One of the most influential church leaders in the “modern” era (that is, the last few centuries) is John Wesley. His influence has, of course, been especially strong in the Methodist and other Wesleyan churches. But his work has also influenced other churches in a variety of ways (his preaching, the hymns his brother wrote, etc.) Perhaps his greatest influence among churches of ALL kinds, though, has been his idea of Christians interacting together in small groups.
You may know that Wesley developed an organizational structure for his fledgling movement of folks who wanted to follow Jesus more intentionally. You may also know that he did not call his gatherings of a handful of Christians by the now-familiar name of “small groups,” but rather as “classes.” These meetings focused on testimonies, prayer, and spiritual encouragement — quite like the small groups with which we are familiar — and they became “a highly successful feature of the Methodist awakening” (Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language) As it happens, Wesley did not invent this idea, but it was part of the influence he received from the Pietist movement in Lutheran Christianity: the Pietists had developed this mode of meeting already, and part of Wesley’s “conversion experience” occurred in a Moravian (Pietist) small group meeting.
But as is often the case in history, one person invents something, but another popularizes it. And without Wesley, this way of interacting may never have become the phenomenon that it has. It has persisted, becoming very important in modern American Christianity. Whether one speaks of parachurch movements like Bible Study Fellowship (which according to its website currently boasts over 1,000 groups in 39 nations, with over 200,000 members), denominational groups, or simply “life groups” within large congregations, one finds a vast group of Christians involved in some kind of small-group life.
In fact, I often hear from ACU students about their experiences in various small groups. Many of these students belong to the Beltway park congregation, which makes life groups an important part of its college ministry. Others are involved with smaller congregational college ministries, which function like small groups. What these groups usually have in common is a desire to “do life together,” as people often say, and can include things like Bible study, prayer, worship, and/or other kinds of spiritual fellowship.
If you ask me why these groups are so important, I think that it’s the close relationships that people experience there. It’s probably not an accident that Wesley birthed his idea in the urban settings of pre-Industrial-Revolution England. As you may know, the rapid urbanization and depersonalization of the 19th century in Europe made life difficult for many Christians. They were uprooted from small villages and close-knit family structures, and they had to find their spiritual way in what was functionally a new world.
Our world is not that different. Many of us no longer live in the places our other family members do, and even at a school as community-focused as the one in which I teach, it’s impossible to be friends with 3000+ other undergraduates. We find meaningful relationship in small groups, where we can know and be known. You might even be thinking, “Maybe Jesus knew what he was doing when he called only 12 men to be his closest followers.” Indeed.
If you choose (or have chosen) to be involved in a group like this, may God bless you in that endeavor. And for all of us, when we hear people talk about their small groups — let’s remember that this is a way of living that is rooted in church history!