"Once a week in every town 'that excercise that St. Paul calleth prophesying' is to be held. The reference is to 1 Corinthians 14:29-31,'Let two or three prophets speak...for you can all prophesy.' The Reformers here urge the importance of the 'exercise' for the Church of God in Scotland, though with certain cautions against doctrinal error, over-curiosity, and the use of invective in the free discussion:
For thereby shall the Church have judgement and knowledge of the graces, gifts and utterances of every man within their own body; the simple and such as have somewhat profited shall be encouraged daily to study and proceed in knowledge ...and every man shall have liberty to utter and declare his mind and knowledge to the comfort and edification of the Church.Such was the 'group method' in Scotland four centuries ago, following models in the Reformed Churches abroad. But since business had to be done for the Churches participating, the exercises naturally tended to assume administrative duties and ruling athourity in these parishes. This was soon to lead to the formation of presbyteries, with specified districts and powers." - McNeill The History and Character of Calvinism, p.301.
Upon reading this, several years ago, I thought it would be a great idea to renew these 'meetings' - with some modifications. These 'exercise' meetings were recommended in what was known as The Book of Discipline, a document of "explicit directions for the conduct of the congregations, including preaching, catechetical instruction, examination for admission to the (quarterly) celebration of the Lord's Supper, prayer, and teaching in the home," drawn up prior to (but not state sanctioned) the First Scottish Confession of 1560. Obviously, as Pastor Lewis explains, this fell out of popular use; probably due to both the inherent provisional nature of revival praxis and the eventual establishment of institutions and institutional processes which gradually assumed responsibility for these matters.
A similar thing happened with the Wesleyan class meetings of the Methodist part in the Evangelical Awakening.
Having friends who are Nazarenes, I obtained several reference items relating to Methodism, the Holiness Movement, and Nazarene church history and distinctives. Amongst this material was D. Michael Henderson's John Wesley's Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples. Wesley, two centuries after the Scots, adapted the then current Religious Society model to his own class meeting in The Holy Club.
In the spiritual exercises of the Holy Club, John Wesley's instructional technique was taking shape. Much like the Religious Societies' program, biblical principles were discussed and their implications examined in the context of a small supportive group. But Wesley added a new dimension. Rather than allow the process to end with cognitive acquisition, he demanded practical performance. Once the personal implications of a concept under study were clear, the Holy Club members mapped a strategy for a real-life experiment. As their practice of it progressed, they evaluated theirperfomance and reinforced successful execution of it. Not content to be "hearers only," they determined to be "doers of the Word." - Henderson, pp. 43-4.
Here we can see the similarities with the Scottish exercises and the beginnings of the famous method which Finney, et.al. transformed and reapplied as a formula to various aspects of both conversion and discipleship. After the various influences - from Catholic mysticism to Moravian - and experiments in structure, Wesley's class meeting became part of an system of interlocking groups which Henderson explains as:
- i) The Society - The Cognitive Mode
- ii) Class Meeting - The Behavioural Mode
- iii) Band - The Affective Mode
- iv) Select Society - The Training Mode
- v) Penitent Bands - The Rehabilitative Mode
and a fifth, an "alternative route for those of serious social dysfunctions" fitting in after (i)
We could probably extract a lot of profitable ideas from both these models, and - avoiding the obvious pitfalls - engage in some sanctifying, edifying, and God-Glorifying activites in the format of men's fellowships or societies.