Over the past two weeks in this mini-series on John Wesley, we’ve established the need for an intentional, prescriptive discipleship method. Finding such a method for making disciples in the Modern Church can sometimes seem a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s review very briefly Wesley’s model.
Wesley lived by 4 basic discipleship convictions:
- The necessity of discipleship: “I am more convinced that the devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place (any church) should be half-awakened and then left to themselves to fall asleep again.”3
- The necessity of small groups for discipleship: his three-strand process of Societies, Classes, and Bands.
- The necessity of leadership in discipleship: Wesley trained and mobilized a massive army of leaders, putting as many as 10 of his members, who were from all walks of life into leadership roles.
- Holiness and Service as the goals of discipleship: the people produced through Wesley’s system reformed both the church and the society in which they lived.
Wesley moved believers through three different groups, which were referenced above: Societies, Classes, and Bands. Societies progressed to Classes, and Classes to bands.
- Societies consisted of 50+ people in a typical weekly worship gathering on Sunday morning. The purpose was to bring about a change in knowledge through prayer, singing, study of the Scriptures, and love for one another.
- Classes were smaller and more contained: typically 5–16 people meeting together for behavioral change, for the closeness encourages a degree of intimacy and deeper study.
- Bands were gender-specific groups of three to five which met for the purpose of commitment and accountability. The group focused on ensuring each participant was attuned to the heart of Christ. Attendance was “voluntary” and often met once a week, though most groups gathered more often for personal accountability and encouragement.
Wesley took these Bands extremely seriously. Each person who was admitted into a band had to answer the following questions:
- Have you the forgiveness of your sins?
- Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ?
- Have you the witness of God’s Spirit with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
- Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?
- Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?
- Do you desire to be told your faults?
- Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?
- Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?
- Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?
- Do you desire that, in doing this, we should come as close as possible, that we should cut to the quick, and search your heart to the bottom?
- Is it your desire and design to be on this, and all other occasions, entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?
Members were also asked periodically: What known sins have you committed since our last meeting? What temptations have you met with? How were you delivered? What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
Bands were taken extremely seriously, indeed.
The Master’s Model
Wesley’s model was derived from personal experience and interactions with other disciple-makers, but it’s not the first place such a model is seen. In fact, the Bible records that Jesus ministered to five distinct groups:
• The Crowd (Matthew 5–7)
• The Committed (the 72 in Luke 10 or the 120 in Acts 1)
• The Community (twelve Disciples)
• The Core (John, James, and Peter)
• The Close (one-on-one encounters)
It’s worth noting that Scripture records multiple one-on-one encounters with Jesus; however, it does not present any evidence of Jesus engaging in an ongoing one-on-one discipling relationship with anyone. Jesus definitely met with individuals, such as with Nicodemus (John 3) and the woman at the well (John 4). But these were isolated meetings. The Bible also highlights Jesus’ intimate relationship with John and His restoration of Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21). But the Gospels clearly distinguish that Jesus discipled Peter, James, and John as an outflow from the larger group.
The Necessary Conclusion
Salvation is a gift, but discipleship is a process. If Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection are all believers should focus on in the Christian life, why did he wait 33 years to go to the cross? He could have simply marched toward Jerusalem, claimed Divinity, ticked off the leaders, and expected imminent death; after all, would-be messiahs leading insurrections against the government resulting in execution were commonplace. However, Jesus didn’t do that. The reason He invested in 12 disciples for three years and that so many of the firsthand accounts of His life are dedicated to describing these relationships is that the life He lived was as important as the death He died.
Are small groups are indispensable for life change? Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger think so. In their book Transformational Groups, the authors revealed evidence to support meeting in small groups. They found that people in a group [small group or discipleship group] read the Bible more attentively, pray more regularly, confess sins more frequently, share the Gospel more freely, give more generously, and serve more faithfully than those not involved in groups.
Discipleship, according to Stetzer and Geiger, cannot happen outside of a community. “The two are inseparable, and this must be communicated clearly and consistently by leadership. If you wonder why the people lack any sense of investment in community, it may be because the leaders lack it as well. When the pastor sends the wrong message, you should not be surprised when it results in the wrong outcome,” they write. Leaders should lead by example, a truth foundational in the Master’s model of discipleship.
Many pastors are praying for revival in our country and around the world, which is the most appropriate action to take since God is the only one who can breathe His breath of renewal upon us. However, it is crucial that there also be a plan to appropriately handle the inevitable revival brought about by the Spirit. Do churches have a system in place if 3000 people respond after one message like they did in the book of Acts? Do we have a prescriptive, repeatable, and effective process for spiritual growth to handle an overwhelming Spirit-led response?
Tossing a baby a bottle and insisting that it feed itself is both neglectful and dangerous, just as it would be to do spiritually with newborn believers. Whether we adopt Wesley’s system or some adaptation of it is not the point; the non-negotiable is having a plan for spiritual growth in our churches or ministries so that we may adequately work the harvest God provides.