The Coronavirus outbreak has opened a new chapter in starting online small groups. Online small groups aren’t a new thing. I was in an online small group on CompuServe in 1992! That might make me the grandfather of online small groups. But, online groups might be new to you.
The Pursuit Church in Minot, ND just launched online small groups off of their online service on March 22, 2020. This church of 1,500 already had about 60 small groups. On that Sunday, 30 people stepped up to start new online small groups. Could you imagine increasing your small groups by 50% in one day. You can hear Tara Wiley tell The Pursuit’s story along with seven principles of starting online small groups.
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What You Need to Start Online Small Groups (Point starts at time code indicated):
Unless they offer an essential service, suddenly everybody has time for a small group. The #1 excuse people give for not joining a group is that they are too busy or they don’t have enough time. Small Group Pastors know what they are really saying is, “Small group is just not a priority.” I get that. But, now the “I don’t have time” excuse has been erased, and small groups should become a greater priority — even if they can’t meet in person.
Why do you need to start new groups during a pandemic?
Whether by choice or by mandate, people are staying away from other people right now. Church services have gone online. School has gone online in many places. While people are making their best attempts to curtail the spread of a disease, isolation and loneliness coupled with a steady intake of cable news and social media is a breeding ground for fear. Isolation and fear come straight from a page in the enemy’s playbook. The devil is having a heyday with this.
People have spiritual and emotional needs. With all of the conflicting information and no one to discuss this with, the monsters in our people’s heads just become bigger and bigger. Last week I wrote about practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible while in quarantine. People need more than worship and a sermon to reassure them and help them deal with what’s going on. Beyond that some people have practical, physical needs. How is your church keeping up with older people or people with medical conditions. We must find a strategic way to care for our members. Here’s a tough thought — your people can find a better online service. How you help them right now will determine where they go and where they give after this is all over. This is fertile ground for the enemy to do his work. This is a tremendous opportunity for the church to do its work.
As a church staff, you are working hard to transition worship and sermons to online services, but what about the social time people spent in the lobby or even in the parking lot. How are you meeting your members’ need for connection? This is the time to launch new groups. Groups could meet on a video platform. Groups could meet on a free conference call line. While many are forced to be apart, there are ways to be together.
How to Start New Groups
Starting new groups online is not so different than starting groups offline, except you have one advantage. People need connection more than ever. Now is the time to get all hands on deck and start as many groups as possible. Churches must mobilize the most people they can for ministry right now. Your people need personal care like never before. You can do this. Here’s what you need to get started:
A willing, caring person to initiate.
If there was ever a time to bypass bulky requirements for group leaders and get all hands on deck, the time is now. Invite every person who will willing and caring to start a group right now. If you are insecure about that method, then review a copy of your church’s membership roster. Who would you feel good about? Call them and invite them right now. Who is willing and caring? Remember, they suddenly have time for a group.
A system to connect.
Once you have invited people to lead these groups, then ask them who they know who would be interested in a group. Take a week and have them invite everyone they know inside the church or outside the church to join their group. Then, invite the rest of your congregation to sign up online or even give out some names for leaders to call and invite to their group. The idea is that everyone in the congregation would have someone to connect with personally every week.
A platform to meet on.
Some localities are still allowing meetings of groups less than 10 people. If people are comfortable meeting in person, then they can. Personally, I would recommend an online option like a teleconference or a conference call. This will prohibit any unnecessary contact and potential spread of disease. Teleconference services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other services offer a stable platform and an easy way to connect online with video. Most services offer a call-in number for those who might be less tech savvy. For a comparison of video platforms, click here. If video is not a good solution because of the internet service in your area, then a free conference line could work as well. Several services are available.
For families with children, encourage them to meet later in the evening when their kids have gone to bed. Wear headphones to eliminate background noise. Mute yourself when you’re not talking. And, do not take your device into the bathroom with you!
Curriculum to guide.
Your groups could start with just a weekly check in to see how everybody is doing. Start the meetings by allowing people to debrief what’s going on in their lives and in their minds. Another great way to start a new group is to ask people to tell their stories or at least the part of the stories that they’re willing to tell. This is an important way for the group to begin to understand each other and have context for what they share in the group.
For new leaders I have discovered that it’s best to use some sort of video-based curriculum that contains the teaching on the video. This makes things safe for both the new leader as well as the pastors. The new leader doesn’t have to be the Bible expert, and the pastors don’t want the new leader to teach or be the Bible expert anyway. By giving them a curriculum that you’ve created or a curriculum that you trust, you could assure that the group will follow the topic that you’ve given them and have a great meeting to encourage each other, build up their faith, and grow spiritually in an unusual time.
Just-in-time training and coaching. Don’t skip this step!
There won’t be a lot of time to train these leaders at first. I have discovered that if you recruit an established leader to follow up with new leaders, you create a win-win situation. The new leaders get help and support right when they need it, and the experience leader gets a trial run at being a coach. Once the trial is over, you can determine whether the new leaders will want to continue and whether the coaches should continue.
Just like groups can meet over a teleconference or conference call, training can also happen in the same way. In the last church I served we had an immediate need for coaches. I knew it would be difficult to add another meeting to an already busy schedule which included all of the coaches leading their own small group, so we met together on a conference line at about 8:30 at night for 30 minutes and did this for about six weeks in a row. Why did we meet so late? Well everybody was home from work, finished with dinner, and their kids were hopefully in bed. With all of these distractions removed, I was able to conduct the training and get these new coaches started. The same can be true for leader training, but I would recommend letting the coaches do the work for at least the first six weeks, then offer more formal training when the leaders are ready to move forward and when the leaders feel like they actually need the training.
Follow up and feedback.
Leading a small group and coaching is important work so you must inspect what you expect. If you’ve asked your coaches to call the new leaders every week, then you need to call the coaches every week and hear what’s going on with the groups. As a pastor, you want to know what’s going on with your people especially during a crisis. Your coaches can give you the needs that you need to address that maybe they cannot. You also get an accurate picture of what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you wait for a report, you are already in the weeds.
Do for your coaches what you expect them to do for your leaders. Just like your people need the care of a leader and your leaders need the care of a coach, your coaches need care from you. Now that your schedule has changed, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up the phone and give each of your coaches a call.
Supervision and accountability.
While you have successfully given away the ministry to new leaders and new coaches, the only thing that you cannot give away is the responsibility for the ministry. The buck still stops with you. I don’t say this to make you nervous, but I do say this so you will avoid an entirely hands off approach. The coaching structure is effective, but it cannot run on auto pilot. While you are not in the day-to-day care of leaders, you cannot be completely out of it either. This is still your baby.
The End Result
In this climate, everything you do is essentially a startup. You cannot call a meeting and gather people on campus. You cannot do on-site training. You can’t even visit your people in their homes. But you can start online groups that will accomplish all of this. This may go against your personality. This may go against everything that you’ve done before. But the message is the same — We are better together even if we are apart.
By starting new small groups right now, your people will feel less lonely, less isolated, and less fearful. These groups can help your people build their faith and experience the care that they deserve. And the hard truth is that you cannot create that with an email.
My hope for you is that the end result of starting online groups will be at the beginning of something new for your ministry and your church. Pastors and staff cannot possibly meet all of the needs of any congregation. And they shouldn’t. Now more than ever, you need to get your people to engage their gifts and serve others in groups like never before. Don’t waste this moment. Suddenly, everybody has time for a small group!
If you’re ready to start groups, I want to share this webinar with you:
Amid the Coronavirus pandemic, people need each other more than ever before, yet they need to avoid each other more than ever. Christians believe faith is more powerful than fear. As the news media and government agencies continue to discuss the critically important topic of the spread and impact of Coronavirus, it’s easy for anyone to give into fear, especially when they are isolated from others.
Worship services are forced online as groups of 10 are being discouraged to gather. For smaller numbers, social distancing is encouraged where people should stay six feet away from each other. Whether by mandate or by choice, people are cautious about meeting with any size group. Isolation, though, tends to amplify fear. How can we promote community and social distancing at the same time?
Reframing Life and Ministry
The only thing missing from everyday life amid a pandemic is personal contact. The church may not be meeting within the four walls of the church building for an hour on Sunday, but the church can function as the Body of Christ despite the lack conventional church services.
Paul instructed in 1 Corinthians 12 that every member of the Body is important and that every member has gifts. Rather than meeting in weekend services to check off the church box for the week, members can and should be challenged to embrace their deeper calling. Who can they serve? How can they encourage? How can the church be the church outside of the four walls of a Sunday service? We really should be asking these questions anyway.
When we think of small groups in particular, often we focus on practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible.
“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).
There are only a couple of these statements that should be avoided in a climate of social distancing:
“Wash one another’s feet” (Mark 9:50) and
“Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14).
All of the other “one anothers” can be practiced among believers even in isolation, quarantine, and social distancing.
Reframing the Practice of the One Anothers
What is available to believers who are in isolation or self-quarantine? We have computers, tablets, smartphones, messaging, social media, telephones, streaming video services, and televisions. People communicate more while they are apart than when they are actually together it seems! Now take the communications devices available to people and pair them with the one another statements.
With this technology, how do we “encourage one another daily” as stated in Hebrews 3:13. The reality is most people don’t see each other every day. But, given the technology in our hands, we could text or message encouragement to one another daily. Just the other day a friend in Florida came to mind. I texted to see how he was doing. He was discouraged. In a short text, I encouraged him. His response was, “I think that’s just what I needed to hear today. Thank you.” I wasn’t in the same room with him. I wasn’t even in the same state with him, but I was able to encourage him. How can we encourage one another daily when we can’t see them in person? Use what we have!
The same goes for these other “one another” statements as well.
“Love one another” – We can do this anywhere at any time.
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” – We can call to check on each other.
“Honor one another above yourselves” – We can think of others before we think of ourselves. How is the pandemic affecting those we know? How about our neighbors?
“Live in harmony with one another” – Distancing may promote harmony in some ways. But in light of a global pandemic, we can also put our differences aside.
“Stop passing judgment on one another” – Everyone acts differently in different situations. Be as gracious in social media as you would if you were talking to the person face to face. People are already anxious. We don’t need to feed into this.
“Serve one another in love” – Can you spare a square? If someone is in need and you have the ability to help, then help them. You might need to make a “no contact” delivery and leave some toilet paper on their doorstep, but you can serve.
“Carry each other’s burdens” – When you call to encourage someone, you can listen. You can empathize. You can’t give them a hug, but you can care.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” – Life’s too short. Let it go.
“Build each other up” – When people are isolated, their thoughts and our enemy can get the best of them. Lift them up. Send a text about what you like about them. Post a verse. Leave a voice mail.
“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” – We need reminders to move forward and not get stuck. While stuck home from work or school, we have time on their hands. How can we help others?
“Pray for each other” – We can pray over the phone. We can even pray on someone’s voice mail.
Meeting with Your Small Group Online
Hebrews 10:25 instructs us “…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Often these instructions are taken for worship services, which today have moved online. The author of Hebrews is more than likely speaking to smaller home gatherings. This is your small group. You could take the risk and meet together in-person. But, let’s face it, we don’t know where the Coronavirus pandemic is going to go. Your group might meet, but some might choose to stay away – either out of caution or out of fear (Remember: “Stop passing judgment on one another”). If we can’t meet in person, we can meet online.
I was part of an online small group on CompuServe in 1994. There was no video or audio. It was basically a chatroom and a message board. It seems like ancient history now, but this was back before most people had ever heard of the internet. On my dialup modem, I connected with Greg in southern California, Trish in Chicagoland, David in California, and a couple in Idaho. Greg wasn’t even a Christian at the time, but he joined our Christian forum because it offered low priced, flat rate service. One day Greg informed the group that he received Christ as his Savior. We all converged on Greg’s house in San Dimas, California for his baptism. Years later, Greg was a groomsman in my wedding. Since moving to the East Coast, we don’t see each other very often, but we still connect.
With online technology today, it’s easier than ever to host groups online. You get to see faces and hear each other’s voices. It’s much better than my CompuServe days! To meet in online groups, you have to pick a platform. I prefer Zoom, which offers both a paid and free service. Group members can connect by video, audio, and/or telephone. I use it every day for staff meetings and coaching groups.
To make group meetings work best, you have to eliminate distractions –close other windows and notifications on your computer, tablet, or phone. Use ear buds or headphones to prevent audio feedback. Make sure there is nothing distracting in the environment where you are sitting. Then, just focus on your group meeting.
Over the years, I’ve heard people object that people who meet online can pretend to be anyone they want and won’t necessarily present their real selves. I’ve discovered this is also true in in-person meetings. It’s up to group members to choose how much they will disclose about themselves and how vulnerable they will be. Remember: speed of the leader, speed of the team.
Ministry doesn’t have to stop because of a pandemic and social distancing. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities for the church to be the church. The persecuted church in Acts 8:1 couldn’t stay with the apostles in Jerusalem, but they did spread the message of the Gospel throughout Judea and Samaria just as Jesus commanded them in Acts 1:8. How can we use this circumstance to fulfill Jesus’ command? We don’t need church buildings. We don’t need “official” ministries. We don’t need church staff to lead the meetings. Now is a time to be the church more than ever. My hope is even when we go back to weekend worship services, we will never go back to “normal.” The church should continue to be the church.