The founder of Methodism died on March 2, 1791, but his teachings remain relevant today amid a global pandemic.
In his ministry, John Wesley established the concept of class meetings for fellowship and the development of a disciplined spiritual life. During the weekly classes, small groups discussed how souls were prospering and provided opportunities for counsel and comfort. They also offered an avenue for collecting alms to aid the poor.
Wesley’s class concept has become especially relevant during and after lockdowns to stop the spread of the coronavirus as churches in Zimbabwe embrace small sessions to keep church attendance lower and encourage spiritual growth at home.
The United Methodists in Zimbabwe join United Methodist seminary students in Russia who also have used Wesley’s small-group approach amid quarantine.
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangangwa gave the green light for the reopening of places of worship on June 11, but with strict rules on attendance and safety.
The Rev. Gift Kudakwashe Machinga, Zimbabwe East Conference board of discipleship chairperson and pastor-in-charge at Cranborne United Methodist Church in the Harare East District, said most United Methodist churches in Zimbabwe have turned to the use of class meetings, often called sections.
“Many churches within the Zimbabwe Episcopal Area have rekindled the Wesleyan class meeting type of worship services as the return to in-person worship came to play. The concept has varied advantages applicable now,” Machinga said.
“In most circuits, including Cranborne, the use of sections is meant to maintain the required number of 50 (worshippers) and it is easy to adhere to the strict health prescribed preventative measures since the figure is small,” he added.
He said the classes allow for easy contact tracing if a member tests positive for the coronavirus.
The Rev. James Matsungo, Chitungwiza, Marondera District connectional ministries director and pastor-in-charge of Hunyani United Methodist Church, said his circuit has 1,261 members divided into 32 sections.
“During the reopening, we divided our congregants into seven services based on sections as a criterion,” Matsungo said.
“Each service comprises four to five sections, depending on size,” he said, but the goal is to keep attendance at 50 or less.
He said church leaders originally allocated 40 minutes for each service but have adjusted that to one hour to avoid overlap between groups and allow time to disinfect.
“So far so good,” Matsungo said, “Hunyani church is alive and stable.”
Machinga said Wesley also was concerned about the health and wellness of a person.
“John Wesley wrote a book titled ‘Primitive Physic,’ teaching people to use natural things to treat their ailments, including herbs,” he said, adding that he also established clinics in Britain, Bristol, Newcastle and London to distribute free medication to the poor.
“(He) was concerned about health issues and wanted people to worship God while healthy. He treated the soul and the body as one,” Machinga said.
“If he was alive today, he would have encouraged people to take preventative measures during worship, give awareness and be very careful with people not to contract the coronavirus as the churches return to a new normal.”
The Rev. Stanley Hwindingwi, pastor-in-charge at Mundenda United Methodist Church in the Mutasa Nyanga District, said rural areas have their own approach to reopening because they cannot afford many of the preventative protocols.
“My church has adopted the section approach, but we are doing it in the open space to allow for ample space to maintain social distance, with plenty of fresh air circulation and to avoid the need for sanitizing the sanctuary,” Hwindingwi said.
He said he also travels to church members’ homes to hold services for small classes.
“We do not have adequate resources to buy the sanitizers and to meet the health requirements when using a sanctuary,” said Hwindingwi. “The use of sections helps us in the event that there is a suspected case — the risk is localized to the concerned section and easy to trace.”
He said all congregants wash their hands with soap and water before and after the services.
“This method is sustainable for us. We also ensure that there are no handshakes allowed and we give awareness about COVID-19 every time before the service,” Hwindingwi said.
“The (use of sections) has given me the opportunity to strengthen the church and have a close assessment of the state of the souls and assess any challenges which members are facing in their personal pursuit of holiness.
“Surprisingly, there is a positive increase in church remittances now,” he added.
Chenayi Rushwaya, Chisipiti United Methodist Church health committee vice-chairperson, said that like Wesley, the church’s main concern upon reopening was the wellness of parishioners.
“It took us four weeks to reopen after the president has given the churches the green light. We wanted to make sure that everyone would be safe,” Rushwaya said.
The Rev. Munyaradzi Timire, Zimbabwe East Conference education secretary, said lessons also could be learned from Wesley’s mother, Susanna, during the pandemic.
“She used to teach her children (10 of her 19 children who survived) school work, moral and religion (instruction). She would reserve an hour per day for each child. Today, some parents have adopted that (amid the pandemic),” she said.
Timire said permission to start e-learning has not been approved by the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education in Zimbabwe, but the church is lobbying for distance learning to keep children safe.
“Some parents have turned (into) teachers to bridge the gap … during this COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, the same way Susanna Wesley used to do,” Timire said.
Norah Mutanga, a nurse and wife of the Rev. Nyasha Mutanga of Chisipiti United Methodist Church, said after work, she conducts some lessons for her children.
“This helps them to keep focused on education. When they go to school, they will catch up with other children and will be in a better position to write their examinations,” she said.
Machinga said John Wesley’s approach to ministry led to spiritual and numerical growth that is especially important today.
“He left a legacy, which we must guard jealously. It is our heritage to preserve. His upbringing set him on the path of a lifelong quest for personal spiritual holiness that has created a ripple effect that is felt throughout the world, even today.”
Chingwe is a communicator for the Zimbabwe East Conference.
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