Many defining moments have led me to the place I am now with regard to Wesleyan practices and reclaiming John Wesley’s class meeting for today. By sharing this journey, I hope readers will take a closer look at our Wesleyan heritage and practices.
I have been a life-long Nazarene since the 1970s, when revivals and camp meetings still propelled our growth. I witnessed old-timers shouting and waving hankies, popcorn testimonies from people sharing what God was doing in their lives, vigorous singing, intense preaching, and the altars lined with people seeking and pouring out their hearts to God. In this atmosphere, my life radically changed at age seven. I was present at every service the church offered:
Wednesday night, Sunday evening, Sunday school, morning worship, revivals, camps, singspirations, and much more. I intently listened to my pastor’s preaching, testimony, and living. He became my example of what being a Nazarene meant.
Pastor J.L. McClung was not a college graduate, but he diligently completed the home course of study for pastors. While preaching, he frequently mentioned that he had read the entire collection of the Works of Wesley. I knew that getting my own set, which I saved to purchase in high school, would be important to my spiritual formation. In my early learning about John Wesley, a few examples stood out. One was the experience of his heart being strangely warmed. Another was his intense discipline and devotion to the things of God. A final example was Wesley’s use of class meetings and his willingness to be part of an accountability group. I considered these traits important for my own spiritual growth and for how the church could be authentically Christian.
After high school, I attended Mount Vernon Nazarene College (now University). My advisor, David Cubie, a devoted Wesley scholar, reinforced Wesley’s importance for personal spiritual formation and a revitalized church.
While attending Mount Vernon, I became the lead pastor of my home church. To make a long, painful story short, this combination took its toll on the church, on my education, and on me spiritually. I blamed myself for the church’s failure and wrestled with the doctrine of entire sanctification. I had come to the conclusion
that either I was not good enough to be entirely sanctified, or our message of holiness was just a myth. While I still loved God, I was in a spiritual crisis. I quit going to church and flung myself into other pursuits.
As Wesleyans, we believe that God’s grace is universal and optimistic. Even during this dark night of my soul, God was still preveniently working in my life through persons and events. Mt. Vernon Nazarene University opened up a satellite campus near me. I enrolled. It was thrilling to be back with the college I had loved early on. I was being drawn back to God. When the program ended in the summer of 2007, I prayed about next steps. I was a pizza shop franchise owner, but business did not fulfill my heart’s passion. I learned of Northwest Nazarene University’s online master of divinity program and enrolled with the simple goal of
moving closer to God.
My Works of Wesley traveled over the years with me, but I seldom opened them. As I began my work at NNU, I still struggled with our holiness doctrine and was intently focused on the house church movement. I was frustrated with both my lack of experience of entire sanctification and with the typical model of church. Both seemed ineffectual.
The MDiv program at NNU required online students to have a local mentor to support us through the program. I was so ready to give up my Wesleyan-Holiness heritage that I selected a mentor who had a Calvinist background. However, the good professors at NNU were thoroughly immersed in John Wesley. Their coursework, interaction, and required readings chipped away at my frustrations and reinforced my Wesleyan heritage. The light of holiness turned on in a bright, new way.
I switched mentors. I had a supervised ministry course coming up, and I needed some hands-on, practical ministry experience. My sister’s pastor at Wadsworth Church of the Nazarene agreed to become my mentor and allow me to engage in practical ministry. Pastor Raynard Martin complemented everything I learned at NNU. I found myself more alive spiritually than ever.
I continued attending Wadsworth Church of the Nazarene during the last two years of my MDiv. Over that time, I became the SDMI superintendent. It was clear I had a passion for discipleship and all things Wesley. The end of my MDiv study approached in the fall of 2011. I experienced transformation like never before during my time with NNU. God began to use my gifts and abilities in the discipleship ministries at Wadsworth Church of the Nazarene.
What should my next move be? I found a doctor of ministry program at Ashland Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Wesleyan practices. I knew this was the next step. Somewhere between completing my MDiv and starting my DMin at Ashland, David Lilly, a good friend and partner in ministry at my
church, had a desire to start an informal/nontraditional Saturday night event for unchurched people. His vision was to offer a weekly meal, devotional time, and extended time to talk, play games, and have overall close fellowship.
We initiated this weekly event and called it Saturday Night Connect. It started with about a dozen people attending weekly. It attracted unchurched, marginalized people—people with addictions, financial problems, family struggles, transgendered issues, and more. Connect welcomed people who would not feel comfortable coming to a traditional service, and who did not know how to do church. Yet these same people were being awakened to God. These people showed sparks of spiritual life, a desire to grow spiritually, and an eagerness to find order in their chaotic lives.
During the process of implementing Connect, I began my DMin in Wesleyan Practices at Ashland. My coursework was taught by some of the leaders in Wesleyan thought: Paul Chilcote, Dan Hawk, Bill Payne, Steve Manskar, Steve Harper, and Constance Cherry, to name a few. The coursework heavily concentrated on our Wesleyan roots. The readings immersed me in the importance of Wesleyan practices so much so, that I chose to write a resource on relational discipleship for my dissertation. The resource will focus on John Wesley’s house of religion analogy and how the class meeting is a way we help each
other move back into God’s house of holiness.
Over the course of about three years, Connect has reached a high of 124 in attendance and regularly has more than 80 people each week. From a Wesleyan perspective, Connect has become analogous to John Wesley’s field preaching. Connect is where people become awakened to God. People can hear and learn of God in a non-threatening environment.
As Connect continued to develop and I delved deeper into my studies in Wesleyan practices, the leaders of Connect started becoming aware that there was a need for the next step in discipleship for the people who faithfully attended Connect. A re-traditioned class meeting became the apparent next step. We began to pray and search out how a class meeting would look and be implemented. We decided to call the class meeting Grace Group.
At our weekly Connect time, we started to explain what Grace Group was. We explained that it would be a group that met each week with the explicit purpose of looking for and responding to God’s grace. We asked people to fill out a short form expressing interest in being part of this group.
After a couple of months of sharing about the grace group, we had a dozen people who joined. We began meeting an hour before Connect each Saturday. Because most of the people who had responded had no church background, we started with the basics of teaching people about Wesley’s analogy of the house of religion. People learned how prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace corresponded to the porch, door, and house respectively. People learned that in each moment God extends grace to each person and that each person has a responsibility to respond to God’s grace.
The members of Grace Group were asked to examine their lives with the help of the Holy Spirit and see where they were in relation to God’s house. Were they lost in the woods? Were they trying to live their own way in their own, broken-down shacks? Were they sitting on the porch, learning who God was? Had they accepted God’s invitation—made possible by Jesus Christ—to walk through the door of the house? Were they willing to move into God’s house and live in God’s presence continually, moment by moment? All the people shared where they thought they were at that particular moment in relation to God’s house.
We then set out in the following weeks to write a covenant for our group that consisted of the actual means of grace we would all agree to try to engage each week. The covenant is based on David Lowes Watson’s suggestion of having equal means of grace activities for all four means of grace—acts of justice, compassion, devotion, and worship. We celebrated one Saturday by signing the covenant together and closing with the Eucharist. We now meet each week to respond to different questions posed by the class leader about how we have been keeping the covenant. More importantly, since the covenant and the activities of the covenant are means of grace, the more important question is how we have seen and responded to God’s grace each week. Each person gives a report of how he or she and God are relating. We encourage, challenge, and pray for one another.
Grace Group and teaching people Wesleyan practices have enlivened the holiness message of Saturday Night Connect. Holiness is not about a list of negative actions to avoid so much as it is about learning to live in God’s presence moment by moment. This process has demonstrated that God wants to transform
us into Christ’s image here and now. We are learning in Grace Group that it is God’s presence, God’s grace, that transforms us. By practicing the means of grace, we learn to see and respond to God’s grace.
Looking back, I am thankful for the revivalistic heritage that nurtured my early faith. In addition, I thank God for the grace that brought me into the deeper riches of the Wesleyan tradition. This way of discipleship has not only anchored my faith, but has also given new meaning and purpose to my life as these grace-filled riches are shared with others.
The church is ripe for Wesleyan practices. May we intentionally and continually revisit our Wesleyan heritage and embrace the beauty that Wesleyan practices offer us today.