The Third Sunday in October is Class Leaders’ Day at Morris Brown. By tradition, members of each Class sit with their Class Leaders during the worship service. That tradition, however, only scratches the surface of a formative Methodist practice. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was faced with the problem of a chapel that was deeply in debt and decided with the leaders of the chapel that one in every twelve members would collect offerings from eleven others assigned to them. That small group effort became a source not only of financial support, but of prayer and promotion of spiritual growth that spread throughout what became the Methodist Church. Members of each Class met weekly to grow spiritually together and to support the work of the church.
When Richard Allen broke away from the Methodist Episcopal Church and established the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he adopted the same Class Leader system. The irony today, however, is that many Classes in the AME Church no longer meet on a regular basis, only come together on occasions like Class Leaders’ Day and miss the opportunity for spiritual growth in doing so. Many Class Leaders only check in with their members in times of extreme need and when obligated to collect funds for church drives, and some members hardly know the names of their Class Leaders.
My pastoral hope is that this year’s Class Leaders’ Day will be not an end in itself, but the beginning of renewal of strong Classes at Morris Brown. Society and culture have changed since Wesley created the first Classes 270 years ago and since Allen continued the practice 223 years ago. Some questions to be answered by each member in meeting in those early days – such as How have you sinned since we last met and how are you overcoming it – might not be well received today, and weekly Class meetings in a busy world might not be a good option. Classes, however, can still serve a vital function.
Class meetings allow groups of members to form bonds of friendship and common interest that go beyond what we all share in Sunday worship. Class meetings give those new to the church a ready source of contacts, a family and a support system that makes it easier for them to adjust in a sizeable congregation. Class meetings give members the opportunity to learn more about the church, about what the church is doing, and of their individual opportunities for service and involvement beyond Sunday church attendance. Whether Classes meet at church or at a member’s home or at a restaurant or at a bowling alley or take in a movie together, Class meetings can still play a crucial role in the growth of the church. Many independent and new churches have figured that out.
Most evangelical mega and large churches in new denominations make new members and make membership meaningful through what they call prayer cells or prayer groups or gospel groups – groups that are carbon copies of the Classes that have been a part of Methodism for almost three centuries. Too often, we don’t take advantage of the strength of our structure – we let others borrow and use it while we talk about the shortcomings of our churches.
Class Leaders’ Day is a good tradition, but if we only celebrate the tradition annually and don’t see that our Classes live every day, then we miss out on a readily available blessing. Many years ago an another church, one of the members came to me and told me that she was leaving for a real church that had fellowship activities, Bible Study, prayer groups and weekday ministry activities. We sat and talked, I went through the list of fellowship activities, Bible Study, prayer groups and weekday ministry activities offered by our church, and asked a simple question – have you participated in any of them? She answered no, stayed in that church and became a leader of the church. What was true of that church is also true for Morris Brown – just as is the case with our Classes, the ministries are in place and waiting – they only need participants.