Small Groups Are in Our Wesleyan DNA

By Steve Manskar

DNA is the genetic material that determines physical traits and characteristics. For example, the composition of your DNA determines if you have brown or blue or green eyes, dark or light colored skin, straight or curly hair. Each human being has DNA that is unique to that person and his or her family of origin.

Small Groups Are in Our Wesleyan DNA

Small groups are an historic trait of Wesleyan Methodism. For at least 100 years the Methodists were known as the people who knew that Christian formation took place in small groups known as classes, bands, and select societies. It was understood that being a Methodist meant being part of a small group that “watched over one another in love” to help each other grow in holiness of heart and life.

“The soul and the body make a [person]; the Spirit and discipline make a Christian.”

John Wesley frequently used this adage to describe the “method” of Methodism. Small groups are the discipline of Methodist Christian formation. The General Rules provide the map. Small groups provide the compass and support for the journey toward holiness of heart and life.

For the first 100 years of Methodism every Methodist was assigned to a small group known as a “class.” Each class was lead by a mature lay person who provided pastoral care and nurture. The classes met every week for at least one hour. The meeting included prayer, hymn singing, Bible reading, teaching, and accountability shaped by the General Rules. The purpose of the class meeting was to teach Methodists how to live in the world as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

John Wesley understood that Christianity is a social religion. Being a Christian means necessarily participating in a community that promises to watch over one another in love. Wesley knew from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience that holiness is both a gift and a process of character formation. Such formation requires participation in relationships of love and trust in small groups. This is why one of the distinguishing features of Methodism was the required small group participation.

Small Groups Are in Our DNA as Human Beings Created in the Image of God

Small groups are also in our DNA as human beings created in the image of God. We are relational creatures because God is community of three persons bound and united as one in love. We could say that God is the original small group. This means that God’s essential character is the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three are united as One who lives in relationship with the Cosmos. Human beings are created in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26-27). This means that we are made for relationship; because we are created in God’s image we have the capacity and need to give and receive love. We become fully the persons God created us to be only through a matrix of relationship God provides by grace. In other words, loving relationships are as important to our life and health as food, water, and air.

The relationships God provides through small groups are as essential to Christian formation as worship, Scripture, and prayer. All this is to say that congregations will be well served by shifting their thinking about small groups from an effective technique for community building to an essential part of a Christian formation system.