“A Methodist society, they said, consists of ‘a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other work out their own salvation.”
One of the most enduring legacies of early Wesleyan spirituality is the church small group. While not as rigorous as Wesley’s original classes, they no doubt sprang from this source and have nurtured the faith of generations and continue to do so today. I don’t think there has been any denomination which has done a better job incorporating small groups into the life of the church than Evangelicals. I became acquainted with the Evangelical and Charismatic experience at the impressionable age of thirteen. They had me at hello. I was immediately drawn in by the vibrancy of the worship, the animated preaching and the depth of commitment to following Christ found among the church members. I would remain in the Evangelical camp for years to come.
College was not without its challenges for me. I felt overwhelmed and out of place my freshman year and so I found a Christian group called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and quickly joined a small group. Little did I know this would be the small group that wouldn’t let go and that my life would be deeply enriched by it. Evangelical culture can at times become judgmental, stifling and shame inducing, but this group represented the best Evangelicals had to offer. It offered a place for me to deepen my faith accompanied by peers who took their faith seriously. It provided the companionship I craved and a love-filled place where I felt secure. The slogan on our t-shirts was doing life together and that’s what we did. We prayed together. We sang together. We studied the Bible together. We laughed and cried, and faced our ups and downs together. We were companions on the way of faith and became life-long friends in the process. To do this very day there are about fifteen of us who still keep in touch in various ways.
The original Wesleyan classes and the church small groups of today remind me how vital community is to cultivating one’s faith. I doubt if I would have handled the stresses of college life as well as I did without Christian fellowship. The spiritual journey is one you cannot take alone and if you try to you will soon find yourself off the path altogether. Community can provide spaces for our faith to grow and be nurtured. It can provide a space for us to wrestle with difficult questions and come face-to-face with the difficult aspects of ourselves we’d rather not face. Community provides encouragement when the spiritual journey becomes hard and I don’t think any life of faith without challenges is possible. I thank God for my small group experience and the fact we did not engage in rigorous self-examinations like the early Wesleyan classes! Though not Methodist, I am indebted to Wesley for laying the groundwork for the flourishing of church small groups which enabled me to flourish in my own faith life. There simply is no replacement for community in the spiritual life.