Regathering for worship services and for small groups is proving in many ways to be more difficult than going online was in the first place. I recently met with a gathering of small group pastors from across North America to talk about what they are facing in terms of government regulations, church directives, and individual willingness to gather in-person and online. Here are the big ideas from that conversation.

Let people use the platforms they are familiar with and invite people they already know.

Every online group doesn’t need to meet on Zoom. There are many other platforms to host live and asynchronous online groups meetings. By encouraging people to use platforms they are familiar with like Facebook Groups, Google Meets, or even Slack and group texts, they will feel more comfortable with the concept of online groups. If they will invite people they know to join the online groups, chances are more people will show up. There is a very real dynamic of people ghosting online small groups. If people form groups on the platforms they know with people they know, the rate of ghosting online groups goes way down. But, even better, online groups offer the opportunity to include people who are far from God spiritually and people who are far from the group leader geographically.

Let kids get back into school BEFORE you start groups.

School districts are all over the map with their approach to the 2020-2021 school year. Some schools are online only. Others are in-person only. And, other schools are alternating on-campus and online days. Some are even varying the approach to school depending on the latest Coronoavirus statistics. It’s confusing. In my house, our three students (elementary, middle school, and high school) are all doing online school in different schools! It’s been a learning curve. If you can delay your small group startup until after the dust settles with the start of school, you will be better off.

Encourage the senior pastor to promote online groups.

In the middle of the summer, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of racial tensions and political chaos, Rock Church in San Diego started 119 new online book groups in July 2020. The senior pastor, Miles McPherson, invited people to gather their friends to discuss a relevant topic with an easy-to-use format to start groups. Mark Richardson, Small Group Pastor, lead the implementation of Pastor Miles’ invitation by offering training and support to these new group leaders as they launched their groups. You can read the full case study about Rock Church here.

Give groups guidelines for meeting in person, but let them make their own decisions about how to meet.

The church should offer some sort of written guidelines for regathering amid the pandemic. This helps people feel safer about meeting in-person, if they’re willing, and it covers any liability for the church. The bottom line is that the church shouldn’t dictate to the groups what to do. If they want to meet online, then meet online. If they want to meet in-person, then meet in-person. If they want to do both, or as someone have called these phygital groups (physical and digital), then do that. The main thing is for the group to be in agreement about what to do. For a group agreement exercise, click here.

Biggest Thought: “What COVID gave me was an excuse to multiply groups.”

This pastor’s town/state was limiting the size of in-person gatherings in homes. No more than eight non-family members could meet in a home, so every group became two groups! The idea of churches splitting, multiplying, or “birthing” is not a very popular idea in North America. As much as pastor try to use another word for “dividing,” with the way it feels, you might as well call it getting a small group divorce! The idea finds resistence in most groups. But, if the circumstance called for smaller groups, then rather than waiting until the whole group could meet together again, why not use this to multiply your groups? If you see this as an opportunity for every small group in your church to become two groups, wouldn’t you jump on that?

Concluding Thoughts

These are strange times for the church. Regathering for worship has been in fits and starts. Some churches who reopened in May 2020 are now reclosing in September 2020 due to new outbreaks of Coronavirus. But, the weekend worship service is only one dimension of the church. This is a time to decentralize, because the church has been forced to. But, it’s not the first time the church was forced to decentralize.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NIV). Do you know when the church became Jesus’ witnesses in Judea and Samaria? The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 is found in Acts 8:1, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” The church didn’t enter Judea and Samaria because of a strategic plan or based on their vision and values statement. They were forced into their calling because of persecution. In 2020, the church was forced into a situation.

How are you going to make the most of this opportunity? Comment below.

For more information on online small groups, check out Leading Online Small Groups by Allen White