While some people may feel forced into their groups meeting online, there are some definite benefits of online small groups. Online small groups aren’t new. After all, I started my first online group on CompuServe in 1994. They aren’t new, but online small groups are next.
Apart from the technology, there are many commonalities between online small groups and offline small groups, yet they are not exactly the same. In both types of groups, the members want to become more Christlike, seek spiritual answers, or find support and recovery. Most small groups are formed around a Bible study with a focus on applying the truth of God’s Word to their lives. The members are there to deepen their relationships with each other, serve together, and reach others for Christ. Online or offline these group purposes are very similar.
There are some distinct difference, however. In an offline group, there are usually side conversations before or after the meeting, where in an online group, everyone is all in one video conference, conference call, or other format. All of the conversation involves everyone. Of course, group members can discuss things offline as well.
Online small groups are portable. Group members can gather regardless of their geographical location. They can become a group even if they live in different cities, states, or countries. And, if the group members move or have to travel, the group is still available to them wherever they go.
Online small groups can keep snowbirds connected. A snowbird in the U.S. is someone who spends the summers in a northern state and the winters in a southern state. Having worked with churches both north and south over the years, often the arrival or departure of their snowbirds factors into their small group launches. With online groups, snowbirds can stay connected to their northern or southern group regardless of their location.
Online small groups are a great way for people to dip their toe into small groups. They might start with an online asynchronous group, like a private Facebook group, where they communicate with the group through a message board. Eventually they may warm to the idea of meeting via audio or video. But, initially the anonymity helps them get started.
Online small group meets are typically shorter than offline groups. There is no travel time to the group meeting or back home afterward. Groups can meet at various times of day. Group members may want to meet a little later in the evening after their children have gone to bed. That takes care of the childcare issue. The only downside is that members will have to bake their own brownies.
Online small groups shouldn’t be limited to meeting online only. Groups can meet offline for socials, service projects, or open houses to invite new members, if they live in the same geographic area. If group members have only known each other online, then the first offline meeting could be a little awkward, but they will get over that awkwardness quickly. They know each other!
Some people complain of Zoom fatigue. We’ve heard this a lot during the Coronavirus pandemic. Part of me wonders if Zoom fatigue is the replacement for the old “I don’t have time for a small group” excuse. The good news is that online groups can meet on video platforms, audio platforms, or asynchronous message boards. If members just can’t look at another computer, they could talk on the phone. If they are tired of video conference, then they could write back and forth in a private Facebook group. Most people are on Facebook anyway, why not use it for their spiritual growth.
The Coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying quarantine showed churches that there is a whole world they can reach online. An online group can provide community to people who participate in the church’s online worship services. Several ministries like Celebrate Recovery at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and the Alpha Course at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, England have reported increased participation from a more diverse group of people once they put their groups online.
Whether an online small group is a necessity or an opportunity for you, you will discover a new way to serve others and to grow with your online group. Online small groups are not perfect, but then again, no small group is perfect – online or offline.
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):
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.