Should Online Groups Move Offline?
This post starts with a question rather than a statement because everything seems to be a question amidst the Coronavirus outbreak. Our lives have been defined by phrases like “in an abundance of caution,” “reopening,” and “Zoom fatigue.” I wonder if that last one is just the updated version of “I don’t have time for a group,” but I digress.
Sometime in the future, which hopefully means in year 2020, things will go back to “normal” whatever that may mean. For some normal simply means pre-shelter-in-place life and ministry. But, for others, it’s embracing a new normal of on-campus and online ministry. Some churches have witnessed an online worship attendance that’s 20 times as large as normal on-campus worship. Other churches have increased their small groups by 50% during quarantine. What’s next for those groups? How will they continue, if they continue?
Online to Offline is Awkward
In another post I mentioned my online small group on CompuServe in 1994. You can read it here. Great things happened in that group. Greg got saved. Tricia met her future husband. Allen got married, but not to Tricia. While we knew each other well online, until we converged on Greg’s house in southern California, we had never met face-to-face.
The date was set. I was going to baptize Greg in his Jacuzzi. (It’s the California way). Our online group that met only by message board and chat was going to meet in person. Our joke was that we would all have to sit in a circle with our backs to each other and communicate through our laptops. It’s one thing to take an offline group online, but moving an online group offline is another thing. It was a little awkward at first, but we had some big enough personalities in that group that our online friendship easily transferred. I don’t think that every online group can accomplish this, so don’t expect every online group to become an offline group. Our CompuServe group continued to meet as an online group for one practical reason: We lived in four different states!
Online and Out of State
On a coaching call with a pastor the other day, he mentioned that his new online group was made up of members from Washington, California, and New York. They had agreed to meet temporarily for the Cabin Fever study, but they were unsure of what they would do after that. A lot depended on what the group members needed.
With the church staying at home, ministry has gone from normal office hours to ministry 168 hours per week. (Pastors were already serving on evenings and weekends). Boundaries for small groups expanded from counties to countries and cities to states. As long as the group could figure out the time zone formula, they could meet. Now what? Groups are no longer limited to one locale, so what does the group do after the restrictions are lifted?
Possible Next Steps
There are several options for groups to choose from as they move forward. (1) Groups could move completely offline. Once groups no longer have to stay-at-home, (and provided members live within reasonable driving distance of each other), they could endure that first awkward in-person meeting and meet offline permanently. (2) Groups could stay online. If group members live long distances from each other, then an online group would be the only option. But, some groups might appreciate the convenience of meeting online. They could just put their children to bed and meet online. They’ll have to bake their own brownies, but their meetings could continue. (3) Groups could meet mostly online but also meet in-person occasionally. Groups could gather socially or to serve together on a regular basis, but continue to meet for Bible study online.
What’s the best option for online groups? Whether groups meet online or offline, the bottom line is to let the new groups decide for themselves. They should receive the same coaching and training as any other small group leaders. The only difference is the format. Welcome to the 21st century and your new online small group ministry. You certainly have better tools now than we had in 1994. Use those tools to expand the reach of disciple-making in your church. While online groups may not be your personal preference, they will work for some of your people. Not only did our CompuServe group work, we are still friends today.
For more information on online small groups, check out Leading Online Small Groups by Allen White