post is about the UMC’s drift away from discipleship; the second explored the meaning of the very word “Methodist.” The third and fourth posts began to explain Wesley’s structure, specifically the nature of “societies.” This post investigates Wesleyan “bands.”
Does any significant spiritual growth happen in gatherings larger than just a handful of people?
That’s not a rhetorical question – what I’m asking has serious, long-term ramifications for the way we do things in the United Methodist Church.
When I look back on my own life, the really important things that happened in my soul and spirit occurred in small, quiet, largely private settings. I flash back to discussions with youth pastors, conversations with college roommates, and heart-to-heart chats with fellow seminary students. I also remember being profoundly shaped by those of us who went through the candidacy process together – we met monthly in prayer and accountability groups.
Funny, but I grew up in a tradition (charismatic non-denominational) that actually valued the public worship gathering as the locus of the work of the Spirit. Services tended to focus, not on preaching, but on the extended time of praise and worship after the sermon, accompanied by altar calls and prayers for healing. It was rather frenetic, noisily chaotic, and extremely emotional.
I remember being raised with the idea that nothing really good happened in a worship service unless lots of people moved up front at the end, shed tears, were “slain in the Spirit,” and asked Jesus into their hearts.
It didn’t take long, however, to discover the deeper truth that what happened at church, tended to stay at church! Frankly, much of what happened there at the stage was simply good old-fashioned excessive emotionalism.
Certainly good things can – and do – happen in large groups. Public worship gatherings can be inspiring and moving, of course. Music and preaching have their place.
But it seems rather obvious that true, long-term, mature discipleship only takes place in the context of small groups of people who are open, transparent, and committed to each other, and to their relationship with Christ.
It is my conviction that John Wesley understood this concept extremely well, and shaped a system that effectively funneled interested people into smaller and smaller groups of people in order to facilitate this kind of discipleship.
The pinnacle of this system was the “band.” Bands were groups of four to nine people, of the same sex and, usually, same station in life, who met as often as twice a week.
Bands were a prominent feature of Wesley’s first society, the group which met at Fetter Lane beginning in 1738. According to the rules of the society, during band meetings everyone was invited to take a turn to “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.” In other words, bands were a kind of intimate confessional group. In the freedom of band meetings, individuals could share frankly and openly about their lives, their hopes and their doubts.
I imagine that, during the 18th century, Wesley was responsible for hundreds of these small bands across the English countryside, which met regularly like AA and Weight Watchers to support each other.
There’s no doubt that having three or four close friends who stay in touch on a regular basis for the explicit purpose of supporting you in prayer and encouragement would have a powerful effect on your walk with Christ.
Once again, here I must ask, to what extent does the current UMC provide for, and attempt to establish, band meetings? When was the last time you were asked to become a part of a very small group of persons who wanted to do nothing but meet regularly for prayer and spiritual conversation?
We could at least begin with our preachers, who are folks who desperately need the fellowship and support of colleagues. In some annual conferences, clergy are assigned to various large “cluster” groups for the purpose of mutual accountability, but the practice of requiring clergy to participate in band meetings is unknown in my experience.
Walk to Emmaus Reunion groups also contain “band”-like features. In my last church setting, I knew of at least two active reunion groups which have kept individuals tied together for at least five years. The participants acknowledge that they hardly ever miss meetings, because the fellowship is so rich and valuable. In fact, they are more likely to skip Sunday morning worship than miss a reunion meeting.
My point is simple – how can we possibly expect to “make disciples” if we aren’t constantly creating and fostering those places where we know disciple-making occurs best?
Go start a band!