From Class Meeting to Covenant Discipleship Group

A preacher from a Pentecostal church in Birmingham came to Winson Green, and made an appeal for prisoners there to make Jesus Lord of their life. There was an encouraging response: but the chapel was packed, and there was no opportunity to help anyone afterwards. On future occasions, we were able to rectify that situation, so that everyone who made a response could be visited soon afterwards.

Nevertheless, a majority of people, including Christians, feel that an inmate in a prison who makes a decision to follow Jesus, is highly unlikely to keep it up. My predecessor as Methodist Chaplain in Winson Green then sent me a leaflet about Covenant Discipleship. I didn’t do anything immediately, but it was always in my mind to find out more. Telephoning to order some books, I was told that the author of many of them, David Watson, was coming to Bristol. A Methodist Minister from England, David had spent most his ministry in America. There he had developed the Methodist Class Meeting into something that was appropriate for today.

The Class Meeting was central to Methodism from its earliest days. The revival that John and Charles Wesley began was aided in a major way through the practice of local Christians meeting together and “watching over one another in love”. The Class Leader was a vital person in the local church. Those who had made commitments to Christ were cared for: they kept to various rules, and were accountable to one another . . . so that they read the Bible, prayed, looked to act in compassion towards others, and were ready to act justly for their communities. Those who were part of a Class Meeting took part in works of mercy (acts of compassion and justice), and works of piety (acts of devotion and worship).

Back in Bristol I talked with David Watson for less than an hour, but was convinced that this was the way through. For those coming to the fellowship in the prison, the following Covenant became the norm “Knowing that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that we should not perish but have eternal life, we commit ourselves as part of the ‘Godsquad Covenant Discipleship Group’ to be accountable to God and so to each other, under the following guidelines:-

  1. I will spend time alone with God each day . . . during which time I will: Read and reflect on the “Word for Today” (UCB devotional) for that day; Pray according to the pattern of A.C.T.S. (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication)
  2. I will pray for each member of our group

    I will endeavour to refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.

  3. I will worship each Sunday and share in the weekly Fellowship group
  4. I will pray for 2 to 3 people on my Unit that they might come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour
  5. I will be slow to take offence, and will prayerfully seek each day to forgive others and myself
  6. I will endeavour to be kind - even to those who ill-treat me.
  7. Whatever justice issue the Group decides to implement, I will endeavour to support.

Some verses from Hebrews (10, 23-25) are relevant to this part of what I am wanting to convey:-

“Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps His Word. Let’s see how inventive we can be an encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do, but spurring each other on, especially as we see the Day approaching”. (From “the Message” Bible)

John and Charles Wesley began was aided in a major way through the practice of local Christians meeting together and “watching over one another in love”

How could prisoners who had made a commitment to Jesus, possibly keep going? The first line of that text gives the answer. Keeping to the Covenant enabled them to feed on God’s Word, worship, pray etc. Of course they didn’t always keep to every part: but they were asked about each part, and gladly and honestly gave their response.

I’ve been recently about the amazing story of Gram Seed, “One Step Beyond” (www.cwr.org.uk). The book tells how he “was that lad, written off by family, neighbours teachers and the police as a lost cause, his early life taking him through shoplifting, football hooliganism, multiple stabbings and beatings, alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessess and sever jail sentences to a six-day coma” (taken from the book cover). He is now working in prisons, especially, in the north-east, taking Alpha courses in them. It was a privilege to have him come and preach at one of the prisons in which I’ve worked.

On page 145 of the book, talking about prisoners who make commitments to Christ he comments: “So what’s the difference between the successes and the ones who fall away. It’s the ones who make time with Jesus a daily habit, as I have taught them.’ One of the most powerful things they can do to grow as Christians is to read the Bible every day . . .

My question is, “How are prisoners any different in this respect from any other Christian?”. On the day I write this I have heard of a church suffering one of those sad breaking of relationships. Of course, it could happen even if someone followed the Covenant Discipleship pattern . . . but it would have been much less likely.

Students at the Methodist college in Washington, USA, told us of amazing stories of how CD groups have helped. They do this work as a deliberate part (3 months in length) of their ministerial training. One lady in the church where she was in pastoral care, made it a condition of being on “Church Council” (or their equivalent) that they were active members of a CD group. Would that folk on some of Church Councils I’ve taken in the past, been following that rule!

As we hear with joy about the work going on in Lakeland, Florida, we are so thrilled about the thousands who are going out witnessing in the community there. But as with every revival, the chances of those backsliding are always quite high. Early Methodism we see as a revival movement: the Class Meeting assured a steadying in the faith, members gladly being accountable to one another.

Lots of initiatives for Churches require training: and, perhaps, keeping under the umbrella of the sponsoring organisation. Covenant Discipleship can begin once you’ve got two other people interested. Meet for 30 minutes a week after you’ve carefully decided on what you want to covenant to do: give permission to each other to ask if you’ve kept to what you’ve promised, and then pray for each other. If someone hasn’t managed to keep to it, merely encourage them to start again the next day! After a while, if you have about 6 or 7 meeting, you might meet for an hour. (But be like Wesley, begin promptly on the hour, and end promptly on the next!). That number of people is about the most you should have: if you get more, break into two groups.

If your fellowship group only meets once a week, you could incorporate the CD part into an evening which also had Bible Study, Worship and Prayer (which is what we have usually done). After you’ve run with the same Covenant for 6 months, think and pray about changing some of the things you’ve agreed to do.

A fuller account of this is in a booklet I have written, which is available through me at higgins@fish.co.uk. In that, besides other things, I have looked how you can use the principles of Coveant Discipleship to enhance the “Priorities of the British Methodist Church”, and “Our Calling”. Nevertheless, you can just start - you don’t particularly need the booklet!

I suppose everyone believes they’ve got something that could transform churches . . . but I am personally convinced that if the Church as a whole did this, we would see the most amazing changes.

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