When the topic of online groups comes up, people typically think of video-based platforms like Zoom. While this format is popular for some, it’s not the only way to meet online. When my first online group met in 1994 on CompuServe, there was no option for audio or video. You could only do so much with a dial-up modem. Yet friendships were formed, members were encouraged, and one guy came to Christ as a result of that group.

When you think about types of online groups, you actually need to consider two questions: Why is the group meeting? and How will the group meet? Let’s look at both.

Photo Courtesy of dolgachov  via 123rf.com.

What is the Purpose of the Group?

Groups meet for a variety of reasons. Some gather for connection, encouragement, and/or Bible study. Other groups meet for support. While in the season of Coronavirus, every group needs an element of support. Even in the groups of pastors that I coach, we start the meetings with a check-in on how everybody is doing. These are crazy times, and everybody is not doing great. Every group should allow time for members to check-in and process what they’re dealing with. While content should be the center of the meeting, people also need conversation.

Support groups, even those who were once reluctant to meet online, are finding amazing results online. They never imagined that online groups like Celebrate Recovery or the Alpha Course would work, but these ministries are seeing numbers like they’ve never seen. In a recent interview, Nicky Gumbel, founder of the Alpha Course, said one pastor in New York is starting a new Alpha group every day. DivorceCare and GriefShare have gone online. These online groups are meeting the needs of a record number of people including those who might never darken the door of your church.

How Can Groups Meet Online?

Online groups can choose from a variety of meeting formats. Groups can meet on video, audio only, or asynchronously. As with any type of small groups, one size does not fit all for online groups either.

Video-based Platforms.

Video groups offer a multidimensional online group experience. Members can see each other, hear each other’s voices, text chat during the meeting, and share a teaching video. While Zoom is very popular, there are a number of other paid or free services including: GotoMeeting, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Google Meets, and Facebook Groups among others. For a comparison on some of these video services, see Jason DeGraaf’s post here.

Now, in the world of working at home and schooling at home, people have begun to complain about Zoom fatigue. At first I took Zoom fatigue as the new excuse for “I don’t have time for a small group.” While I still believe there is some of that, there is something strange about seeing your own image throughout the day, or even sitting in a meeting with everyone looking directly at you. When you’re in a meeting room, you don’t have direct eye contact with every person in the room. And, when you’re meeting in person, you don’t have to look at yourself. In fact, unless you pass a mirror, you’re probably not even aware of your physical appearance after you get ready in the morning (at least that was true for me). Fortunately, if people struggle with Zoom fatigue or are technologically challenged, there are other options.

Audio Only Groups

Audio only groups meet on a conference line. They don’t have to look at anyone. They’re just talking on the phone. Most people are capable of that. Free services like freeconferencecall.com are available to anyone who would like to set up a conference line. Typically, these services offer a long distance number, but long distance charges are not a real thing for most people these days anyway.

The only downside of an audio only group is that you can’t see when others are about to speak. Sometimes you get into that stalemate like when you’re at a four-way stop: “You go, no you go.” But, you can learn to yield to others. The leader can ask who has a comment, and then encourage members to start with a short answer like “I do.” Then you can call on them and avoid the traffic jam.

Asynchronous Groups

Asynchronous groups are simply groups that don’t meet at the same time. They leave a post in a private Facebook group. They send a group text. They post a short video on the Marco Polo app. Or, they could share a Youversion reading plan together. You use asynchronous groups all of the time: text message, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. We could even go back to letter writing, but it would take a while for a group to get through a lesson that way.

Asynchronous groups are like my group on CompuServe in 1994. Someone posts a question, then the group responds, when they can respond. These groups are great for people who travel or who have odd schedules. They can participate in the group when it’s convenient for them. The group leaders post the questions and moderate the group. Asynchronous groups are also great for people who are new to online groups and maybe join through your online worship service.

Jay Kranda, Online Campus Pastor at Saddleback Church, says, “Private small groups will start off primarily via text-based interactions, move to audio calls after a few weeks, and hopefully turn into regular Zoom or Facebook video calls as trust is built within the group.” Every asynchronous group doesn’t need to transition to an audio or video group, but they certainly could move in that direction.

Digitally Interactive Curriculum.

This is another form of asynchronous groups, but the format is unique. I was introduced to this technology about five years ago. On this platform, the video and questions are hosted on the platform. Groups and their members logon and interact with the video (They can leave comments during the video), after the questions, and for each other).

This platform can be used with individual groups interacting with a study like Jennie Allen’s Get Out of Your Head on Zondervan’s Studygateway.com. Individuals can participate with the thousands of others doing the study or leaders can form their own groups. Other studies are coming.

Churches can host their own digitally interactive curriculum through the parent technology from a company called Rali. Rali is principally a business platform, but the company has a heart for the church. Rali can be used for small group studies, Bible studies, recorded worship services, membership classes, Growth Track, or any other content you could host online. Members can interact with the content in general (like an online worship service) or in an online group. Pastors can view metrics for who is using the platform, where they live, what they’re interested in, how long they engage with the video, etc. I believe Rali is the solution for what 300,000 churches are dealing with right now. (I do not have any affiliation with Rali. I’m just a big fan.)

Concluding Thoughts

During the Coronavirus pandemic, every church in every state is facing different pressures. Only about 30% of churches are meeting in-person and are seeing less than 40% attendance. (If you’re the exception, let me know. I’d like to hear what you’re doing). That means that the way the Church fulfills our mission in the coming months will be different from anything we’ve ever done. If you are relying on the metrics that gauged your success a year ago, you are probably very depressed right now. Fear of catching COVID-19, fear of spreading it, and fear of being blamed for spreading it at church are keeping most churches closed and keeping people away. That’s your reality. But, COVID-19 isn’t even close to being the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18).

This is an era of opportunity. People are tuning into online services that wouldn’t darken the door of your church. Millennials are attracted to online worship services because they can watch the service and no one is watching them. Like I said before, support groups like Celebrate Recovery, are posting bigger numbers than when they met in-person. The Alpha Course is doing the same. Pastors and churches are great at developing content, but people also need conversation and community even when they can’t meet for in-person services.

Online small groups – in whatever form – are a strong solution to this current situation. But, it’s bigger than this. There are so many benefits to online small groups that go beyond social distancing.

In a recent conversation, a pastor told me that this season of ministry is not unlike the invention of the printing press that fueled the Reformation. The church is no longer limited to an hour on Sunday, but can now offer worship services 168 hours per week. The same goes for groups, Bible studies, classes, and growth tracks. Could Zoom, Youtube, or Rali be your church’s new printing press?

The Starting Online Small Groups Online Course is now available. For more information, click here.

Allen White is the author of six books on small groups including the newly released Leading Online Small Groups and the Exponential Groups Workbook.

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