September 20, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
The second in a series of five.
I remember the revivals that would come to my hometown, Madras, Oregon. There are several things that stand out in my mind. They would usually come in the summer. The Baptist church would usually be the sponsor. The speaker would be some traveling evangelist, someone who was good at stirring up a crowd. And what it would all build up to, at the end of every revival meeting, would be the altar call. People would be invited to come to the front and give their lives to Jesus Christ.
You may be familiar with the phrase “walking the sawdust trail”. Revivals would often be held under a huge tent, out of doors, and the floor would be sawdust. So those answering the call would follow the tracks in the sawdust made by those who had gone before.
We’re continuing our series on the Wesleyan Revival. Last week we saw how John Wesley lived in a time when people were worn out by all the church fights and political fights that had been going on for longer than any of them could remember. Wesley had a gift for bringing people together. He had a humble spirit. He was more interested in telling people about God’s love than in arguing with them. And as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
We also saw how John Wesley was not just a mild-mannered gentleman who made no waves and was careful not to offend. He was a fighter. He was a force of nature. Nothing could stop him. He wore people down. He won people over. He devoted every fiber of his being to the revival God was bringing to England. And the Wesleyan Revival lasted long after Wesley had died.
There are two goals for this series. One is to learn some history. The other, the main one, is to experience revival today. These goals are not mutually exclusive, because learning from John Wesley is one way we can experience revival today.
And what we’re going to learn from John Wesley today is how he ended his revival meetings. There was no sawdust trail. There were no altar calls. Wesley had never heard of the altar call. Altar calls weren’t introduced until the late 1800’s. So what did John Wesley do for those who had responded to his preaching? How did he help them take the next step in their faith? He had a method. He wasn’t called “methodist” for nothing. And his method was more successful than altar calls have ever been in actually changing lives. In truly making disciples. What was this magic method? Small groups.
It was a great idea. But it wasn’t exactly his idea. Jesus was big on small groups. We read today about his small group. He called 12 disciples. He could have called a hundred disciples. A thousand. Ten thousand. But he stopped at 12. He understood the beauty of small.
So John Wesley got his idea of small groups from Jesus? Probably not. More likely he got it from his mother.
Susanna Wesley was a remarkable woman. She’s been called the Mother of Methodism. She gave birth to 19 children. John was number 15. There were never 19 children running around the house at the same time. Many of them had died in infancy, as was common back then. But she had a houseful and she took her responsibility for each of them very seriously.
She didn’t just feed them and clothe them and home school them. She also took responsibility for their spiritual development. She had a method. There’s that word again. Every week she would spend one hour with each of her children. This was not to hear them read or drill them on their spelling go over their times tables. This was an hour each week to inquire of their souls.
She’d say, “Tell me, Jacky . . . ” (They called John “Jacky”.) “Tell me, Jacky, are you praying? Are you reading the scriptures? What has God been saying to you these days? How are you struggling with your faith?” Each of her children had their mother’s undivided attention for one hour every week as she mentored them in the Christian faith. That had a huge impact on John Wesley’s life.
So years later, when the revival that he was to lead was just getting started, he insisted that people come together for one hour a week to inquire of their souls. They were to ask questions like, “How is it with your soul? How is your prayer life? What are you struggling with?” Where did he learn that? He learned it from his mother.
No one is perfect. By today’s standards Susanna might even be called an unfit mother. She was very strict. She did not allow her children to cry. They could get away with crying until their first birthday, but after that only very soft crying was allowed. She believed in breaking a child’s spirit. That was a necessary step, so she believed, in their faith development. I asked the trivia question in my Monday e-mail: “What did Susanna Wesley do that could get her arrested today?” She gave her children beer for breakfast. All those hops had to be good for them!
So that hour a week John Wesley had spent with his mother became the hour a week he required of his converts. He didn’t call them small groups. He called them class meetings. Regular attendance became a requirement of church membership. Each week each person would answer the question: “How is it with your soul?” It’s been suggested that question might be rephrased today: “How is your life with God?” They would share openly and honestly. They would hold each other accountable. And the atmosphere was one of acceptance and caring. You knew the people in your group were like family who loved you and wanted the best for you and would be there for you no matter what. The phrase from Wesley’s writings that best captures the essence of what these class meetings were about is this: “watching over one another in love.”
One of John Wesley’s best friends was a preacher named George Whitefield. He was a great preacher. He preached in the American colonies for a number of years. Benjamin Franklin knew him well and praised his oratorical abilities. It’s generally conceded that George Whitefield was a better preacher than John Wesley. It probably wasn’t even close. So why am I preaching a series on the Wesleyan Revival and not the Whitefieldian Revival? Because George Whitefield could preach but John Wesley could organize. George Whitefield was the better preacher, but John Wesley was the better organizer.
Adam Clarke was a contemporary of both Wesley and Whitefield. Here is what he wrote:
From long experience I know the propriety of Mr. Wesley’s advice: “Establish class meetings wherever you preach; for wherever we have preached without doing so, the word has been like seed by the way-side.” It was by this means we have been enabled to establish permanent and holy churches over the world. Mr. Wesley saw the necessity of this from the beginning. Mr. Whitefield, when he separated from Mr. Wesley, did not follow it. What was the consequence? The fruit of Mr. Whitefield’s labor died with himself. Mr. Wesley’s remains and multiplies.
Class meetings did not die with John Wesley. As the Wesleyan Revival crossed the Atlantic, the class meeting crossed with it. Methodism grew and spread at a phenomenal rate. In 1776, 2.5% of the Americans who went to church were Methodists. By 1850, that number had surged to 34.3%. Why such rapid growth? It wasn’t because the preaching was so great. It was because the class meetings were so effective. The fruit of Mr. Wesley’s labor remained and multiplied.
The title I’m using today is the title of a book that was required reading at Willamette University 40 years ago. It must have been a long time ago because I notice the price of the book is $2.45. Small is Beautiful was written by an economist named E.F. Schumacher. Don’t ask me what the book’s about. It’s been too long. The sub-title is “Economics as if People Mattered”.
John Wesley did church “as if people mattered”. Not masses of people, but individual people. He understood how easily people can get lost in big gatherings and how important it is for people to have a place where they are known and loved and belong. Like that “Cheers” song: “Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Whenever you get more than about 12 people, that just can’t happen. Jesus understood that. Small is beautiful. Worship is too big. Even worship here where we have some room to grow. Some Sundays we hold “small is beautiful” worship services here. But never small enough for the kind of caring and sharing and growing that happens in small groups.
Here’s what happens on Sunday mornings. People talk mainly to people they already know. Some of you make a special effort to meet new people. Those of you who are new to this church may take the initiative to introduce yourself to others. More likely you will hold back and wait for someone to speak to you. But whether you are talking to someone you have known for years or someone you have just met, it is very rare for the conversation to go deeper than surface level chit chat. “How are you?” “I am fine, thanks. How about you?” “I’m fine, too. Thanks for asking.” That’s about as deep as it goes in most cases.
We walk around with this layer of veneer over our souls. We all do. And Sunday morning, whether it’s the service itself or the fellowship before and after, is not designed to break through that veneer. There can be something deep and significant happening in your soul, but chances are you’re just going to keep it to yourself. Unless or until you meet with your small group.
We have a lot of small groups in our church right now. Some of us made a list earlier this year. I was surprised at how long the list was. These are groups of people already meeting regularly and forming bonds of friendship and finding that sense of community and belonging that we all need. So we might congratulate ourselves and say that we really get it. John Wesley would be proud. We’re already doing church “as if people mattered.”
Maybe. Maybe not. There are three different kinds of small groups. (1) There are affinity groups. Our choir at 9 am and our praise band at 11 am are examples of this. These are people who come together because they share a common interest. They like music. They like to sing. In most cases, they like each other. We have book groups and quilting groups and crafting groups. These are affinity groups. They add a lot to our church. I’m glad we have them. But their main agenda is not helping people grow as Christian disciples.
(2) Then we have information-driven groups. These are our Sunday school and Bible study classes. We’ve done Dave Ramsey Financial Peace classes here and we’re getting ready to do this again. This church did a very in-depth Bible study called Disciple not long ago. All these are great. We need more classes like these. We all have a lot to learn. When these classes are done well, they go beyond just learning and they help us apply what we have learned to our daily lives. But even when they are done well, they have limited value in growing Christians. They are not the kind of groups that were the key to the Wesleyan Revival.
(3) There’s a third kind of group. We might call these transformation-driven groups. The focus is not learning, but growing. Not mastering content, but changing lives. Not information, but transformation. If John Wesley were here today, these are the groups he would insist that every church offer and that every one of us attend. One hour every week. I wish I could give you a list of the transformation-driven groups this church offers. There’s one I’m leading that has met one time. But other than the recovery groups that meet in our building but that we don’t lead, I can’t think of another transformation-driven group. We’re going to work on that.
Here’s my vision for where we need to be heading as a church: everyone attending worship every Sunday. Out of town or sick are acceptable excuses. Late Boise State football games are not. And everyone attending a small group every week. It may be an affinity or an information-driven group, but I want to see these groups incorporating prayer and spiritual growth components into their gatherings. What I really want to see is more Wesleyan transformational groups. “Life groups” is a name I like. And finally, everyone serving in some way. And this is your lucky day! Because this is the day of our first annual “Service Faire”. Many of you have found your place to serve but many of you have not. Today is your opportunity.
Small is beautiful. Jesus knew this. Jesus modeled this. And I think we know this, too. We crave community. We are all looking for that place where everyone knows our name and they’re always glad we came. We also crave revival. We want so badly to become new and renewed in Jesus Christ. The Wesleyan revival never would have happened without small groups and chances are your revival won’t either.
Dear God, break through that layer of veneer that encases our souls. It’s thicker in some of us than in others, but it’s there and it gets in the way. It keeps us from the relationships for which we were created, with you and with others. It isolates us and makes us curl in upon ourselves. Break through, dear God. May we open up to you and to others. May we grow and blossom as the flowers we were meant to be. In Christ, Amen.