What were the laity doing in those days? The heartbeat of Methodism in its early days was the Class meeting, and the Society of Classes in a given place. The Classes, or the Society, was where people “watched over one another in love.” They were small gatherings for devotion, instruction, and accountability. Class Leaders were in charge of what we today call “spiritual formation.”
The Society also did most of what we think of as “pastoral care,” since the preacher (appointed to the Society as a Pastoral Charge once it had reached a certain size and/or level of stability) was out riding circuit from village to village and couldn’t be around all the time. People visited in each other’s homes, expressed concern over each other’s spiritual state, prayed for each other, called on the sick, brought food to the sick and bereaved, took up collections or offered donations to the poor, etc.
There wasn’t much of what we today call “missions,” since survival on the frontier was all-absorbing and most people worked from dawn to dark, year-round, to put food on the table, clothes on their children, and a roof over their heads. Mission work came later, as towns grew in size and comforts, and hard work brought something like affluence as well as some leisure. At that point, evangelizing foreign nations and organizing to help the poor became larger concerns. (N.B. The poor who were close enough to be considered neighbors were always acknowledged and ministered to, but when I say "help the poor" I mean, "the poor" as a group, over there, beyond our immediate reach and relationships.)
There was a lot of “social” stuff on the congregation’s calendar, since there were few other community institutions and life revolved around the little churches, but the idea that church was basically about fellowship and having a good time would have astonished the lay members of the church. I imagine they would say, Yes, we love each other and enjoy each other’s company – this is a foretaste of heaven – but church is about saving souls and caring for others and going on to perfection in love.
Meanwhile, the clergy were out riding from one settlement to another, sometimes with a dozen little churches in their charge and any number of outlying Societies that might grow into a church. People were widely spaced, congregations were small, and the preacher had to be a-horseback much of the day. He (and he was always a he, back then) couldn’t be around for all the activities of the church. So what could he do?
Well, first and foremost, his job was preaching. Wherever he was, on whatever day, he might be called upon to preach. Preaching was essential. And Methodist preaching was primarily about three things: conviction; conversion; consecration. “You have nothing to do but save souls,” Father Wesley had said, and that meant you had to preach to awaken their awareness of sin and their need for Christ (conviction). You had to preach with an end to your hearers making a definite decision to turn their lives over to Christ (conversion). And you had to inspire your listeners to “go on to perfection,” to pursue holiness of heart and life (consecration). And you could tell who the good preachers were, not by how much you enjoyed hearing them, but by how many people were moved from wherever they were when they heard the Word preached to the next stage in their pilgrimage to heaven.
Second, the preacher was the only ordained person for miles. He brought the precious sacraments to the people. He baptized converts and their children. He celebrated communion. As time went on, and life on the frontier became more regular, he began to do weddings and funerals. But only the elder could perform the sacraments, and his job was the holier for what he brought to the people’s lives.
Third, the pastor in charge was expected to supervise the Class Leaders in their work. He couldn’t be around to attend Classes or teach Sunday School, but he was expected to help form leaders in their spiritual lives and leadership capacities. By this time, Methodists no longer issued tickets and the preacher no longer was responsible for dropping members who were failing to walk their walk properly, but still, there was a responsibility to look over those who were looking after the flock.
Finally, the pastor carried an administrative burden on behalf of the Conference. There were business meetings to conduct and reports to file. The origins of Charge Conference are in the Quarterly Conferences conducted by the traveling elder. In circuit riding days, the elder might only make it to your village and its congregation four times a year. So, we would have a big business meeting, a revival covering a week or two, a celebration of the sacraments (the origin of quarterly communion), and a big church social. And then it was on to the next town.
Administration carried over to the Conference, of course, since the preachers were singularly charged with encouraging others to hear the call to preach and collectively charged with discerning others’ gifts and guiding them through the Course of Study.
That was it. There wasn’t time for anything else. And the church exploded with growth. So let’s review.
For the laity: Do we trust them to do spiritual formation? Do we expect them to provide primary pastoral care? Are they accountable for bringing their neighbors within reach of the church’s message? No, we treat them like customers, recipients of our fine religious products and services. And they respond like customers, expressing preferences for various frills and furbelows that do not contribute to their responsibilities and griping when they don’t get their religion served up just the way they like. We have infantilized them and crippled the church thereby.
For the clergy: Does our preaching have the same aims as the circuit riders'? Are we willing to be held accountable for the metrics of conviction, conversion, and consecration? Will we administer the sacraments with due care? Will we put our efforts into developing the leadership of others instead of trying to be the star of the show? Will we build the denomination and hold each other accountable and raise up more workers for the harvest? Or will we piddle with our high tech toys and spend every moment in meetings and seminars that we’re not spending putting out fires amongst the restless? The early Methodist clergy did less, but accomplished more. We are frantically busy, but we don’t get much done that matters.
What I’m saying is that we need to recover a clear vision of how Methodists are supposed to do church.