Response: April 2014 Issue

Change the World by Circle

Change the World by Circle
United Methodist Women members meet in small groups at Limitless: Redefine Tomorrow in Durham, N.C., in 2012.

Methodism founder John Wesley knew the key to social change would be small-group gatherings, and so does United Methodist Women.

Just seven years after the Declaration of Independence and a mere three before the signing of the U.S. Constitution, something revolutionary took place in American Christianity. This revolution was quiet, subtle, ordinary even. It happened in 1784, when Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke brought the Methodist class meeting from John Wesley's England to American soil. The idea took off. By 1815, only three decades later, more than 7,000 Methodist class meetings were up and running.

Methodism was never intended to exist without class meetings; certainly it was never expected to thrive without them. Author John Wigger called these small-group gatherings the "sinews of Methodism." John Wesley created-invented, we might say-the weekly class meeting to be the indispensable building block of the Methodist movement. The heart of the class meeting is the title of United Methodist Women's 2014 spiritual growth study: How Is It With Your Soul?

The true state of our souls

The true state of our souls is not easy to uncover. Mr. Wesley grasped this, the hard time we have exploring our souls. So he developed three "searching questions" to prompt us: o Have you carefully abstained from doing evil? o Have you zealously maintained good works? o Have you constantly attended on all the ordinances of God?

Bringing soul-work and self-discovery out into the open required weekly discipline in the company of other committed saints, so class meeting members rolled up their sleeves together to answer these questions methodically, like good Methodists, with uncanny honesty, and to encourage, challenge, pray over and accompany one another. In these small communities, Mr. Wesley believed, grace flowed freely.

Faced with these three questions, early Methodists experienced firsthand the power of spiritual authenticity and accountability. Thomas Morris, a Methodist circuit rider, wrote in 1816 about his involvement with class meetings: "Here where only pious friends are presumed to be present, where all would help and none would hinder us in the pursuit of spiritual life, we can freely talk over our hopes and fears, trials and deliverances, resolutions and prospects in the way to heaven."

A whole world, a soul world

Look again at John Wesley's probing questions, and you'll see that the word soul doesn't describe a private sphere of personal spirituality. Mr. Wesley hoped for a whole world made holy, from the dark depths of one's soul to the structures that perpetuate injustice in our world.

Transforming our souls and our world doesn't come easy. So Mr. Wesley enlisted the practices of Bible reading and prayer in the context of the class meeting to bring about transformation-sanctification of the soul and social structures alike.

First, Mr. Wesley made sure Bible study was done in community so that the Bible wouldn't be used to support personal opinions. The Bible, he said, should be used to cultivate "a spirit of openness to dialogue." How so? By reading the Bible in community with people who interpret it differently. Mr. Wesley even invited disagreement over his own teaching. He encouraged, according to theologian Randy Maddox, any who "believed that he presented mistaken readings of the Bible in his sermons to be in touch, so that they could confer together over Scripture." Imagine that! Imagine what this approach to Bible study might do for congregations-whole denominations, too-that today can barely speak civilly with one another because of division over a host of issues, including homosexuality, abortion, immigration and gun control.

Once you've imagined this, implement it. Create occasions when United Methodist Women circles that are most unlike one another meet for Bible study. Better yet, create United Methodist Women circles that are intentionally diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and interests. This strategy cultivates what Mr. Wesley championed: "a spirit of openness to dialogue" at the core of United Methodist Women.

Second, Mr. Wesley urged Methodists to pray together—not a few moments of prayer at the beginning or end of a meeting or worship service but prayer with a trusted friend, a small group, a Sunday school class, a United Methodist Women unit. Such prayer digs deep into the questions of the class meeting, questions about doing evil, being enthusiastic for good works and attending constantly to God's ordinances.

This kind of intimate and intense prayer may seem daunting. That's why we have devoted the first chapter of the 2014 United Methodist Women spiritual growth study How Is It With Your Soul? to prayer. There we offer practical skills for developing and sustaining a robust prayer life for individuals and small groups.

Soul work and social work

Prayer isn't just a private matter. Bible study isn't just an individual effort. Soul-work isn't just personal piety. Consider the impact of praying in community that launched the mid-19th century "Woman's Crusade." In the winter of 1873 in the small town of Hillsboro, Ohio, a group of women, mostly housewives, met to pray for a solution to the devastating impact liquor sales had on their town, especially on women and children, who bore the brunt of domestic abuse fueled by drunken rages.

Protest soon followed from prayer as these women began to march and sing hymns on their way to demonstrations in front of the saloons of Hillsboro. The women forced saloon owners to sign a pledge not to sell liquor. They held meetings and staged marches. They even occasionally smashed beer barrels or poured the contents of liquor bottles into the street. In town after town, prayer joined hands with religious protest as the "Woman's Crusade" spread quickly across the country.

Prayer turned to protest, and protest turned political when a national temperance organization of women claimed their turf against the male-dominated liquor industry: "In the name of our Master [Jesus Christ]—in behalf of the thousands of women who suffer from this terrible evil-we call upon all to unite in an earnest, continued effort to hold the ground already won, and move onward together to a complete victory over the foes we fight." This statement was included in the circular released at the first national gathering of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Within 25 years, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union grew into the largest women's organization in the United States at the time, with nearly 200,000 members.

With prayer, protest and political clout came power. Under the presidency of Methodist lay leader Frances Willard, the union's agenda broadened to include other pivotal reforms, such as women's suffrage, women's health, women's dress reform, equal pay for women's equal work, the eradication of prostitution, an eight-hour work day and women's equality in the church.

A century of soul work

It may be difficult to imagine that your United Methodist Women circle can create such dramatic change. Could that first group of praying women in Hillsboro, Ohio, imagine such an impact? Could Frances Asbury and Thomas Coke imagine that a Methodist laywoman, backed by thousands of praying women, would change the face of America only a century after they arrived on American soil? Perhaps they could. They understood the "sinews of Methodism" where class meeting participants would ask themselves and those they trusted, "How is it with your soul?" Those sinews, those practices, those skills are our heritage in the United Methodist Women. So if you haven't imagined changing your world, you can begin with the 2014 spiritual growth study How Is It With Your Soul?

Jack Levison is a biblical studies professor at Seattle Pacific University and author of Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life and Inspired: The Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith. Priscilla Pope-Levison, a United Methodist clergywoman and scholar of American Christianity, is a professor at Seattle Pacific University and author of Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists and Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era. They co-authored the 2014 United Methodist Women spiritual growth study How Is It With Your Soul?

Posted or updated: 3/31/2014 11:00:00 PM
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