Accountability: The Missing Motivation
Updated: Aug 30, 2022
The Methodist Church was once the largest denomination in the United States, but since 1964, it has declined annually. What made the Methodist church grow and what caused its decline? I believe it grew because of John Wesley's brilliant concept of the small group called the class meeting. When class meetings were no longer required, the Methodist church began declining. The UMC has been losing members since 1964, altogether the UMC has lost over 4.5 million members. And currently, the United Methodist Church is losing pastors, members, and congregations to the Global Methodist Church and evangelical denominations.
From 1800 to 1900 Methodism grew from a newly established small denomination to the largest denomination in America. Chris Armstrong in his article, How John Wesley Changed America, explains how it happened, "Most significantly, Wesley and Methodism joined other evangelistically minded Christians in promoting a faith deeply felt and actively lived. Christianity was no spectator sport for Wesley. From his Oxford "Holy Club" days to the end of his life, he sought to be a True Christian—unlike the many nominal "almost Christians" he saw in the Established church around him. And his deepest desire was to help others do the same."
What was unique about Methodist was the class meeting. However, that all changed when the leaders of the Methodist Episcopal Church wanted to be more like the other mainline denominations. Essentially, what happened and is still happening today is Christianity in America has lost its power. And it lost its power in part because churches became more socially minded than spiritually minded. The majority of people don't come to church because they want to hear more about climate change, transgenderism, or systemic racism, there are a lot of places where they can get that. Instead, Talmudic scholar Lenny Bruce, hit the nail on the head when he said, "...every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God." (quoted in WSJ, The Prospects of American Religion Have Never Been Higher, by Ari Lamm.)
Making Christianity easy, with no real requirements, has not made Christianity any more popular. John Wesley understood that it was important to practice the spiritual disciplines and to meet with other Christians for accountability. He and his brother Charles created the Holy Club, long before Methodism as a denomination came to be, and met regularly for just this purpose. As he began to preach in the open fields and on street corners for conversion, Wesley saw the need to teach the new converts how to be Christians and grow in their faith toward sanctification.
In the mid-1700s the Class Meeting took on the role of teaching believers how to live Christian lives. During class meetings, members discussed their personal spiritual life and their goals toward personal holiness. In the class meeting, it was safe to share the struggles of living the holy life, there people were nurtured in the faith and the practice of Christianity. As a result of the class meeting, Methodists experienced a revival in America that expanded the church exponentially.
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
It was the class meeting that made Methodists more successful than other denominations. It was through the class meeting that disciples were made and grown toward sanctification. As a result of discontinuing the class meeting, the Methodist church has suffered and shrunk in the 20th century, and will probably continue to do so in the 21st century.
Jon Earls in his blog at Holyjoys.org rightly argues, "The Class Meeting was a powerful tool that God used to help disciple those reached by the Methodist revival. Perhaps it is time for us to revisit the Class Meeting as a tool for discipleship within the Wesleyan-Methodist context. John Wesley said, 'The Church changes the world not by making converts but by making disciples.” May God help us to make disciples.'"
I believe the future of the church requires the making of disciples. I believe the success of the newly formed Global Methodist Church will depend on our making disciples of those who join us. People need others to help them stay accountable to their faith. The class meeting did this extremely well. I will be delving into the class meeting more deeply in future blog posts. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on the class meeting and its benefit to the American church?