ClassMeeting Front CVR (1)We live in a culture that is addicted to all things new and innovative, and yet there is a growing desire amongst many Christians to dig deeply into the past for models of how to think and live faithfully. You can see that often in Methodism these days, where people are as hungry as they’ve ever been to look seriously at Wesleyan models of practical discipleship.

That means it is a fortuitous time for Kevin M. Watson’s new book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (Seedbed, 2014). Watson is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, who writes a popular blog and has authored or co-authored a number of previous titles geared toward discipleship formation. Watson  is also on the faculty of Seattle Pacific University where he pursues a teaching ministry as Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies.

Readers of Watson’s previous book, A Blueprint for Discipleship, will not be surprised to find that The Class Meeting offers a highly accessible treatment of one key part of the Wesleyan tradition, which balances historical interpretation with contemporary application through crisp, direct prose. Watson was a pastor before he became a professor, and that early experience shows in his ability to write well for a broad audience. The text of The Class Meeting balances a lucid presentation of historical and theological material about early Methodist discipleship with contemporary illustrations and a great deal of practical wisdom drawn from years of leading and participating in small group ministries. The result is a book that will serve as a vital resource for congregations interested in a fresh approach to Wesleyan ministry and discipleship.

Watson opens The Class Meeting by describing three categories of small groups often found in churches. The first is the affinity group, which is made up of people who share a common interest and want to pursue it with other Christians. (Reading that part, I was reminded of a pastor who once told me excitedly about the Saturday morning motorcycle group in his church; I thought it sounded like a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure what exactly made it “Christian” other than the fact that it happened to be made up of guys who also worshiped together on Sundays.) The second type of group is the information-driven group, and this is the type of group probably most common within congregations. Bible studies and Sunday school classes are information-driven groups. Such groups are made up of people who get together and study some type of curriculum, in order to learn more about some aspect of the Christian faith. The third category of small group is the transformation-driven group, and this is the category Watson is truly interested in sharing. The book’s eponymous subject is the classic example of the transformation-driven group within the Methodism. In transformation-driven groups, the members are banded together to pursue spiritual growth. As Watson puts it, “These groups are organized around a common desire to support one another in their efforts to become increasingly faithful Christians who are growing in love of God and neighbor” (p.6). There is no curriculum in transformation-driven groups, because the only needed curriculum is the group members’ own lives.

Watson writes with a double aim in The Class Meeting, which is both to persuade his audience of the value of the transformation-driven small group approach, and to aid his readers in actually forming small groups on this model (pp.12-13). His strategy is to begin by telling the story of the class meeting in early Methodism and how it fit in with other Methodist developments under John Wesley’s leadership (chapter 2) as well as how spiritual transformation is understood in Wesleyan theology (chapter 3). (For those unfamiliar with the Wesleyan vocabulary around salvation, the third chapter will be especially helpful.) Following the historical background chapters, there is a transition chapter where Watson makes the case for reclaiming the class meeting in contemporary Methodist practice (chapter 4 on “Becoming Wesleyan Again”). Watson recognizes the differences in context between Wesley’s day and our own, but he argues that the transformation-driven approach is just as applicable today as ever—and he cites two examples (Munger Place UMC in Dallas and Christ UMC in Ft. Lauderdale) where it has been employed to great effect. The remaining chapters of The Class Meeting (chapters 5-8) are focused on contemporary application. Here Watson covers topics ranging from the implementation of the class meeting and the importance of the class leader’s role, to avoiding potential pitfalls and accenting key points that improve the odds of a ministry success.

Dr. Kevin Watson

Dr. Kevin Watson

As Watson tells it, the purpose of early Methodism was not to get people into class meetings. It was rather “to help them come to faith in Christ and grow in that faith” (p.35). The class meeting proved to be an effective instrument to that end, and that is why it became the cornerstone of Methodism’s communal discipleship. He’s not tied to the name “class meeting” but he is to the type of small group communal discipleship that the class meeting represents. As he says in the final chapter, “The goal of this book … is to introduce you to a practice that has the potential to strengthen your life in Christ, help you be delivered from temptation, and help those who are seeking Jesus to find new life in him” (p.130). In just that sense, it’s Watson’s hope that The Class Meeting will serve neither as a curriculum resource for Sunday school classes nor as a form of spiritual edification for an individual. There is an evangelistic edge to the whole project: Watson wants you to finish the book and jump headlong into a class meeting with fellow Christian believers.

This is a very solid and engaging piece of work. We have a need within Methodism to translate both the theology and the historical example of our tradition for contemporary audiences. Where that’s been done in recent years, it can often take on either a dry recital of shopworn Wesleyan shibboleths (e.g., the umpteenth description of the language of grace, or endearing items from Wesley’s own biography) or a monotonous re-telling of mainline Methodist “distinctives” (which, because they’re mainline, aren’t distinctive at all. They’re just bland). When you encounter Watson making a positive and enthusiastic argument for being exclusive and judgmental (as he does in chapter 4), you know you’re reading something different. Watson has the pastoral experience and the academic chops to present this material well, and he combines that with a writing style that draws the reader in.

Let me conclude with a couple of random points…

I. My colleague at Memphis Theological Seminary, Dr. Lee Ramsey, and I recently used The Class Meeting in a seminar course we are teaching this semester on “Pastoral Care in the Wesleyan Tradition.” Following a lively discussion about the book in our seminar just this past week, a number of our students (many of whom are student pastors serving local churches) indicated that they intended to use it in their congregations as a way to either initiate or revitalize small group ministries. Why we chose this book for a course on pastoral care is another subject—suffice it to say that pastoral care in early Methodism typically happened within small group structures like the class meeting (though that was not their primary purpose for being).

II. Readers familiar with David Lowes Watson’s work on the class meeting will likely be surprised at the way the issue of accountability is treated here. D.L. Watson (no relation to K. Watson) coined the term “mutual accountability” to describe the purpose of the class meeting. Yet, K. Watson is very adamant in The Class Meeting that accountability is not what class meetings are about. He writes, “Class meetings are not accountability groups; they are not where people confess their deepest sins to one another” (p.117). There are, it should be noted, distinct differences between the way D.L. Watson and K. Watson interpret the class meeting historically (as well as what ought to be emphasized in present-day versions of it). While the issue is too complicated to get into here, I believe that the difference of opinion between the two Watsons on the purpose of the class meeting may at least partly hinge on the quite different way that each of them understands the term “accountability.”

In sum, if you believe the Wesleyan tradition has anything at all to offer to the practice discipleship today, you’ll greatly benefit by reading The Class Meeting. But follow the author’s advice: Don’t get it if you only intend to use it for personal edification or as a curriculum piece in your Sunday school class. Get it instead because you intend to put into practice what Watson is advocating—a transformation-driven small group that can nurture a deeper faith by the dynamic process of conversation and fellowship among committed Christians.

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[Disclosure: Seebed Publishing provided me a review copy of The Class Meeting with a request to write a book review on this website. I gladly accepted the book and agreed to write the review, which I had already hoped to do since I was considering it for teaching purposes. Other than the book itself, I have received no other goods or services in exchange for this review.]