If you’re like most pastors, your small groups are tired of Zoom meetings. If people are working remotely, they are in a series of Zoom meetings all day long. As Nona Jones said, “The problem is that even though the meetings are different the experience is the same.” Zoom Fatigue is real.
Your people are tired of looking at their screens and looking at themselves all day long. But, if they won’t meet with their groups online when they are unable or unwilling to meet in-person, then how do you create community? How do you fulfill your mission of making disciples?
Do Something Different
Zoom meetings cannot effectively replicate an in-person experience. Your small groups are just not the same online as they are in-person. In-person meetings are far superior to online meetings just like your in-person worship service is much better than the streaming service (but the streaming service could be better). So, stop trying to create the same meeting experience for a group on Zoom. It’s not the same. It doesn’t work. People don’t like it…says the guy who wrote Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future this year!
Change it up. Do something different. Call it something different. Think about offering a short-term group if that’s a different experience for your groups.
This is a different year. Online groups are a different experience. Try something different!
Groups are More Than Meetings
Groups offer the experience of life-on-life, not life-on-curriculum. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t command you to “go and hold small group meetings.” (And, before you say it, I am well aware of Hebrews 10:25. Stay with me here).
Your mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). What do you need to make a disciple? Let’s take this as granular as we can. You need a disciple to make a disciple. I would even venture to say that more discipleship happens outside of meetings than in meetings anyway. Feel free to debate me on that, but keep in mind that my definition of discipleship is not merely book learnin’. It’s teaching people to obey what Jesus commanded.
The best examples of life-on-life are the One Anothers of the Bible. How can you “encourage one another daily” when you don’t see each other every day or even very often? If you’re like most adults, you are never more than five feet away from your phone. Mine is sitting next to my computer as I’m typing this. I have to confess that my screen time has significantly increased in 2020. The same is true for most people. So, since your people are already on their phones quite a bit, why not use their phones to encourage each other? Send a quick text. Make a quick call. Say something positive on social media.
The same can go for the other One Anothers:
• “Love one another” (John 13:34; John 15:12). • “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10). • “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). • “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). • “Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13). • “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). • “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32). • “Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). • “Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). • “Pray for each other” (James 5:16). • There are 59 total!
And, here’s the thing: even when all of your people are attending in-person worship services and meeting with their groups in-person, they still can’t practice these One Anothers often enough. Encourage them to use their digital devices and message, pick up the phone and call, and even send a handwritten note in the mail. What if this could become the normal practice of all believers?
Zoom is NOT the Only Way to Meet Online
If Zoom Fatigue is a big issue, there are other ways to meet when you can’t meet in-person. Your people meet in other types of online groups that aren’t fatiguing them. Don’t think so?
Groups could meet on a conference call line. Services like freeconferencecall.com offer the phone number (which is usually long distance, but that’s not really an issue today).
Groups could meet asynchronously. Your people use asynchronous groups all of the time – a group text, Slack, private Facebook groups, Marco Polo, Parler (or not), and even “Reply to All” on email is an asynchronous group. The leader would post the questions one post at a time, then the group would respond probably over a week. This is how I did my CompuServe group in 1994!
My children connect with their friends often over video games like Fortnite. In fact, one article (that I can’t locate right now…) said that people who connect socially while playing video games are doing better in the pandemic than most people. I’m not sure how you’d pull off a traditional small group study, but you can connect! If you have discovered how to do this well, let me know!
Some of this may seem off-the –wall, but 2020 has been an off-the-wall sort of year. This is the year to experiment “because of COVID.” Whatever you want to start doing or even stop doing, do it “because of COVID.”
Some People Really Need an Online Small Group Right Now
You have people who are isolated and alone. You have people watch your online worship service and are ready to take a next step. You have people who’ve watched too much cable news and are freaking out. You have people who need to connect. Offer Zoom groups to the people who need them. It won’t be 100% of your people, but there are people who would love to join one. Move with the movers.
Small groups meet many different purposes. They provide community and connection. They offer teaching and training. They promote conversation and practical application of God’s Word, the Bible. They offer opportunities to serve and to reach others. They provide an environment for encouragement and accountability. But, just like the weekend worship service is not your church’s entire ministry, a small group meeting is not the entire ministry of the group.
When groups can’t meet in-person and won’t meet online, focus on connection. How are your people connecting? How are your leaders connecting with their members? How are you and your coaches connecting with your leaders?
This is a complex time filled with believers and non-believers. Some believe that COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic and that every precaution must be taken. Others believe that the Coronavirus is completely made up to control people. There are others who venture out with precautions. There are others who resent precautions. As one pastor said recently, “You just described my whole church.” But, what happens when your groups disagree over whether to meet in-person or online?
Being Right Misses the Point
People have already decided what they believe about COVID, the presidential election, global warming, etc. Positions have been taken. No amount of arguing, tweeting, posting, or unfriending will convince them otherwise. Debate will not make anyone feel better about meeting or not meeting as a group.
As stated earlier, opinions range across an entire spectrum. Some choose to err on the side of caution because of a family member who is elderly or who has a compromised immune system. Others are just over it. Coronavirus has carried on for over eight months. Typically, people don’t stick with anything that long!
This division is not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong. It comes down to the best way to accommodate group members over an issue that is important to them. Coronavirus aside, how can the group love one another and thus prove they are Christ’s disciples?
What Can the Group Agree on?
For the sake of discussion, let’s consider a less emotionally-charged issue. Instead of meeting or not meeting because of COVID, let’s change the debate. Let’s say that part of the group would like to continue meeting on Tuesday night, but another part of the group would like to change to Thursday night. The Tuesday members have their reasons. The Thursday members have their reasons. Would the Tuesday members possibly move to Thursday? Why can’t the Thursday members meet on Tuesday? Is there another night of the week that’s open for everyone?
If the heart of the group is to stay together, they must arrive at some kind of compromise. Alternating group meetings between Tuesdays and Thursdays would be confusing and would effectively split the group. As with any group dilemma, the group needs to revisit their Group Agreement. If the current Group Agreement is no longer working for the group, then they need to do their best to make adjustments in order to continue. If they cannot make adjustments, then the group will probably disband. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What If the Group Can’t Reach Consensus?
The question of a group being split over COVID actually came up in an online leader training I did last week with Grace Point Church in Topeka, Kansas. (Thanks Josh Cooper for inviting me!) One of the leaders was facing this exactly dilemma in her group.
My initial response was to tell the group leader to choose the members she liked and go with them. While that brought a laugh, it wasn’t really a solution. But, I was only half joking.
The first thing leaders must consider is what they are comfortable doing. If the group made an accommodation to a different night or a different format for the sake on an insistent member, I’ve often found that even after the group makes the change, the member doesn’t show up. Leaders should do what they’re comfortable doing. If they like meeting on Tuesday night, then meet on Tuesday night. If leaders would prefer to meet online over the Winter instead of in-person, then meet online and keep those who will meet with you. But, what about those on the other side of the issue?
If your group is divided 60/40, then you have effectively split the group. Those who don’t want to continue based on the group’s decision should form their own group and choose the relative leader in the group. Before the group makes this move, the leader should discuss this with his or her coach or small group pastor. You don’t want to elevate someone without clearing the name with the church first. Once the new leader is approved, then the new group can start.
This could be a temporary solution until the situation changes, and the group can reunite. Or, the group could intentionally start another new group. The new in-person group and the new online group that have formed will have room for new members. People who’ve been watching the online worship service could connect with the online small group. Look at this as an opportunity and not a problem!
Now, notice what I didn’t say. I did not say to send the three or four members who differ from the rest of the group to the small group pastor so they can be assigned to a new group. This is not the small group pastor’s problem, so don’t make it your problem. Let the group work out their differences with the guidance of their coach. Stay out of the matchmaking business.
This is a complicated time. Opinions vary widely. But, as at any other time, group issues should be solved by the group. If they need help, then their coach can guide them. Avoid the temptation to fix this for the group. They can work it out. And, above all else, “stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13).
Some people think that small groups are about the last thing that people need right now. With so much going on in people’s lives and so much turmoil in the world, forming groups for some seems like an uphill battle. But, when you look at the needs in people’s lives, it seems like a time to lean into groups rather than pull away.
Today is Election Day in the U.S. This will be regarded as a historic election in many ways. Chances are no one will know the result of the election at the end of the day or the wee hours of tomorrow morning. There are a lot of absentee ballots to count. If you haven’t voted, then stop reading and go vote!
Tomorrow life will be very similar to what it is today. As over 100 countries of the world have issued mask mandates, many European countries are locking down and implementing tighter restrictions to address the Coronavirus pandemic. For most people this all feels enormous – economic uncertainty, political unrest, racial injustice, and a health crisis. On top of all of this, the things in people’s lives that were already breaking – marriages, finances, jobs, parenting, etc. – are closer to broken than they’ve ever been. I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom, but real or imagined, people are facing a level of anxiety unlike most have experienced in their lifetimes. What can you do?
People Need Connection
What does your screentime look like on your iPhone? You will probably immediately go to “I use it for work.” I know that you do, but let’s face it that handy little device is a friend and a foe. The “friend” part keeps us distracted from what’s going on. (I’ll admit that I’m playing a lot of Boggle with Friends these days). It’s also a foe, because your connected device is disconnecting you. A wise person once said (my wife), “People have more means of connecting than they’ve ever had, yet they are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” And, that was said before the pandemic.
You’re well aware of Zoom fatigue, but there are many other ways for people to have conversations online. Ideally people will meet in groups on a familiar online platform to discuss the sermon topic from Sunday or something else they are interested in. If they don’t, your people need some way to process what they’re dealing with and talk to another person. Cable news is not a comfort. And, they need more than teaching videos. They need more talking.
You Have an Opportunity
In many ways the world has been turned upside down in 2020. More than a few of you have posted memes about foregoing the time change to avoid an extra hour of 2020. I’m not a fan of the time change anyway. But, what does God intend for the Church in 2020?
If you believe that God is Sovereign, then you have to admit that 2020 was not a surprise to God. The Church has faced much more dire circumstances throughout history, yet the Church has moved forward. This is the time to rethink what your church is doing. This is the time to reach people whose lives have been disrupted. This is the time to reach people who are far from God with a message of hope.
Last week, I gave you the “because of COVID” excuse for making changes. It’s not a bad one. While it’s easy to starting thinking about all of the negative things that happened to your church “because of COVID,” have you thought about the opportunities? The effectiveness in the Church during this season is not the status quo, which one author defines as “the mess we are in.”
But, in 2020, I’m hearing pastors talk about great things that are happening “because of COVID:”
“The size of our groups were limited by COVID restrictions, so every group became two groups.” Who wouldn’t want to double their groups?
“I connected with some old high school friends including one who was far from God to form a multi-state online group.”
“Our groups increased by 211% over last year.”
“Our church formed book clubs by asking any willing person to gather a group of friends.”
What is happening in your church “because of COVID?” Let us know in the Comments below.
Do you have more groups today than you did a year ago? Let’s ask an even scarier question: at this point do you know what groups you have? Since either many churches have not regathered for worship services or a significant number of folks haven’t returned, I’m hearing a lot of pastors who don’t really know who’s still in their churches and who has left. Some have lost contact with their group leaders. Where did they go? It’s a strange year.
You might be tempted to hit pause for this next ministry season. While you hope that 2021 will be better, for some it’s starting to look like a continuation of 2020. You might be waiting for all of this to blow over so you can start fresh next year. But, here’s the bad news – this doesn’t seem to be blowing over any time soon. This is a great time to reevaluate your approach to groups for 2021. Since nothing that’s worked in the past is guaranteed to work in the future, let’s get back to the basics of what you’re doing.
What is the definition of a group in your church?
What is the purpose of groups in your church?
Do you and your senior pastor agree on the purpose of groups in your church?
How quickly do you want to grow groups in your church?
What obstacles are you facing in growing your groups?
What are your people willing to do?
How can your groups help your members and your community through this confusing time?
How are groups actually more important than worship services right now?
This year has produced a significant curve ball. Churches had to scramble to put worship services online. Now that some are regathering for in-person services, not everyone is regathering. The challenge today is hybrid services, hybrid ministries, and hybrid groups. Everything is in-person and online, or it’s in-person and waiting for things to get back to normal.
While no one can accurately predict the future, I’ve had the opportunity to work with 64 churches in 2020. I’ve followed them in their journey to move services and groups online, bring back in-person services and groups, and for some to go back online again already. A few churches have never regathered for in-person services. (A few others never closed. Shhh.) The problem with being a church consultant in 2020 is that all of one’s experience prior to March 15, 2020 essentially became irrelevant. But, the great thing about being a church consultant in 2020 is tracking with churches of different sizes and denominations across North America and working out how to launch groups in 2020. In one of those churches, their groups have grown by 211% this year.
This is not a time for you to step back and take a break from groups. This is the time for you to step up and lean into groups like never before.
Here’s what I know – you are working much too hard for the results you are getting. Knowing what most small group pastors and directors have invested, you should have far more groups and leaders by now. Let’s put our heads together and strategize for the opportunity that 2021 presents.
What are you learning about small groups in 2020? Let me know in the comments.
If you’ve been waiting to start something new, 2020 is a great year to experiment. Some might say that 2020 is an experiment gone wrong, but with life so some completely disrupted, you should embrace this as an opportunity to launch new things or end things that need to go away. Blame it on the pandemic! As difficult as this year has been, the healthy crisis, economic crisis, racial crisis, and political crisis are breaking up some very hard ground in the world, in the church, and in the hearts of individuals. There couldn’t be a better time to innovate. What needs to change in your church? Here are a few things that I’m seeing right now.
In my recent Small Group Network huddle, Bill Cleminson from the Church at the Mill (a.k.a. The Mill) in Moore, SC shared an experiment their senior pastor, Dr. D.J. Horton, launched this fall – they launched egroups. An egroup is five people or fewer who commit to meet together for 13 weeks. The group views a 15-minute teaching video from the pastor, then uses a sermon discussion guide for their meetings. In addition, the egroups journal daily based on a reading plan provided by the church or something else they choose. For accountability, the egroup members are asked to share a picture of their journal with their group with the words blurred out. This increases participation.
The Mill intentionally chose a new name for these groups to avoid confusion with their other small groups and discipleship groups. eGroups are a short-term trial run at groups, but more importantly, they give their members an opportunity to connect and process life together. It’s a great combination of both communication and content. After the first 13 weeks, eGroups may have served their purpose at The Mill, but depending on how 2021 looks, they could certainly serve an extended purpose. As with most churches, planning is in pencil and prayer.
Find Your Loopholes.
Some churches have rather rigid leadership requirements for small groups. While the bar for leadership should be high, the issue comes down to two things: (1) How many years will it take for you to connect people into groups? and (2) Do you really need a “leader” to make disciples?
Recently I talked to a pastor whose church leadership was leery of inviting people they didn’t know into small group leadership. I understand that feeling. That’s how my church got stuck at 30% in groups years ago. I understand that every church has an acceptable level of risk. There is a line they are reluctant to cross for a variety of reasons. I can’t force anyone to cross that line, but I can work to convince them.
I asked this pastor, “What’s too small to be a group in your church?” He said that three people was too small to be a group. Then, I challenged him to form some non-groups of three people. He just needed to ask people to invite two friends to discuss the weekly sermon questions. These non-groups won’t be advertised or acknowledged anywhere, but they will do two things for the church: (1) It will prove to the pastor there isn’t as much to worry about as he once thought, and (2) the non-groups will give people confidence to expand their group and eventually become a recognized group in this church.
Level Up Your Online Services.
Most churches did better with online services before anyone regathered in the building for worship. When the house was empty, pastors looked directly at the camera. Pastors got up close and personal with the online audience. Some even created interactive experiences to field questions during the message. But, then people started coming back into the building, things got weird.
When people are in the room, most pastors want to talk to the people in the room. I do! But, there are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” Yet, you can’t look over people’s heads and only look at the cameras. The churches who understand this are producing separate online services and in-person services to meet both needs. It’s more work, but it’s certainly worthwhile since so many unchurched people are looking in on online services. After all, streaming video is NOT church online.
Put Everything Online.
Some aspects of life have permanently changed amid the pandemic. I don’t know that I’m ever going to pile items into a grocery cart again, when we can order everything online for pickup or delivery. Going to the bank has been replaced by an app. I’m reconsidering whether I still need two cars in my driveway. Online group leader training has gone so well, I’m not sure I need to fly to you to train your leaders (but after the pandemic I might consider it).
In a world where people can do a doctor’s appointment online, they could take your membership class online. They could go through your Growth Track online. You no longer have to limit these to a Sunday afternoon. People can participate anytime over 168 hours per week. Potentially, they could become a member of your church at 2 am!
Practice these phrases with me:
We stopped doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of COVID.
We started doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of the pandemic.
Allen White gave us that idea, but now we realize it’s really stupid. LOL
This is a great year to experiment. Don’t waste your time waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. To quote Jason Caston, “The church was moving slow because they thought the world would stay the same.” Nothing is the same. Get moving!
Tell me how your church is innovating in 2020 in the comments below.
Believe it or not, it’s harder to get people to show up in online groups than in-person groups. Are you seeing this? We explored the problem in a post a few weeks ago: Why are People Ghosting Online Small Groups? But, what’s the solution?
It’s not as difficult to get people to online small groups as you might think. Those who are successfully connecting people in online groups are using the active recruiting strategies I talk about in this video I created for the recent Success with Groups Online conference.
How are you faring with online small groups? How is your group launch going? If you have found something that works, or if your struggling in this unusual ministry season, please leave your comment below.