Christian Communities of John Wesley and the Wesleyans


Jesus commissioned His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Luke, in Acts 2:41-42, records events on the day of Pentecost when about three thousand were baptized, becoming the first members of the New Testament church. Conversion was not the end for these new disciples; instead, it was the beginning of their Christian walk. They were called to help each other mature in Christ, as disciples taught other disciples to obey Jesus’ commands (Matt 28:20). John Wesley applied this pattern of teaching to his life and ministry. This paper will show the development of Wesley’s convictions concerning community and how his revolutionary implementation of godly interpersonal relationships within the Christian community brings timeless, sustainable spiritual renewal for the church.

Wesley’s Community Development

John Wesley felt the need for spiritual growth throughout his life so he, along with his brother Charles, formed a small group during their university studies for this purpose. Devout Anglicans, they likely knew of the Religious Societies begun fifty years prior which were formed to give young men greater opportunity to pursue the Christian lifestyle. These groups allowed participants to informally discuss spiritual topics and guidelines for conduct consistent with the ordinances and prayers of the church of England.[1] The small group John and his brother developed was an offshoot of the earlier societies, complete with Bible reading, classical studies, prayer, fasting, confession, and taking the Lord’s Supper.[2] The group also began visiting the needy, distributing aid as they could. Because of their strict discipline, fellow students derogatively called this group “The Holy Club,” or “The Methodists.”[3]

Wesley gained deeper convictions concerning community through his observation of the joyful, calm spirit of the Moravians onboard ship as he sailed for a missionary trip to Georgia. Upon his return he visited a Moravian community led by Zinzendorf, who had opened his estate (Herrnhut) to the exiled Moravians. Zinzendorf had formed small groups or “bands” for spiritual oversight and community administration.[4] Wesley learned from the Moravian leaders their principles of separation of instruction and edification and the Pietist principle of ecdesiolae in ecclesia, i.e. independent reforming groups with the larger institutional church.[5]

It was from these principles that Wesley established societies to strengthen and renew new believers while remaining in the Anglican church. The Anglican church’s lack of spiritual vitality seemingly whet the appetite for small groups among Christians who desired a more robust venue for spiritual growth, as Wesley’s societies grew exponentially. John defined a society as “a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other work out their salvation.”[6] Participants were held to three major rules that evidenced their desire for salvation: Avoiding evil; doing good by engaging in compassionate care for one’s neighbor; and attending all the ordinances of God.[7]

To meet further needs societies were subdivided into classes of approximately twelve people, one of whom was the leader. Class meetings intended to serve as a pruning instrument to keep “dead wood” out of the society, to provide a training ground for leaders, to incorporate new converts quickly, to finance the movement through penny collections, to provide a timely record of the strength and size of the movement, to expect complete mobilization and participation of the membership, to give every member a voice, to allow members to practice expressing their inner feelings, and to provide a setting for face-to-face conflict resolution.[8]

Every week class members were to share sins they had committed or temptations they faced. If they showed no signs of repentance they were removed from the class. Attendance was considered evidence of one’s commitment, so tickets were given to those who attended classes. Those who did not receive tickets could no longer attend quarterly meetings which included love feasts—a sharing of a meal accompanied by prayer, fellowship, and personal testimonies.[9] The classes met weekly, since it was not possible or expedient for the leaders to accomplish their stated goal of visiting every member once a week.

Additional groups, called bands, predated the classes and existed to meet more specific needs. The bands were smaller than the classes, separated by gender and marital status to provide for more openness. These highly confessional groups focused on dealing with sin.[10] Two other types of small groups accomplished more specific needs. Penitent bands catered to more specific needs of repentance (such as alcoholism), and a select society was created for the mature and strong to have “free conversation.”[11]All small groups were developed for the purpose of helping Christians apply biblical principles more completely, as shown in the following section.

A Community Demonstrating Biblical Principles

Wesley saw that dissipation of biblical principles caused Christians to wander. He noted that “those who were awakened but did not come together with others tended to fall away, while most of those who were united continued to grow.”[12] This is consistent with the biblical instruction in Hebrews 10:24-25 to not neglect meeting together for the purpose of encouraging and stirring each other to love and good deeds. Acts 2:42-47 describes this unity toward growth, as Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, prayer, and sharing with those in need.

The communities also practiced biblical principles stated in Galatians 3:26-28, where all Christians are declared equal recipients of salvation. According to class rolls of early societies, social barriers or class distinctions were absent.[13] Christians in classes and bands counseled each other as described in Romans 15:14, helped carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), confessed sins to one another (Jas 5:16), resolved conflicts (Matt 18:15-17), remembered the poor (Gal 2:10), admonished and taught one another (Col 3:16), and sang together (Col 3:16; Eph 5:19). Wesley was also concerned for the children, believing that spiritual formation should be the primary goal of their education,[14] consistent with parental responsibility described in Ephesian 6:4.

Wesley’s leadership training principles acknowledged the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:5,9) as he called leaders to train the members for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11-12). Wesley’s community building practices, undergirded by Scripture, remain applicable today.

Lessons for Today

Biblical principles transcend time and culture, thus Wesley’s conviction that Christians should function in community remains relevant. Small groups are formed in many churches, but often growth remains stifled, and relationships stay shallow. Mere attendance does not provide for the biblical involvement and relational intimacy so vital for Christians. As in Wesley’s day, the health of a small group still depends on each member’s humble and wholehearted commitment to Jesus, to the group, and to the Scriptures. Evangelism also depends on such relationships, as Jesus states that the world will recognize His disciples by their love for one another (Jn 13:34).

Spiritual leaders must have the vision and courage to not only provide small communities where Christian relationships can be consistently nurtured, but to also maintain an expectation for participation in such communities. Leaders must call Christians toward godly life through preaching, teaching, and wholehearted community participation. While newer Christians need much instruction, too often church leaders fail to recognize they must foster peer relationships with mutual edification as Christians mature. Harmful results happen when authority is not based on Scripture, but on the whims of a leader. Even so, churches must not let fear of leadership sins or weaknesses keep them from hearing sound doctrine with patient correction (2 Tim 4:1-5). The growth of each member and the entire church depends on the expectation for community participation. It takes conviction and courage to call Christians to practice the spiritual relationships the Scriptures command. Wesley possessed this conviction and courage, thus left a legacy of spiritual growth through community participation.


Wesley’s instructive innovation and organization founded a community system that has become more efficient over the centuries, and “acknowledged to be more effective, whether for good or evil, than any other in the Protestant world.”[15] His oft-quoted axiom, “There is no holiness but social holiness,” declares his conviction that spiritual formation for holiness  must take place in community, not in isolation.[16] This transcending principle is one Christians must prayerfully and carefully put into practice so that “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).



Budd, Clair Allen and Freeman, Ronald W. “John Wesley Meets Malcolm Knowles: Was the Class Meeting Andragogical?” Christian Education Journal 1, no. 3 (Fall, 2004): 63-79, accessed June 1, 2019,

Donovan, Jane. “John Wesley and the Education of Children: Gender, Class and Piety.” Church History 87, no. 4 (2018) London: Routledge Methodist Studies: 1235-1237.

Henderson, Michael D. John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples. Wilmore, KY: Rafiki, Books, 2016, Kindle.

Knight, Henry H. III. John Wesley: Optimist of Grace. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Woodbridge, John D. and James, Frank A. III. Church History Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

[1] Michael D. Henderson, John Wesley’s Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples (Wilmore, KY: Rafiki Books, 2016), 32, Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Henderson, 31.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Clair Allen Budd and Ronald W. Freeman. “John Wesley Meets Malcolm Knowles: Was the Class Meeting Andragogical?” Christian Education Journal 1, no. 3 (Fall, 2004): 69, accessed June 1, 2019,

[6] John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 409.

[7] Henry H. Knight III, John Wesley: Optimist of Grace (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2018), 78-79.

[8] Budd, Freeman, 74.

[9] Knight, 84.

[10] Ibid., 83.

[11] Knight, 82-83.

[12] Ibid., 80.

[13] Henderson, 86.

[14] Jane Donovan, “John Wesley and the Education of Children: Gender, Class and Piety,” Church History 87, no. 4 (2018): 1236.

[15] Henderson, 268.

[16] Ibid., 121.

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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