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Wesleyan revival hits the road

Wesleyan revival hits the road

They’re big on small, this team of lay leaders and retired Bishop Dick Wills, who have been on a mission to get United Methodists to worship and relate to one another in the old-time Wesleyan way.

East Central small group at Annual Conference 2013
Small groups from the East Central District try out the Wesleyan small group concept during Annual Conference 2013. Photo by Susan Green.

Interest in the concept of Wesleyan small groups, pioneered in Florida by Wills, was strong earlier this month at the annual Florida Conference Lay Servant Ministry Training at the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. Russ Graves, conference lay leader, and Mike Sullivan, lay leader for the South East District, said they were encouraged by the turnout for a workshop called “How to Grow Your Church Through Wesley Fellowship Groups.” 

Wills, who led the workshop with Sullivan, first brought the concept to the U.S. after a 1991 visit to South Africa. He was then pastor of Christ Church, Fort Lauderdale.

“I discovered in South Africa that the church still practiced mandatory small class meetings, just as John Wesley did,” Wills recalled. He was amazed at the results.

“We grow larger by growing smaller,” he said.

So he took the concept back to his congregation and persuaded church leaders to bring a Methodist pastor from South Africa to Fort Lauderdale for two years to teach Christ Church members how to form and continue Wesleyan small groups.

It takes a lot of work, and at first many people were resistant, Wills said.

“They all said, ‘We’re too busy. Our lives are too hectic. We don’t have time for one more thing,’” the bishop said.

Wills persisted, however, and eventually the concept caught on. By the time he was elected bishop in 2004 and left Christ Church, the congregation had grown to about 2,000 and had more than 170 small groups that met at least once a week for fellowship, Bible study, prayer and support from other disciples of Christ.

“For us, it completely changed the church,” Wills said. “You could not belong to Christ Church if you were not in a small group. … We became a church of small groups, not a church with small groups.”

Later, Wills took the concept to Tennessee, where he served as bishop. While he was at Christ, churches from other conferences sent representatives to observe the idea in practice. Wills said he didn’t know how many started similar programs as a result.

Attendees to Annual Conference 2013 got a taste of the experience when they broke  into small group discussions the first two days. Graves and Sullivan are offering to attend district training meetings or workshops to show church members how to get the Wesleyan idea started in the hopes of spreading the practice across the conference.

“Our goal is to go out [during] the next two years and teach somebody in every one of the districts,” Sullivan said.
Graves said going over the steps thoroughly generally takes eight to 10 hours, but single-day programs can be arranged.

Sullivan was a member of Christ Church during the heyday of Wesleyan small groups and remains a believer in the concept. 

Laity training attendees line up to ask questions of Bishop Dick Wills
Attendees at a workshop on Wesleyan small groups held in August at the Life Enrichment Center wait to talk to retired Bishop Dick Wills about ways to take the concept to their churches. Photo by Mike Sullivan.

“It grows the church. It empowers the church,” he said. “It’s a great source of evangelism because one of the goals of small groups is inviting non-churched friends and neighbors to the small group.”

As described by Wills, Graves and Sullivan, the small-group concept generally requires groups of no more than 14 to meet for 90 minutes to two hours weekly, apart from regular Sunday worship. Preferably, they should meet in group members’ homes or away from the church, Wills said.

Graves acknowledged that many churches have tried small groups before, sometimes building them around people with similar interests.

“They turn into social kinds of things, and that only,” Graves said. “Many of them do very well.”

However, the Wesleyan version of small groups revolves around five key concepts that keep groups on a discipleship track, he said. He listed fellowship, worship and prayer, Bible study, accountability and mission.

“There’s more of a concentration on personal holiness” and answering God’s call to service, Graves said.

At Christ, Wills remembered, small-group members chose something to work on – such as spending more time with family – and then asked others in the group to hold them accountable by inquiring about it during each meeting.

Eventually, many members would focus more on their relationship with God.

“It became ‘hold me accountable for praying every day’ or ‘hold me accountable for reading scripture every day,’” the bishop said.

Each small group also had to participate in a mission outreach at least once every three months, he said.

That is one of the most important components for Graves.

“Mission is the renewal,” he said. “That’s the thing that brings us back to where God wants us to be and keeps us energized.”

Wills has written a book, “Waking to God’s Dream,” that includes information about Wesleyan small groups for church renewal. It is available through online outlets, including Amazon and Cokesbury.

To request a workshop or coaching in Wesleyan small groups, call Graves at (321) 427-0513 or Sullivan at (954) 328-3501.

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of the Florida Conference Connection.