Cell History-Pt.4


Cell History-Pt.5

Chapter 5:Small Groups in PIETISM  

             Robert Moylan, in his excellent dissertation entitled,  “Lutheran Pietism: Paradox or Paradigm, ” sums up the goal of Pietism in this way,

It was the intention of classic Pietism to recapture, as far as possible, the essence and power of the ‘primitive Church’---the church of the first and second centuries….The Pietists seem to have concluded that it could best be achieved through what has become recognized as the theme of the pietistic renewal movement: ‘Change the Church by changing the individual’ (1992: 156).  

Donald Bloesch describe Pietism somewhat different, “Among the salient features of Pietism is the emphasis upon the religion of the heart….In the Pietist movement there is an existential emphasis, a call for personal involvement in the truth of the faith” (1973:106).  

Philip Jacob Spener  

            Born in 1635 AD, Spener was a Lutheran. In 1663, he became pastor in Strasbourg (1663 AD)  and then in Frankfort (1666 AD).  One of the early influences on Spener that shaped his Pietistic thinking was the writing of Johann Arndt. Stoeffler says, “…one of the most pervasive religious influences among earnest Lutherans at this time was that of Johann Arndt, who through his Wahres Christentum helped to mold the thought and life of several generation after him” (Stoeffler 1973:2). Spender was certainly one of those heavily influenced by this reformer.

While in Frankfurt he sought to nourish and promote a deeper life among the church (Latourette 1975:895). Latourette notes, “…he gathered in his own home a group for the cultivation of the Christian life through the discussion of the Sunday sermons, prayer, and the study of the Bible (1975:895). This home Bible study movement spread and the groups became known as collegia pietatis.

            It’s interesting to note that Spener’s conviction and the practice of Pietism did not cause him to become anti-intellectual. Rather, he believed that the two were complimentary. In fact, Spener himself earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Strassburg (Latham 1993:60) and was known for being a very intelligent man. 

Background Of The Times  

            Pietism was a renewal movement which took place in the wake of the tragic thirty year war in which much of Germany was devastated. It was a time when many were searching for answers.   For the most part, they were not finding those answers in the Lutheran church. . Latham writes, “…the Lutheran Church in seventeenth century Germany consisted largely of nominal Christians who attended church services that were dull and boring. Ministers preached theological legalism that no one could, or wanted to, understand (1993:58).

There was also drunkenness and immorality among the clergy. The spiritual condition of Germany was very low (Latourette 1975:895). The church services were formal and sterile. Pietism must be understand in this context. Spener’s concern was for moral and spiritual reformation, rather than dry, doctrinal debate.  

Small Groups in Pietism  

            Due to this dry, sterile, and immoral backdrop, Spener sensed the need to do something. He realized that it wasn’t enough for believers to attend church and leave unchanged. Spener felt that change could only take place as believers met collectively in small groups for the purpose of Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship. Sohn describes the importance of the small group to Pietism,

     The small group meeting variously known as collegia pietatis, conventicles, ecclesiolae, or the collegium philobiblicum, was the internal dynamic of Pietism for the actual practical renewal and expansion of Christian ministry beyond the clergy” (1990:102).

Spiritual Reform  Achieved Through The Small Groups 

Spener was a reformer. His earnest desire was to reform the church. The way that he felt would best achieve this type of spiritual reform was through small groups. As was noted earlier, he led the way. He  gathered serious minded Christians into ‘little churches in the Church’. His purpose? The spiritual reformation of the church. These groups met for the main purpose of  reading Scriptures,  spiritual fellowship, and for mutual assistance. Latham writes, “The Pietist movement employed the concept of accountability with a small group, for the faces became people with needs who could care for one another” (1993:61).

The first such private meeting was led by Spener himself in 1670. He then set forth rules and regulations for self-discipline within these groups in his Pia Desideria which was published in 1675. 

Various Aspects Of The Groups 

            The following are only some of the chief characteristics that were present in Spener’s  small groups: 

Focus Of The Group  

            The focus of the group can easily be seen by the subtitle of his Pia Desideria. It read, “Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward this End. ” The obvious focus of the group was discipleship and holiness. It was for this reason that Spender only wanted born-again believers to attend (Latham 1993:63). Concerning these groups, Doyle Young writes,

The purpose of the groups was to renew the greater ecclesia, Church. If the entire Church was to be renewed, a start must be made with those serious Christians in each congregation. These…little churches within the Church were not intended, however, to replace the institutional church” (1989:108).


            It was necessary for a qualified leader to be present in these meetings in order to avoid false doctrine. It appears that this  person normally was a  pastor or a professor who was willing to take responsibility for the group (Latham 1993:67). However, the leader was not to dominate the discussion. Rather, he was to stir up participation among those who were  present.. Spener  writes,

The professor, as the leader, should reinforce good observations. If he sees, however, that students are departing from the end in view, he should proceed in clear and friendly fashion to set them right on the basis of the text and show them what opportunity they have to put this or that rule of conduct into practice (1964: 113).  


            As was mentioned, although the leader was always present,  opportunity was given for each to operate his or her gift. The Sunday sermon might be the starting point for the discussion, but then each person was to contribute according to his or her own gifting and understanding. Referring to the lesson part of the study Spener writes, “This [the study] should be done in such fashion that each student may be permitted to say what he thinks about each verse and how he finds that it applies to his own and to others’ benefit” (1964:113).  

Priesthood Of All Believers  

            This concept has always been one of the foundational themes in Lutheran theology,  but one rarely practiced. However, Pietism played a large part in changing that. Bloesch writes, “The priesthood of believers, though having a prominent place in the theology of the Reformers, was given concrete embodiment in Pietism” (1973:118). Spener was convinced that all believers were necessary. He writes,

   No damage will be done to the ministry by a proper use of this priesthood. In fact, one of the principal reasons why the ministry cannot accomplish all that it ought is that it is too weak without the help of the universal priesthood. One man is incapable of doing all that is necessary for the edification of the many persons who are generally entrusted in pastoral care (1964:95).  

By this writing, perhaps we can say that  Spener was the John the Baptist of the modern day concept of the Jethro principle (Exodus 18). 

Times Of Meetings  

            Initially, the meetings were held in Spener’s home every Wednesday and Sunday. Both men and women were invited to attend. From what I understand, the meetings gradually changed from biweekly to weekly. The time of the meeting or the day of the meeting does not seem to be rigidly controlled or set in Pietism.

Material Used           

In Spener’s initial home meeting,  Lewis Bayly’s  Practice of Piety was used as a basis for the discussion (Latham 1993:62). However, in subsequent meetings, the Bible became the regular diet  and foundation for further discussion. Also included were  Scripture reading, prayer, and hymn singing at the meetings (Bloesch 1973:119).   It also seems that Spener was primarily concerned with Biblical application in the meetings rather than Bible knowledge (Spener 1964:113).

 Yet, Spener repeatedly stressed that the home meeting was not a substitute for one’s personal devotional life. He only wanted people to come together who had already spent time in private Bible study and prayer. Throughout his Pia Desideria, the theme of  private devotions and personal holiness appear again and again.

Not To Replace Sunday Service  

            It was made clear that these meetings were only to supplement the Sunday morning worship service. In fact, Spener, unlike the Anabaptists, believed that the state church was the true church (Latham 1993:65). He didn’t even allow the people to call the groups ‘the true church’, so as to avoid doctrinal conflict (Young 1989:109).

Nor did Spener  allow the celebration of the sacraments at these meetings. The communion was reserved for  the entire congregation only (Young 1989:108) Spener was very careful to delineate his brand of practical Christianity from Lutheran ecclesiology. There is no doubt that Spener  took every precaution possible to prevent his movement from becoming a separatist schism (much like what happened among the Anabaptists).

            On  Sunday morning ,  Spener would often urge  the congregation to participate in the small groups and to fulfill their Christian duties. For example, he would urge the believers in the congregation to come together on Sunday for the sake of spiritual instruction and to review the Sunday sermon,  rather than play cards (Spener  1964:13).   

Criticisms Of Spener’s  Reforms  

            His Pia Desideria set off a wave of protests. Many accused him of being untrue to Lutheran doctrine. Latourette notes,

In this his opponents were not altogether incorrect. While he did not attack Lutheran orthodoxy, Spener held that if one had been truly converted and had a right heart, doctrinal differences were relatively unimportant (1975:895).  

 Some of the opposition arose at Frankfurt because there were those who went to the home meetings, but then did not attend the public worship services and did not partake in the Lord’s supper (Latourette 1975:895). Yes, and there were those who used the small group fellowship as an opportunity to narrowly interpret doctrine and to actually create a legalistic wedge between the truly converted and those who were not (Mackintosh quoted in Moylan 1992:159).

Like the rejection that Bucer felt and that Luther feared, many rejected Spener’s reform movement simply because it was too risky (Latham 1993:64).

August Hermann Francke  

            Francke was a teacher at the University of Leipzip when he became a born again believer in his mid-twenties  He became a follower of Spener and Pietism and soon began small groups on the University of Leipzig campus. Franke’s reforms were not well accepted and the opposition increased to the point of asking  Franke  to resign his teaching post (Latourette 1975:896).

            However, through Spener’s influence, Franke  was able to obtain a teaching post at the University of Halle, which later became a chief center of Pietism. Latourette says about Francke, “…he was the dominant figure on the theological faculty and in the training of young men for the ministry. A faithful pastor in his own parish, he brought to his lecture room not only theory but also practical experience” (1975:896). From Halle, many missionaries were sent forth who promoted pietism around the world.  

The Spread Of Pietism  

            The constant opposition toward pietism  did hinder Spener’s reforms. We are told that in Frankfurt a suspicious city council ordered the meetings to be closed down (Young 1989:109). The criticisms eventually wore upon Spener. Young writes, “…by 1703 (thirty-three years after the beginning of the Collegia) Spener had become cynical and cautious about the groups and established no others when he moved from Frankfurt (Young 1989:109).

However, that’s just part of the story. Pietism did spread far beyond Spener’s own ministry. Many Lutheran churches began to practice Spener’s principles.  Francke at Halle did more than anyone to  spread the Pietist doctrine  over the world. Zinzendorf,  the founder of the Moravian Church, became an ardent follower of Pietism while at Halle. John  Wesley himself was touched through the Moravians and the story goes on and on.  As Sohn declares, “Missiologically speaking, it [Pietism] formed part of the launching pad of Protestant World Mission” (1990:50).

            Pietism has also greatly influenced the small group movement today. The covenant groups that Roberta Hestenes has championed are really an offshoot of the small groups in Pietism (Moylan 1992:160-175). It can also be argued that the  Bible study movement in general can be traced back to Pietism. 

Critique Of Small Groups In Pietism  

            It’s uncanny to me how closely the small group system in Pietism resembles the small community meetings in Strasbourg under Martin Bucer.  Both small group systems were designed to spiritually reform a cold state church.  One could compare Bucer’s movement to Spener’s movement in a similar way as  the pre-reformation to the reformation. [1]

            There are several areas that greatly impress me about the small group ministry in Pietism:

1.     The emphasis on the participation in the groups

2.     The fact that a variety of spiritual disciplines were used in the group

3.     The cell never replaced the Sunday morning worship,  but that there was a balance between cell and celebration

4.     The groups brought spiritual vitality to the participant, but they were never a substitute for personal devotions and private Bible study.

In my opinion the  major weakness of small groups in Pietism is that they were strictly believer oriented. It’s interesting that the small  group model today that is a direct descendent of  Pietism is the  Covenant approach. .Like  the Pietistic model, this approach focuses almost entirely  on spiritual development and growth among believing Christians.            It is my strong conviction  that small group partnership in evangelism plays a  major part in the group’s  spiritual growth as well as fulfilling Christ’s great commission. [2]

chapter 6: Small Groups In THE MORAVIAN AND THE Methodist TRADITION  

            I have placed these two movements together both because of chronological consideration as well as methodological considerations. As we shall see, the Moravian movement had a powerful influence on Wesley and the Methodist small group model.  

The Moravians  

            The Moravian movement was closely linked to the Pietistic tradition. It began in 1722 when  a few refugees from the persecutions of Protestants in Bohemia and Moravia settled on the estate of Nicolas Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf (1700-1760).  

Early History  

In 1457, a group established a colony in Lititz, on the Border of Bohemia, where they planned to follow the teachings of Hus. In 1467, sixty years before the Protestant Reformation, they founded their own independent ministry known as the Unity of Brethren or in Latin, Unitas Fratrum. A hymnal was published in 1501 and between 1579 and 1593, the Bible was translated into the Bohemian language.

During the Thirty Years' War in 1620, the Brethren was forced to go underground. Their leader, Bishop John Amos Comenius fled to Poland with a small band of refugees. This group spread into Bohemia and neighboring Moravia and, eventually, to the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf who allowed the refugees to settle on his family's estate called Herrnhut which means "The Lord watches over." While Zinzendorf was trained in the law and was an ordained Lutheran pastor (the official state church), he worked to renew the Unitas Fratrum. He succeeded in establishing church centers in other parts of Germany, England, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden and America. In the early 1700's "Moravians" became the popular name for church members because many were descended the the refugees from Moravia. In 1749 the Parliament of Great Britain gave formal recognition to "the Moravian Church" thereby making the name official (Boddie 1996: 2)  


            Zinzendorf had been educated at Halle and was a devout pietist. Interestingly, he was also the godson of Spener (McCallum 1996:4). Stoeffler notes, “During his time at Halle the special gifts of Zinzendorf, his linguistic ability, his leadership qualities, his ability to conceive novel schemes, had become abundantly apparent…(1973:134).

His first passion was for Jesus Christ. Karl Barth in talking about the rediscovery of Pietism stated, “…the present need is for a rediscovery of Zinzendorf with his Christ centered emphasis” (Bloesch 1973: 102). His ardent desire for Jesus and vision to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth were fulfilled in those refugees who made their abode on his estate. Latourette writes, “In the handful of persecuted refugees he saw the means of fulfilling that vision”  (Latourette 1975:897).  

Moravian Church  

Doyle states,

   Zinzendorf did not intend for the Moravians to become a separate church. Like Spener’s Pietist groups, the Moravian communities were to be ecclesiolae in ecclesia (little churches within the Church) whose purpose was to renew the whole church (1989:110).  

Emphasis On Missions  

Zinzendorf perceived the entire world as his parish. He was truly a world Christian.  To send those missionaries out to the uttermost parts of the world, Zinzendorf  finally consented to set up a new church structure, over which he  became bishop.  It was through this new church structure (in the succession of the Bohemian Brethren, the Unitas Fratrum) that many, many missionaries were sent around the world (Latourette 1975:897).

In 1733, the Saxon government refused to allow any more refugees settle on Zinzendorf’s estate. The Moravians took this as a sign to began to spread the movement to the uttermost ends of the earth.  Sessler writes,

Consequently in the year 1734, a movement was inaugurated to spread Moravianism to the far ends of the earth. A new center for missions was begun in Greenland; a reinforcement of Moravians was sent to the West Indies; a Christian colony was begun at Disco Bay; and John Sargent began his labors among the Stockbridge Indians. This was also the year in which large groups of the Brethren started their trek to America (1933:72).  

The mission zeal and effectiveness of the Moravians can be seen by the fact that  by 1760 the Moravians sent out 226 foreign missionaries through thirteen stations in Greenland, Jamaica, the Danish West Indies, Autigua, Surinam, and Barbados, and among the North American Indians, with 3,057 baptized, 900 communicants, and 6,125 under Moravian care (Schattschneider quoted in Sohn, 1990:138).  

Emphasis On Prayer 

            Prayer was an essential part of the early Moravian movement. Prayer vigils and prayer chains met around the clock. In History of the Moravian Church we read, “On August 27, 1727, the time from midnight to midnight was divided between twenty-four men and the same number of  women, the hours being assigned by lot. Each spent his   period in intercession, so that prayer never ceased in the community” (Hamilton 1967:36).  

Emphasis On Singing  

            Along with the bands that met for spiritual growth and enrichment, choirs were established to promote singing and active participation by the congregation in worship. Zinzendorf actively promoted an appreciation of the spiritual power of hymnody and even developed a special type of service that was totally dedicated to public worship (Hamilton 1967:37).  

Small Groups In The Moravian Church  

As was mentioned earlier, Zinzendorf was never initially interested in establishing a denomination (Stoeffler 1973:160). Rather, his zeal was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. His original thinking was that people should remain in their own denomination but participate in addition in a more disciplined community. It was this emphasis on liberating freedom in the small group that the Moravians passed down to future generations. The Moravians also offered  to the church-renewal movement the techniques of society, class, and band” (Doyle 1989:110). In his doctoral dissertation on small group renewal, William Brown states,

    Perhaps one of the most deliberate and successful uses of the small group principle in Church history is the band system of Count Zinzendorf in the middle of the eighteenth century.  The micro communities of Herrnhut combined the aspects of fellowship and sharing, mutual correction and confession, prayer and an urgent sense of mission to send the gospel to the world and bring renewal to Christians. They made use of lay leadership and literally followed the kind of meeting advised in James 5:13-16 (1992:38).  

Characteristics Of The Bands  

            Even before the Moravian church was fully operational, personal bands were formed for those refugees and people who had come to live at Herrnhut, the estate of Zinzendorf (Hamilton 1967:32). Here are some of the characteristics of those bands:

1.     To promote personal growth in grace and fellowship between kindred spirits

2.     Free and informal associations of those who felt drawn to each other

3.     Met in frequent conferences for prayer and intimate discussion of personal experiences

4.     Each member of the congregation could join the band most congenial to him or one in whose leader he had special confidence

5.     The leader had the right to request that the applicant join another group

6.     There were specific groups for women that Lady Zinzendorf promoted

            Later on,  Zinzendorf addressed the bands in a congregational format (Hamilton 1967:36).  

Characteristics of the Choirs  

          The early Moravians divided their congregations into choirs or groups according to age, sex and marital status. Thus, there were groups of widowers, widows, married people, single men, single women, older boys, older girls, little boys and little girls. Each group had their own meetings and the adult groups had their own houses where members lived and carried out their usual activities. [Customs]  These were homogenous groups that gathered according to age and sex for the purpose of hearing the Word and common worship (Hamilton  1967:37). 

Community Life  

            Zinzendorf felt that the merits of Christ have significant in a mysterious way when applied to individuals of varying sex and age. With this in mind, he formed the choir system. Zinzendorf would speak to the various choirs according to the needs of each age group. Each choir had their own service, but also attended a general service together. To grant even more participation, each choir was broken up into bands which met for prayer, song, and testimony (Sessler 1933:98).  

Separate Housing For The Choirs  

            Later,  those choirs that remained on Zinzendorf’s estate  participated in the economic and educational development of the Moravian community. Houses were built for the various choirs, and these choirs  were instrumental in supporting the missionary movement (Sessler 1933:94). Distinct housing was also offered for the choirs in other lands. For example, Sessler writes about life for the Moravians in America in the year 1748,

The older girls were then in Bethlehem, and the younger girls in Nazareth, while the small boys were on Henry Antes’ farm. The married men and the married women lived separately in two buildings a short distance north of where the Church in Bethlehem now stands. Even the children of pre-school age were taken charge of by the Church. Supposedly these conditions of the choir were temporary.  

Subordination of Nuclear Family 

Hamilton notes, “In time the voluntary associations cultivated in the band were supplanted by compulsory membership in the choir with the subordination of family life which this institution produced in its heyday” (1967:37).          It appears that in time the mandatory, age-divided choirs  became more important than the family unit to the Moravians.  One of the Moravians, Spangenberg, writes from America, “Our married people are living as if they were still traveling, the husbands and the wives and the children each for themselves” (quoted in Sessler 1933:96). [3]Sessler states,  

From the earliest years children were taught that they belonged more to the Church than to their parents. They became the property of the Church, and it was expected that when they grew up they should serve the institution which had nurtured and cared for them in their childhood and adolescence. The basis for the wide-spread mission work of the Moravians is found chiefly in their firm belief that the Church had first claim on their lives…The claims of the Church upon the individual completely broke up the family circle. The training of the children by the Church and for the Church meant that they were taken from their parents at a tender age and put under the strict religious discipline of the institutionalized Choir houses, which in many respects resembled military academies more than homes. When later they were called upon to go into distant mission fields, their past training made it easier for them, since they had very few parental and home ties to break (1933: 98,99).  

Diaspora Societies  

The Diaspora  was a term for a person who was religiously awakened in the pietistic sense to follow hard after God and to pursue Christian holiness. This person was approved and sent out from a Moravian church as a witness to Christ (Stoeffler 1973:161).

These diaspora workers would start home studies for the personal of edification and holiness. Stoeffler comments, “The members met regularly for fellowship and mutual exhortation and usually in private homes. There was singing, prayers, testimonies, and the reading of sermons (Stoeffler 1973:161). During the eighteenth century, the Moravian approach to religious reality (through the diaspora) had such a responsive chord in the lives of the people that these groups had entered most of the section of Germany (Stoeffler 1973:162).  

Critique Of Small Groups In Moravianism  

            Small groups within Moravianism is very complex. The interconnection between the bands, choirs, and the diaspora groups is not easy to follow.   One gets the sense that the Moravian  small group vision was very creative and contemporary for its time. For example, there was more than one type of group (diaspora groups versus choir groups), and  there was flexibility in adapting the small group emphasis  (the choir concept  evolved from the bands)

The most impressive aspect of the Moravian small group system was the way that small groups were used for the cause of world missions. One notices many similarities in the Moravian small group system with the  monastic bands of the middle ages. Both went  forth in small groups to spread the gospel.

Further research is needed to determine how these seemingly ‘closed choirs’ integrated new members and exactly how the small groups related to the church structure—especially when a new church was started.

            I personally was taken back by the fact that the Moravian choirs were used to separate children from parents and parents from children—for the cause of Christ’s church. In a day, when we’re just beginning to see the devastating affects that such a philosophy has  on so many missionary children, I personally reacted very negatively to that aspect of the choir groups.  


It’s fitting to study the Methodist movement after Morvianism. Why? Because it was highly influenced by the Moravians. Wesley understood what it meant to have a personal relationship with God as a result of coming into contact with Moravians; He    derived many of his small group concepts from them as well. Brown states,

Zinzendorf’s band system was adapted by John Wesley as the basis for his band meetings. Wesley introduced them to give opportunity for mutual confession (according to James 5:16) and offering encouragement and support in overcoming temptation and developing a Christian lifestyle (1992:38).  

            In fact, he was so impacted by the Moravians that he went to Germany, met with Zinzendorf and spent several days at Herrnhut.  Although he was critical about some of the features of the Moravian movement, he adopted several of their methods in his own ministry (Latourette 1975:1025).  

Basic Facts  Of  Methodism [4]  

            The history of Methodism is a history of the Wesleys and their activity in England. A few brief details about the history of this early movement will serve as helpful material before studying their small group movement in more detail.           

The Wesleys  

Methodism  originated as a reaction against the apathy  that characterized the Anglican Church in the early eighteenth century. John and Charles Wesley were the sons of the Rev Samuel Wesley and his wife Suzanna, and were brought up in the Lincolnshire village of Epworth, where Samuel Wesley was the Anglican Rector. John studied for six years at Christ Church and subsequently became an Anglican Priest, being ordained in 1728.  

The American Experience 

In 1735 John and Charles both went out to preach in Georgia, USA but they had little success. However, on the journey out to Georgia, the Wesleys had been on board ship with a group of German Moravians, and, in the midst of fierce Atlantic storms, John had been most impressed, and indeed challenged, by the faith in God and the assurance that these Christians had. John and Charles longed for that sort of assurance for themselves.  


It was on a Sunday in 1738, while Charles was recovering from an illness, that he had an experience of God which gave to him that assurance. A few days later on May 24th John was to know such an experience too, which he described in the now familiar words, 

I went very unwillingly to a Society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading about Luther's preface to The Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine while he was describing the change which God works in the  heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine (Wesleyan Home Page)  

Small Groups In Methodism  

Many believe that it was because of small groups that Methodism became so exceedingly successful. T.A. Hegre believes so. He says,

I believe that the success of Wesley was due to his habit of establishing small groups. His converts would meet regularly in groups of about a dozen people. If the group became too large, it would divide, and it might continue to divide again and again (Hegre 1993:8).  

Wesley’s Orientation Toward Small Groups  

God in His sovereignty  prepares us  for our future ministry. So it was for John Wesley. He was no stranger to small groups. Plueddeman writes,

“His own mother , Susannah, had initiated home meetings in the parsonage years before. These began with devotional times which Susannah led for her children. A few neighbors asked to attend, and eventually the group grew to over 200 people. This venture eventually came to an end because of opposition from Susannah’s husband and other church leaders, but the vision for home groups would become an important dynamic in the ministry of her sons, John and Charles (1990:8).


Wesley’s  Talents For Small Groups  

            Not only did Wesley have a small group background, but he also had an incredible ability to administrate. In fact, Wesley himself felt that his primarily talent and gifting had to do with the ability to organize people (Latourette 1975:1026).

            Not only was he incredibly organized, but he also was very good at adapting the methodology of other people to suit his own ends. Latourette notes that he had “…an unusual capacity to accept suggestions and to adopt and adapt methods from various quarters” (Latourette 1975:1026). Hunter picks this up as well in even a broader way,

He learned from exposure to the home groups (the ecclesiolae in ecclesia) that the Lutheran Pietist leader Philip Jacob Spener developed to fuel renewal and outreach, and Wesley learned particularly from the Moravians. Wesley also learned from Anabaptist groups and from the occasional ‘societies’ with the church of England, so his group movement was eclectic Protestant  (1996:84).


Wesley’s Vision For Small Groups  

Wesley believed in the church. He believed in the New Testament church. Like, Bucer and Spener, he wanted  God’s people to experience the community of the King.   Therefore he became a student of the book of Acts and the New Testament model of the church.  Hunter says,

He sensed that if he drew people together in cells to challenge and encourage each other to live daily as Christians, through their protracted experiences, the contagion and power of Apostolic church would move in human history once again (1996:84). 

Wesley’s Small Group Organization  

            Not only did Wesley believe that small groups were God’s instrument to implement change,  but God also gave him the understanding concerning how to do it. 


The fundamental unit of Wesley’s small group organization was the class system. They were the base, the foundation,  and  the cornerstone of the Methodist organization. Without them, the Wesleyans would not have experienced their amazing success.  Really, the word class is not the best word to describe this small group.  We normally think of a class room with black board and eraser. That image doesn’t even come close, as we shall see. 

Early History  

There seems to be at least two reasons for the origin of the class meetings:  

1.     The classes were originally organized as a plan for raising money. Each member was required to give one penny each week.

2.     In 1742, four years after starting the bands, there was the realization that too many Christians were falling away (Doyle 1989:112). Something had to be done, so the classes were started-- out of necessity  


A large part of the success in the class system had to do with the leadership. Here are a few key principles that Wesley established:

1.     The leaders were appointed . In the bands,  the leaders were elected by the group, but not in the classes (Pallil 1991:110)

2.     The majority of these lay leaders were women (Brown 1992:39).

3.     Selection of leadership was based on moral and spiritual character, as well as  common sense (Brown 1992:39).

4.     In the classes, there was also plural leadership, that is, more than one leader. Spiritual oversight was shared (Doyle 1989:113).

5.     Groups were not started unless there was leadership to manage the group. Hunter notes, “He [Wesley] saw no virtue in starting new ministry or group life that dies soon after birth, or is stunted in growth”  (Hunter 1989:119).

6.     The class leaders were in fact pastors. Snyder says,  “This was the normal system, based in part  on Wesley’s conviction that spiritual oversight had to be intimate and personal and that plural leadership was the norm in a congregation (Snyder 1980:58).

7.     The class leadership met weekly regularly with the upper society leadership. In other words,  they practiced the Jethro model. Watson says, “They met weekly with the preacher appointed by Wesley as minister of their society, both to report on their members, and themselves to receive advice and instruction” (1986:38).

8.     The leader was usually male in mixed groups or in all male groups. A woman would lead the female groups (Pallil:1991:108).  

Activity In Group  

The class meeting was not a highly organized event. Although they would only meet for one hour, the main event was ‘reporting on your soul’ (Snyder 1980:55). The class had a similar progression:

1.     Open with song or prayer

2.     Leader shared religious experience

3.     Leader made inquiries about others

4.     Each person gave testimony to his or her  spiritual condition

5.     Each member contributed to support of ministry

6.     Close in prayer

7.     A song or prayer

David Lowes Watson, who wrote the book, Accountable Discipleship, which is a modern day manual on the class system, writes,   It was a weekly gathering, a sub-division of the society, at which members were required to give an account to one another of their discipleship, and thereby to sustain each other in their witness” (1986:13).

Probably the best way to describe the emphasis is in the word ‘transparency’. The meeting was build upon the sharing of personal experience of the past week (Pallil 1991:107).  


            Along with the idea of transparency in the class meeting was the   goal of participation. Everyone was encouraged to be a part of the class, to share his or her experiences. Mallison writes,

            Wesley not only reached the masses, he provided a structure in the local organization of Methodism which gave an utterly new set of opportunities for men and women to know themselves valued and useful. The class meeting was the basis of every Methodist society; every member was expected to belong, to speak freely and plainly about every subject for their own temptations to plans for establishing a new cottage meeting or visiting the distressed. Under this scheme working class men and women, who had no vote, no say in fixing wages and nothing to do with making decisions in society, found that they were not expected to take responsible leadership. They learned self confidence and the ability to organize and to speak public  (1989:127,28)  

From early on, Wesley learned the importance of allowing each member of the body to use his or her gift. In the early days, various members from  the classes began to preach the gospel. Wesley hesitated. Was this from God? Yet, he heard the Word of the Lord from his mother Susannah. She told him that by not letting them preach that he would be quenching the Holy Spirit. He yielded,  and lay preachers became an outstanding feature of Methodism” (Latourette1975:1027).  


            How did the class meeting contribute to the overall objectives of the Methodist society?  It seems that the class meetings kept the society under tight control, or discipline. Snyder says it this way, “The class meetings were not designed merely as Christian growth groups, however, or primarily as cells for koinonia, although in fact they did serve that function. Their primary purpose was discipline” (1980:38). As we’ll see, the band was more of the confessional unit,  while the class was to bring order and control into the movement.

            Wesley did not hesitate to expel someone from the society,  if they were not following the Lord wholeheartedly. Wesley knew the condition of  each member  through the class accountability structures. Cell reports were regularly received. (Snyder 1980:57)  

Required Attendance

            Before a person could even be part of the Methodist society, he or she had to join a class. To put it another way, in Methodism, you weren’t allowed to join the large group (society) before joining the small group (class) (Doyle 1989:113). How did the rest of the society know if one had been faithful in attending the classes and following the Lord? The members were issues tickets which had to be renewed every three months (Pallil 1991:105).Hunter notes,  

. . . every Methodist belonged to a class. Indeed, the class was Methodism’s main point of entry for ‘awakened’ seekers who had not yet experienced justification and new life but who desired such experience. People, believes, and seekers, first joined a class that met weekly (1996:85). 


Division & Size  

Classes were divided according to where members lived (Pallil 1991:110); Bands were divided according to age and status. It seems that the class averaged from six to twelve people  


            One of the most exciting aspects of the class system was the evangelistic emphasis. Brown says,

The groups also had a clear evangelistic function as people were converted during the meetings and lapsed members were enabled to renew their commitment to Christ. Wesley knew that the beginnings of faith in a person’s life could be incubate into saving faith more effectively in a warm Christian environment that it could in the chill of the world” ( 1992:39).  

Hunter echoes that fact, “To Wesley, evangelism…took place primarily in the class meetings and in people’s hearts in the hours following the class meetings (Hunter 1987:58).

In other words, Wesley did not have the crusade mentality that is sometimes more interested in decision than discipleship. Wesley wanted to ‘see’ if he person was really saved according to the fruit, rather than the decision itself. The beauty of the class meeting was that it was an evangelistic tool and at the same time a discipling instrument. Doyle states,  “The classes served as an evangelistic tool (most conversions occurred in this context) and as a  discipling agent” (Doyle 1989:113).  


According to George Hunter, Wesley was a church growth strategist. Hunter comments, “He was driven to multiplying ‘classes’ for these served best as recruiting groups, as ports of entry for new people, and for involving awakened people with the gospel and power “ (Hunter 1987:56). Wesley would preach and then invite the people to join a class. His first objective in his preaching was the starting of classes (Hunter 1987:57). Wesley’s preaching always had two primary objectives:

1.     To awaken people

2.     To enroll awakened people in a class, that is a lay led redemptive cell (Hunter 1987:58).  

            At the same time, Wesley would not start a class, if he couldn’t manage it. He would only start as many classes as could be effectively managed and he would not preach where he could not enroll people into classes (Hunter 1987:56).

It seems that most classes started from scratch. In other words, there wasn’t a lot of actual cell multiplication. Dean says, “Cell division was much less common than might have been expected. The formation of new classes was by far the most frequent approach to growth “ (Dean 1985:266).



[1] It’s interesting to me that in all the reading I did on Pietism,  no reference is made to Bucer’s influence on Spener with regard to small group reform.

[2] We often think of koinonia in terms of ‘fellowship’ in an  intimate, spiritual sense. Yet, in Luke 5:7 the Greek word ‘Koinonia’ is used in terms of partnership (the disciples catching fish together). In cell group circles today this emphasis on small group partnership in order to ‘catch fish’ is a needed, and powerful emphasis. It’s not enough to sit around and ‘grow spiritually’. A group needs to have koinonia in the sense of working together to reach a lost world for Christ. 

[3] I believe that the word ‘traveling’ is a reference to I Cor. 7:29-31 where talks about a married brother or sister acting as if he or she was not married.

[4] Most of this history was adapted from the Methodist home page on the world wide web. I did adapt their basic article.









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