Rev. Gary K. Briden
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2013. Volume 31.
Date Posted Nov. 03, 2013

Jesus commanded discipleship when he gave us the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 18- 20. Discipleship is the key to long term success in retaining those won to Christ today as it has been in the past. Evangelist George Whitfield said the difference between the lasting success of John Wesley's ministry and his was discipleship and Wesley's class systems (small groups). Whitefield said, "My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruits of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand."

When John Wesley was asked why he could not be content with just preaching and letting God take care of the converts without his small groups for discipleship, he replied that every time he tried that, most fell by the wayside. Whether it is one-on-one mentoring or class training, discipleship is God's plan for his church (2 Tim 2:2).

There are certain basics to cover with every new believer and disciple - basics covered by Jesus and the New Testament. Some basic principles and topics that should be covered are: assurance, how to pray and the importance of prayer, how to study the Bible, how to share the gospel and the command to do so, importance of being an active part of a church, stewardship of talents and finances, sanctification and filling of the Holy Spirit, and progress into study of key Bible doctrines and truths.

I will share Wesley's system because it still works where applied and is the heart of small group systems used in the church for the past 20-30 years. Some of the methods used by Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, and others can find their roots in Wesley's system. The heart of Wesley's system involved small interactive groups called the class meeting, the band, the select band, the penitent band, and the society. They were all designed to follow up those who wanted to trust Christ as Savior or who did trust Christ as Savior at the close of his mass meetings (with crowds numbering in the thousands) and to provide accountability and a process for discipleship. Wesley noticed that many who professed to trust Christ in those meetings "fell by the wayside." He had a burden that those who trusted Christ as Savior be discipled and live godly holy lives.

The Society was designed to bridge the gap between the mass meetings and Godly living. It meets once per week. The leader gives counsel to questions asked or problems presented. They have a season of prayer and Bible study. These societies focus on instruction. They have accountability, Godly living, and growth as its purpose. They proclaim and explain biblical principles and teaching regarding sanctification and heart purity

The class meeting is the heart of the discipleship system. The class is made up of individuals from societies seeking a closer walk with the Lord. Their quest is for a cleansed heart and godly (holy) lifestyle.

The class meeting is a small group of six to eight people who meet weekly to give account to each other about their spiritual growth. The class leader sees each member weekly to see how they are doing spiritually, to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort as needed, and to see what each can do to help others.

The class meeting became the training ground for leaders. It provided an environment in which things learned could be experimentally or experientially tested. It became a point of entry to the "church" in which new people could be incorporated and assimilated quickly. It provided a way of pooling finances to help people in a practical way. It provided a setting in which people could express and share needs with others who cared and would provide help and encouragement. It provides a place to resolve conflicts.

Its primary purpose is to make Christian Disciples as commanded in Matthew 28:18-20 and produce change in heart and behavior. The class meeting has four key goals:

  • Personal growth in the context of a small intimate fellowship (Galatians 6:1-2)
  • Accountability with spiritual disciplines (Galatians 6: 3-5)
  • Bearing one another's burdens (Galatians 6: 2)
  • Speaking the truth in love (Galatians 6:1 and Ephesians 4:2)

The bands are taken from the class meeting membership. They are designed for personal intimate sharing of their experiences with the Lord and challenges facing them. The bands meet once a week at least to pray for each one individually keeping their needs in mind. They are designed for edification and personal growth and redirection (Romans 12:1-2). They facilitate the cultivation of inner purity and changing of attitudes (I John 4: 16-18).

This is a meeting in which each member takes initiative to speak with the leader serving to start the process. He asks each one probing questions such as:

  • What known sins have you committed since out last meeting?
  • What temptations have you dealt with?
  • How were you delivered from them?
  • What have you thought, said, or done, which you might wonder if it is sin or not?
  • Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?

The Penitent Bands are a "rehabilitation" program to help those struggling with persistent sins or temptations. They are designed to help people find victory and success spiritually and hopefully not lose them through the "back door." They endeavor to reclaim those who fell into wilful sin, sins of omission or commission all at once or gradually by giving in to "little" heart sins or skipping prayer, worship, and Bible study. Their goal is restoration of those who are backslidden

The Select Society was originally designed for those ardently seeking personal holiness From this group come planners and leaders. They are made up of only of the most faithful to ministry and work of the church. This provided an environment suitable for pursuit of inward and outward holiness or Christ's love and character (I Corinthians 13) The select society followed three basic rules:

  • Everything said should be kept in strict confidence to ensure that members are not exploited by what they may share
  • In times of disagreement, they would respect the decision or "arbitration" of their leaders
  • Everyone would share financially as they are able in the work of the ministry

John Wesley said the purpose of the classes and bands (and of discipleship in general) was to see that: "they have a clear, full, abiding conviction, that without inward, complete, universal holiness, no man shall see the Lord."

How do we apply the small group dynamic today? It is not necessary to copy Wesley's system verbatim. Glean the principles used and apply them to the twenty-first century. Yet we must endeavor to adapt these principles found in Wesley's system:

  • Accountability
  • Encouragement
  • Prayer
  • Interactive Bible study
  • Help for those struggling with "besetting" sins
  • A pattern for helping new believers learn practical skills
  • How to study the Bible
  • How to pray
  • How to lead someone to Christ
  • How to worship God

There are other practical things found in many small group movements today, such as personal one-on-one discipleship. It's what Jesus did with his twelve and the inner three. Jesus invested 3 - 3 ½ years with them. He lived with them, traveled with them, taught them, and demonstrated to them.

He put them in pairs to do practical ministry. He sent them out to stand alone with him - even to the death (Stephen - Acts 7:55-56, Paul, Peter, and the rest of the twelve). He took a risk, invested himself, poured his heart into twelve, and only lost one.

Will you practice discipleship? Dr. Frank Meyers told me long ago, "When you preach, you add, when you teach and train others you multiply." Are you willing to add AND multiply?