John Wesley, the father of Methodism, was thought to be an organizational genius in his day, even by those who did not agree with his doctrines. As we look at his small group structure, it is evident that it is a scriptural and dynamic model for home group meetings in our day, as well.
Before examining the Wesleyan structure, the scriptural basis for such a structure should be mentioned. Acts 2:42 tells of the early church structure employed directly after Pentecost with the addition of thousands of new believers, and bears resemblance to the Wesleyan model: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42 NASB).
As Acts 2:42 tells it, continuing steadfast in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship is holding fast to the teachings of the Bible and to those who faithfully teach them. Know those who labor among you. Do not get caught up in a bunch of fringe teachings that will draw you away from the central tenants of the faith or get involved in ministries that are promoting such things.
Fellowship, or koinonia, is a transliterated form of the Greek word κοινωνία, which refers to joint participation, the share which one has in anything, a gift jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution, etc. Their fellowship was centered on their individual and communal devotion to Jesus Christ. This was love in action; friendship that was possible, vital, and relevant because of the constant presence of the One who “lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Acts continues with the breaking of bread. Communion has become so common in our day. The early disciples saw the bread and cup as not only a memorial to what Jesus had done, but a reminder of what Jesus expected them to do as well. Do we embrace the persecution and cross that produced the broken body and blood in our own life on behalf of others? Or do we feel we can bypass that part of the Christian message, which is the Christian message?
And the prayers. Prayer was the power the early church relied on. The church today has largely replaced prayer time with social events wrapped in religious terminology. An amen at the end of the evening does not make it a time of prayer.
Although not an exact facsimile of the Acts 2:42 model, Wesleyan group structure has the components we see in Acts. The structure, although divided up into three distinct meeting types, can be easily adapted to delineate different stages in a 90-120-minute contemporary home group setting. We will now look at Societies, Classes, and Bands, and their distinct purpose within the Wesleyan mindset.
Societies were educational in nature, via lectures, preaching, and exhortation. These were held in larger settings where an ordained or assigned leader would expound on the faith. This was not a group participation meeting but rather a time for group teaching. We can liken this to the sermon or lesson time in a small group setting, i.e. the apostles’ doctrine.
Classes were transparent groups of 8-10 people who shared their struggles, victories, and encouraged one another toward great intimacy with Christ and one another. The personal experience of Christian living and the pastoral care of believers was at the heart of these meetings. This was a time for group participation and ministry. We can liken this to the sharing and caring time in a small group setting, i.e. fellowship and the breaking of bread (literally and spiritually).
Bands were even smaller groups focusing on a common desire of improving attitudes, emotions, feelings, intentions, and affections through what Wesley termed “close conversations.” These were times to share more personal matters that might not be advantageous in the larger group. These smaller homogenous groups were broken down by gender, age, and marital status. We can liken this to a personal ministry time in a small group setting, i.e. the breaking of spiritual bread and prayer.
Small group ministry is the perfect place for people to learn how to relate to others in a “spiritual” atmosphere. Many people are unsure of themselves in such a setting, especially if they are new in the faith. Five-fold ministry leadership has the responsibility to draw out of others what they may see as insignificant or insufficient. A perfect illustration of the significance and sufficiency of a “little” gift in the hands of God is seen in John 6.
Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ” Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and having given thanks, He distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted. When they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments so that nothing will be lost.” So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten. (John 6:5-13)
In biblical numerology, the number 2 can mean the verification of facts by witnesses, the number 5 can represent grace, and the number 12, faith and completion. We must assume that the lad with the five barley loaves and two fish offered them graciously to the disciples. It is not likely that Andrew coerced the boy’s lunch from him. This offering became a witness to the power of God and how God’s grace reciprocates grace. The twelve baskets of leftovers not only became a witness to the lack of faith in the disciples, but God’s gracious provision for them anyway, a completion of grace upon grace.
1 Corinthians 14:26 in the VOICE (Thomas Nelson Publishers and Ecclesia Bible Society 2012) paints a picture of what the Apostle Paul, as well as John Wesley, was after in connection to body ministry. “What should you do then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each person has a vital role because each has gifts. One person might have a song, another a lesson to teach, still another a revelation from God. One person might speak in an unknown language, another will offer the interpretation, but all of this should be done to strengthen the life and faith of the community.” The application is certainly easier to appreciate and implement in the small group setting.