Let’s face it — people are tired of social distancing, staying home, Zoom meetings, and church online. While some choose to gather in-person, COVID numbers tend to dictate against meeting together. Whether your people are being kept apart by mandate, by fear, or by caution, the mission remains the same – the church is called to go and make disciples.

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Last year when the pandemic began, people were eager to try online small groups. But, in many churches when it came time to regathering groups online in Fall 2020, many groups chose to not meet and just wait it out, while others continued to meet online. But, let’s face it: online meetings just aren’t like in-person small group meetings.

Now you’re facing Online Groups Round 3 in January 2021. The reception to online groups (again) has met with a mixed reaction. Let’s talk about what’s not working, and then examine the bright spots that are working.

What is NOT Working with Online Groups:

  1. Connecting with Strangers Online.

Even in the advent of online dating apps, people are less likely to join an online small group of strangers than to meet with them at their house. This seems counterintuitive to me. It seems like it would be easier to just open your laptop and join the group instead of driving across town, but it’s harder to get people to online groups.

2. Too Many Zoom Meetings.

If people are working from home, they are pulled into more online meetings than normal. While they may look at a computer all day and a TV all evening anyway, there is something about Zoom meetings that takes a toll. Maybe it’s the lack of chemistry. Maybe it’s the self-consciousness of looking at yourself all day. As Nona Jones says, “Zoom meetings are just the same thing over and over.” Or, maybe Zoom Fatigue is just the replacement for “I don’t have time for a small group.”

3. Trying to Replicate In-person Meetings Online.

This is definitely not working. You can’t have the same experience in a Zoom group that you have when the group meets in-person. It just doesn’t happen. There are no side conversations. There’s no body language or nuance. There are no brownies. It’s not the same!

4. Recruiting New Leaders for Online Groups.

Recruiting new leaders is tough anyway, but recruiting new leaders for groups for online groups is a whole other level of hard. Things have moved beyond “push play and pour a cup of coffee.” On top of that people’s lives have been turned upside down with any semblance of “normal” in the very distant future. Taking responsibility for a group feels like about the last thing they need right now.

5. Divisions Between Groups: Online and In-person.

If you haven’t noticed there is a strong difference of opinion between people in the U.S. these days. That rift carries down the middle of small groups. While some groups are ready to forget COVID and just get back together, others are erring on the side of caution and waiting for conditions to improve. Even when groups do meet in-person, there’s still a divide between the maskites and anti-maskites.

These are the struggles I’m hearing from the small group pastors and directors I talk to every day. (If you would like a free coaching call, click here). People are sick of taking precautions. People are tired of staying apart. But, people are unsure about returning to normal as much as they would love to.

What is Working Right Now

In all of this disruption, I have uncovered some bright spots with online small groups. Here are some things that are working.

  1. Established Groups are Working It Out.

Groups are revisiting their group agreements and deciding what will work for everybody. If they are truly coming to an impasse, then groups are choosing to spin off part of the group into a new group. If groups can’t agree to meet 100% in-person or 100% online, they are dividing into separate groups: one in-person and one online. For some of these groups, this is a temporary fix until conditions change. For others, this is a permanent decision. When else have you heard groups volunteering to do that?

2. Offering Care and Conversation Digitally.

Churches have done an amazing job pushing out digital content. People are practically drowning in content. (Pastors, write a book already!) But, in addition to content people need care and conversation. They are getting a ton of information from all sides. They really need a place to talk about it. They need a chance to unpack the sermon. This could be a group. This could be a text exchange. People are on their smartphones for an alarming number of hours every day. Why not use that time and technology to encourage one another daily?

3. Short-term Groups with Different Formats.

As mentioned before, online groups are not the same as in-person groups, so make them intentionally different. Call them by a different name, so people know these aren’t your typical small groups or life groups. Designate a specific period of time for groups to meet, for instance between Super Bowl Sunday and Easter or between Easter and Memorial Day. These new groups are not intended to go on forever. Change the format. Shorten the meeting times. Use different online platforms – there’s more to online groups than Zoom.

4. Gathering Groups of Friends.

If your people are reluctant to join a stranger’s Zoom group, then encourage them to start their own with people they already know. Gathering groups of friends has long been a principle of the Exponential Groups strategy. After all, “Everybody is already in a small group” (Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential, Hendrickson 2017, page 1).

5. Groups Championed by the Senior Pastor.

Your people will follow where your senior pastor leads. Things have changed for senior pastors in the last year. Prior to COVID, the common metrics for success were nickels and noses. There aren’t nearly as many of those nowadays. How does a church measure its effectiveness? The big word right now is engagement, but what does that mean?

Pastors can quickly get into the vanity metrics of one second views and ten second views of online services. Churches with a pre-COVID attendance of 100 now are online gigachurches with 10,000 views. Let’s keep it real.

Engagement means connection. What do you offer your online congregation? What next steps are in place? I spent many Sundays in 2020 watching Saddleback Church’s service. (We were members there once). At the end of every service, Pastor Rick Warren talked about the same three things: (1) starting a relationship with Jesus, (2) joining a small group, and (3) giving. Week after week during 30+ weeks of the book of James, every service ended exactly the same. At one point, Saddleback had started over 3,000 new online small groups. Giving has held steady. (They’ve retained 400 staff members). People are coming to Christ.

You are not quite out of the woods. The beginning of 2021 feels like more of 2020, doesn’t it? How are you going to navigate groups for the next six months? It’s too much time to just wait it out. You can’t afford to lose any more opportunities to make disciples. How can you serve your people when you can’t meet with them? What sounds like it might work for you?

P.S. I got quite a reaction to my video last week. Some of you have experienced “deep shift!” Thanks for letting me know.

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