Openness and fellowship as God’s people
For generations, the ‘experience meeting’ has been in the DNA of Welsh nonconformity. Sometimes known as ‘societies’, they developed through the pastoral vision of William Williams, in response to the eighteenth century evangelical awakening in Wales. This remarkable work of the Spirit of God resulted in many conversions, but many new converts were in the established church which could be unsympathetic and critical of their experience. Experience meetings developed because there was a need for something to help encourage those young Christians, now sympathetic to Calvinistic Methodism, to grow in their faith. The meetings encouraged fellowship, instruction, and growth in ‘heart religion’. They aimed to stoke the fire of their members’ love for God.
Experience meetings today?
In one sense the experience meetings weren’t new. Similar practices had developed in continental Europe during and after the Reformation, and in Wales and England under the Puritans. Where there is authentic spiritual life, God’s people have come together for fellowship, to talk together about ‘heart religion’.
This raises the question, ‘Is something similar part of the life of your church?’
We shouldn’t think that the practice of eighteenth-century experience meetings can be easily imported into our twenty-first-century context. The experience meeting was a result of revival and the Calvinistic Methodists, being great organisers, developed it in response to the unusual thing God was doing. With the revival came a sudden and unusual willingness to explore spiritual things. As blessed as we are in Christ, our meetings are often predictable, characterised more by structure than expressions of enthusiasm for God. With us, the practice is often more about turning up, listening and going home, rather than talking together about our struggles and blessings as Christians.
At the same time, it would also be a mistake to think the legacy of the experience meeting has nothing to say to us today. Our current situation is less fervent and weaker than that in the evangelical awakening, but there is still spiritual life among us. It’s like a light connected to a dimmer switch; our light is on but turned down to a little glow, whereas William Williams and others were turned up to the max. Wherever we are on the scale, there is spiritual life, but it needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Are we doing this effectively?
The weekly pattern of many churches consists of preaching the Bible on the Lord’s Day, with Bible study and prayer at a midweek meeting. This is wonderful, but the temptation to be satisfied with being fed and being faithful in the meetings, is a very real one. If this is all that’s happening, is it fulfilling the biblical pattern of life in the local church?
More troubling is that our fellowship is often quite superficial. It struggles to get past talk about health, family or work. Conversations about personal spiritual experiences seem rare. This may be compounded by a lack of openness about the reality of every Christian’s struggle with temptation or doubt. When church life is quiet about these realities, an unhealthy triumphalism may develop. The implication is that church is not a safe place to be struggling. Again, does this fulfil the biblical pattern of life in the local church?
Surely authentic Christian fellowship invites us to something better, something grounded in the earthy reality of the Christian life. Paul’s honesty about his personal struggles in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 models this perfectly. ‘We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts, we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.’ This kind of honesty provokes us to Christian fellowship, in prayer and compassion.
Scripture repeatedly acknowledges the reality of this view of the Christian life. We are to ‘carry one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2) and talk together about what God is doing in our life (Psalm 66:16). We are to be aware of and respond to one another’s struggle with sin (Galatians 6:1). This is to be the regular pattern among us as Malachi 3:16, Hebrews 3:13 and 10:25 show. We are to minister to each other (1 Corinthians 14:26) and ‘confess our sins to each other’ (James 5:15).
The privilege and comfort of this must begin ‘from the front’, with preaching that is realistic about the ‘normal Christian life’ and ministry that is honest about the presence and benefit of struggles, sufferings and trials in sanctification. Ministry should demonstrate that growing in the knowledge of God’s love and felt presence is for every Christian (Ephesians 3:16-19) and be humble enough to acknowledge personal failure (Philippians 3:12-15). If we’re to develop openness about spiritual experience, we must begin with these kinds of things, ‘from the front’.
When we understand that this is the normal Christian experience, we’re released from the delusion of triumphalism that so often restrains honesty in fellowship. People also often need a gentle push, to move towards more open fellowship. Some churches have been helped by house groups or breaking a prayer meeting into small groups. Small groups, as an experience meeting did, make it easier for people to talk together. As with the experience meeting, there is a need for sensitive and pastoral leadership. A house group can be ruined by an overbearing leader or dominant extrovert, loving the sound of their own voice. It takes pastoral skill to build a place where everyone feels safe to talk about the dealings God has had with them. It takes prayer, patience and persistence too.
Today we need a deepening of our fellowship in Christ, as we seek to live for Him in our generation. The Bible’s encouragement for us to build healthy gospel friendships, and share our lives together, must be a vital component in knowing this blessing.