There are several options for children during the online group meeting. The important thing is to be flexible. If child interrupts to ask a question, that’s okay. You can mute your mic and tend to your child. Some parents get uptight when their child interrupts the group meeting, but please remember your group is not more important than your child.
Here are some options to consider when it comes to meeting online and caring for your children:
Meet Later After the Children are Asleep.
If group members have younger children, then you might want to meet later in the evening after the children have gone to bed. This way parents can give their attention to their children at bedtime, put them to bed, then join the online group meeting. The group may need to meet at 8 o’clock at night, but it won’t take long for the group to get home after the meeting. They are home.
Offer a Children’s Online Small Group.
There are a number of online children’s ministry options on various online platforms. Maybe kids could have their own group during the adult group. Older children could moderate the group time. Kids are very interested in Zoom meetings just like they’re parents are doing!
Spouses Could Trade Off.
Spouses could agree to take turns in attending to children during the online group meeting. One spouse would help with the kids this week, if they need something during the meeting. Then the other spouse could help next week. Both spouse can participate in the meeting, but one would be “on call” when their children need someone.
Enlist Grandparents or Other Relatives.
If group members have family nearby, the group night could be a great time for a little Grandparent-Grandchild time. Other relatives or friends might also be available to help during the meeting. In one church I served, there was a group of grandparents that met on Tuesdays, then their children had a group on Thursdays. The grandparents kept their grandchildren on Thursday nights, so the parents could meet for their groups.
The most important thing is to relax and go with the interruptions. They happen. The author has worked from home for a number of years. I’ve had kids walk in during online meetings. Sometimes those interruptions involve a cookie or a hug. They’re not so bad. Remember, your group is not more important than your children!
People are ghosting online small groups in an alarming rate. Typically, when people sign up for a small group, we expect a certain number to not show up. That’s just how things are in small group world. At the church my family attends, people just choose a group from the website. The problem is what happens next.
I asked one of the Small Group Pastors how well that system worked. He said the previous week that 53 people had signed up to join a group. Then, I asked how many of those people were contacted by the leader. He pulled out his phone and said that 27 were contacted. Now, the sign up number was effectively cut in half. Then, I asked how many of those new people actually made it to a group. His reply was, “I don’t know.” He’s not the only one who’s had that experience. But, the problem is that the sign up to show up rate for online small groups is every worse. Here’s the reason why.
Online Groups Present Too Many Unfamiliar Things
Wouldn’t you think it would be easier to get people to an online group than to somebody’s house? It seems that turning on a computer and logging into the meeting is much easier than walking into somebody’s house. But, it isn’t.
When you ask your in-person and online congregations to join online small groups, think about what you’re asking them to do. First, you are asking them to join a small group, which might be a new experience for them. Second, you are asking them to join a small group with strangers. Third, you’re asking them to join a small group of strangers online. One, two, three strikes and you’re out!
What do you do? People need conversation and community. There’s a lot going on in the world – a global pandemic, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval – they need a place not just to process all of this, but a group who will point them back to the truth of God’s Word, the Bible, amidst all of the uncertainty. But, how do you get them to a group with so many roadblocks?
Make Part of the Equation Familiar
If online small groups present three unfamiliar dimensions: small group meeting, strangers, and online, how can you make part of this more familiar to them? I’ve said for a long time that “groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers” (Exponential Groups). The friend factor is the answer to getting people into unfamiliar online small groups. But, you have to change your approach.
You must abandon passive recruiting methods in forming groups. Passive methods include things like sign up cards, websites, and small group directories. While these methods seem efficient, they are simply not get effective in getting new people into groups in any season, especially now in forming online groups. There’s just not enough motivation and connection to get people to groups. Think about the amount of time you’ve wasted trying to move heaven and earth to get people into the right group only to see them not even show up. You need to get out of that business.
Another active recruiting method is personal invitation. New leaders, established leaders, and “gatherers of friends” simply make a list of the people they already know and invite them to the group. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the online small group? They can list friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, and others. Since these are online groups there are no geographical boundaries. They could invite their Facebook friends and other social media connections. They could invite high school friends and college buddies. One pastor from my coaching group started a group with three college friends. They’re in Washington state, California, and New York!
I know what you’re thinking: What about the people who don’t get invited? Well, as Brett Eastman told me once, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You can start a lot of new online small groups doing what I just mentioned, but there is one more active recruiting method you should try: personal introduction.
Typically, personal introduction is conducted as a small group fair, group link, or connection event. This is an in-person meeting where potential group members have a chance to meet the leaders and sign up to join a specific group. Right now, an in-person group might not be an option, or even if it is, people may not show up. You can offer an online version of a connection event. You could invite everyone to a big chaotic Zoom meeting, then let the online group leaders introduce themselves via video. (Zoom webinar might work better for this). Another option is to ask each group leader to make a short, personal video to introduce themselves: who they are, a little about their family, what kind of work they do, and what they’re group is about. Then, prospective members can sign up for the group they feel the most connection to.
Now You Just Have to Get Them There
Every online group that I lead gets a flurry of reminders. When someone signs up, send them a welcome email and the group information. A day before the group meeting, send them another reminder. An hour before the group starts, send them another reminder. This may seem like overkill, but people are busy and distracted. If they have to dig through their inboxes for the login link, they may not get there.
If someone misses the group meeting, then someone should call and check on them. This is not to be heavy-handed, but to get them to the group they need. You could say something like, “I’m not calling you like a truant officer. I’m just calling because I care.” Maybe they had to work late. Maybe someone in their family is sick. Maybe they had trouble logging into the meeting. If they need help, then the group could help them. If they need prayer, then the group can pray. Even if they never show up, keep calling, caring, and serving them.
Now, this may seem like a lot for a new online small group leader to take on. You should encourage these leaders to recruit a couple of people in the group to help. Someone could send the reminders. Someone could manage the tech. Someone could make follow-up calls. The more people who are involved, the more ownership they will have in the group.
Online small groups are a new thing to a lot of people right now. While online groups have been around for a while (Remember my online group on CompuServe in 1994?), they are unfamiliar to a lot of people. The more that we can eliminate barriers to online small groups and encourage people to start with what they are familiar with, the better chance they have of joining and enjoying their group. If meeting with strangers is an obstacle, then encourage them to invite their friends. If meeting on Zoom is a problem, then encourage them to meet on a platform they’re familiar with.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, one church that I’m coaching has increased their small groups by 50%. Another church started 163 new online small groups in the month of July! This is a season of frustration, confusion, and limitation in a lot of ways, but this disruption has also produced a season of opportunity. By using these strategies, you can help your people to stop ghosting their online small groups.
Recently, I came across a post that I wrote on March 13, 2018 called The Future of Church. It struck me because things that I had written back then are exactly what we’re living right now amid the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m not saying this in the guise of “Oh, look how smart I am,” because to be honest with you, I’m just as surprised as you are that I got something this right. Here are some updated thoughts on what I wrote two years ago, but I would encourage you to go back and read the original post for yourself.
Ministry Outside of a Church Building was Coming
I started that post by saying I was reluctant to share these things, but they’d been on my heart. These were things that I’d been sensing for a while. It talks about problems with church buildings. While they’re not the exact problems that we’re having right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are certainly having a problem with church buildings.
There are no mega churches meeting right now, except for one that meet last Sunday. Only 30% of churches are conducting in-person services. Most of those churches have only about 25% in attendance. For some it’s because of spacing and social distancing issues. I know of one church that’s at about 40% of their summer attendance, but they’re in North Dakota in a county that has literally three cases of Coronavirus. For the most part, buildings are not being used.
This brings us to a question that Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson raised in their book, The Externally Focused Church. If your church disappeared from your community, would you be missed? Your church, your in-person services, the things that happened in your building — your church today has disappeared from your community. Is it being missed? That’s a hard question because I know that pastors work hard. I know that they invest a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the work of the ministry, but is what we’re doing being missed?
The attractional model was a great model for the last 30 or 40 years. We saw a lot of people come to Christ. We saw a lot of great churches built. We saw a lot of great things happen because of that strategy. But, the reality is that what happened in the last 30 or 40 years is not what’s going to work in the next 30-40 years. As of four months ago, nothing that we’ve ever done before is working. The whole game has changed. I hear of a lot of pastors really struggling with discouragement right now, because if you’re holding yourself to a standard that you had a year ago, or if you’re still defining a win by what you had a year ago, you are living in a very discouraging and very depressed place. We don’t even live in that world anymore.
Pastors Need a New Measuring Stick
There are new ways to measure how effective we are. The first thing is decentralized organization. The church could not be more decentralized than we are right now. To borrow from Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird in Hero Maker, the hero in any church is the member, not the pastor. When you think of your congregation, you have to ask yourself: do you see your congregation as an audience or as an army? If they’re an audience, they have to be entertained. You have to perform for them. You have to give them something so that they’ll keep coming back. And the win is that they come back.
But if you see your congregations as an army, then you see a group of people that need to be equipped and empowered to serve. What they need from their pastors is permission and opportunity. Your church building may not be functioning in the way that it normally does, but your church is in the community. Your church is dispersed. How could you encourage your church to serve others — to check in on their neighbors, to check in on elderly people, to make calls, to send texts? People are on their phones all the time. Why not use their phones to encourage other people and see how they’re doing? You see the focus changes from gathering to scattering. And this is what I say in the article: “In the last 25 or more years, the church gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change.” If you’re in a gathering mindset in a scattering climate, you’re living in a very frustrated place.
You have to embrace the scattering mindset. Here’s something interesting. The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 when Jesus told to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The 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.” We’re not in persecution per se. (Some people would say that we are). But we’ve definitely been scattered. How can you use this scattering as an opportunity to fulfill your mission?
Flexible, Unstructured Gatherings
The second thing is flexible, unstructured gatherings. This goes back to a conversation I had about eight years ago with Josh Surratt at Seacoast Church. Josh mentioned that a family from his church had moved to the state of Maine. They had about 30 people gathering at their house to watch Seacoast service every week. I looked at Josh and said, “Well, maybe you need to redefine what a campus is.”
Around that the same time period, 8-10 years ago, people in a number of ministries around the country began to think about this notion of microsite churches. What I saw in the 2018 article were microsite campuses in smaller communities where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. The question I asked in the article is what if the service via streaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas?
Here’s the deal — if your church is not meeting in person (which is about 70% of churches right now), you have microsite churches. You have families gathered in homes. Maybe a few people are doing “watch parties” where they’ve invited some neighbors. Right now your church is gathering in microsites.
The challenge right now is that I, personally, attend a multisite campus that is a video venue. There’s a campus pastor and a team. There’s live worship and a service host, and then the messages are on streaming video. Why would I go back to my video streamed multisite campus when I can stay home and participate from my microsite campus? If I want more people to gather with me, I can invite them to my house.
Here’s the other side of it — nobody was meeting in those buildings anyway because of the pandemic. They had all been closed down. There was no reason to pay rent on the buildings. There is no reason to maintain a building for a multisite campus that nobody is meeting in because everybody is meeting at home.
These flexible unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. Now there needs to be some training. Where do you get trained volunteers? This goes to the next point in this 2018 article — meaningful volunteer ministry. I hate the word “volunteer” because Paul says to the Corinthians that one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, I don’t need you (1 Corinthians 12:21. By definition, “volunteer” means that people aren’t being paid for their time. But, the dichotomy between volunteer and staff has become as great as the one between clergy and laity.
Churches have reached the point that they keep hiring all of these people to do tasks, because it seems easier to motivate them and get them to meet a deadline than it would with a volunteer. But the reality is that every one of us has spiritual gifts that God’s given us. Every one of us has a calling. The calling is not just limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff.
What do we need volunteers for in the church? Volunteers are needed to maintain in-person worship services. Since there are no in-person services, there is no need for “volunteers.” Again, quoting from this 2018 piece, “the church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry, parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the guest services coordinator, because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every week of the year. Why? Because no one is called to this!”
Today, if you’re the guest services coordinator and your church is only meeting online only, you’re like the happiest person in the world! You’re like on vacation. Here’s the thing — believers will rise to the occasion for gift-based ministry, things that they’re called to do, things that they see a need for and could fill it. They could do something about it with their gifts and abilities. They just need to be equipped. They need to be released to do that. JD Greear said this, “Even when you can’t come to church, you can still be the church.” When you look at Ephesians 4 you see the work of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for doing the work of the ministry. Pastors and staff should be ministry multipliers to release their congregations to serve rather than doing the work themselves. We are decentralized. People can use their gifts. They can invite people into their homes. The church can be the church.
This is a Major Shift
We can’t meet in-person for various reasons. The church doesn’t revolve around the building. This is a shift. The multiplication of microsites is easier than multiplying megachurches. What about training? What are they doing in the houses while they’re being friendly? They get people together. They’re watching the service online. You can train somebody to do a microsite much more quickly than you can train a pastor. A person doing a microsite doesn’t need a Master of Divinity, but they do need supervision.
Most churches will never have the budget for all of the paid staff or buildings they need to accomplish what God has called them to. Yet, the church already has millions and millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church members. The “staff” for these microsites originates from gifts-based assessments.
Now, when I wrote this original article on March 13, 2018, this might have all seemed weird to you. It may still seem weird to you right now, but if these things are put it into practice right now, it would make a huge impact in your communities.
We have a world that is hurting in so many ways. They’re afraid of a virus. They’re afraid of meeting together. They can’t see a loved one in a hospital. Some of them can’t even go to a funeral. We have political unrest to an extent that I don’t even remember in my lifetime. We have racial injustice. We have so many things that are plaguing our country, and there’s such a great spiritual need. In fact, I would say the last time we saw a spiritual need at this level was 9/11. And if you remember, after September 11, 2001, that next Sunday, our churches were packed.
People are feeling that level of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. Some people don’t know if they’re going to have a job. How can they buy food? There’s so much uncertainty. They can’t go to church or they’re afraid to go to church, but they can go online. They could go to a friend’s house. They could go to a small group. They can watch a streaming service.
Here’s the crazy thing. These things that I’m talking about — a year ago, they were a novelty. Four months ago, this became a necessity. Today, this is an opportunity. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.
When the topic of online groups comes up, people typically think of video-based platforms like Zoom. While this format is popular for some, it’s not the only way to meet online. When my first online group met in 1994 on CompuServe, there was no option for audio or video. You could only do so much with a dial-up modem. Yet friendships were formed, members were encouraged, and one guy came to Christ as a result of that group.
When you think about types of online groups, you actually need to consider two questions: Why is the group meeting? and How will the group meet? Let’s look at both.
What is the Purpose of the Group?
Groups meet for a variety of reasons. Some gather for connection, encouragement, and/or Bible study. Other groups meet for support. While in the season of Coronavirus, every group needs an element of support. Even in the groups of pastors that I coach, we start the meetings with a check-in on how everybody is doing. These are crazy times, and everybody is not doing great. Every group should allow time for members to check-in and process what they’re dealing with. While content should be the center of the meeting, people also need conversation.
Support groups, even those who were once reluctant to meet online, are finding amazing results online. They never imagined that online groups like Celebrate Recovery or the Alpha Course would work, but these ministries are seeing numbers like they’ve never seen. In a recent interview, Nicky Gumbel, founder of the Alpha Course, said one pastor in New York is starting a new Alpha group every day. DivorceCare and GriefShare have gone online. These online groups are meeting the needs of a record number of people including those who might never darken the door of your church.
How Can Groups Meet Online?
Online groups can choose from a variety of meeting formats. Groups can meet on video, audio only, or asynchronously. As with any type of small groups, one size does not fit all for online groups either.
Video groups offer a multidimensional online group experience. Members can see each other, hear each other’s voices, text chat during the meeting, and share a teaching video. While Zoom is very popular, there are a number of other paid or free services including: GotoMeeting, Webex, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout, Google Meets, and Facebook Groups among others. For a comparison on some of these video services, see Jason DeGraaf’s post here.
Now, in the world of working at home and schooling at home, people have begun to complain about Zoom fatigue. At first I took Zoom fatigue as the new excuse for “I don’t have time for a small group.” While I still believe there is some of that, there is something strange about seeing your own image throughout the day, or even sitting in a meeting with everyone looking directly at you. When you’re in a meeting room, you don’t have direct eye contact with every person in the room. And, when you’re meeting in person, you don’t have to look at yourself. In fact, unless you pass a mirror, you’re probably not even aware of your physical appearance after you get ready in the morning (at least that was true for me). Fortunately, if people struggle with Zoom fatigue or are technologically challenged, there are other options.
Audio Only Groups
Audio only groups meet on a conference line. They don’t have to look at anyone. They’re just talking on the phone. Most people are capable of that. Free services like freeconferencecall.com are available to anyone who would like to set up a conference line. Typically, these services offer a long distance number, but long distance charges are not a real thing for most people these days anyway.
The only downside of an audio only group is that you can’t see when others are about to speak. Sometimes you get into that stalemate like when you’re at a four-way stop: “You go, no you go.” But, you can learn to yield to others. The leader can ask who has a comment, and then encourage members to start with a short answer like “I do.” Then you can call on them and avoid the traffic jam.
Asynchronous groups are simply groups that don’t meet at the same time. They leave a post in a private Facebook group. They send a group text. They post a short video on the Marco Polo app. Or, they could share a Youversion reading plan together. You use asynchronous groups all of the time: text message, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. We could even go back to letter writing, but it would take a while for a group to get through a lesson that way.
Asynchronous groups are like my group on CompuServe in 1994. Someone posts a question, then the group responds, when they can respond. These groups are great for people who travel or who have odd schedules. They can participate in the group when it’s convenient for them. The group leaders post the questions and moderate the group. Asynchronous groups are also great for people who are new to online groups and maybe join through your online worship service.
Jay Kranda, Online Campus Pastor at Saddleback Church, says, “Private small groups will start off primarily via text-based interactions, move to audio calls after a few weeks, and hopefully turn into regular Zoom or Facebook video calls as trust is built within the group.” Every asynchronous group doesn’t need to transition to an audio or video group, but they certainly could move in that direction.
Digitally Interactive Curriculum.
This is another form of asynchronous groups, but the format is unique. I was introduced to this technology about five years ago. On this platform, the video and questions are hosted on the platform. Groups and their members logon and interact with the video (They can leave comments during the video), after the questions, and for each other).
This platform can be used with individual groups interacting with a study like Jennie Allen’s Get Out of Your Head on Zondervan’s Studygateway.com. Individuals can participate with the thousands of others doing the study or leaders can form their own groups. Other studies are coming.
Churches can host their own digitally interactive curriculum through the parent technology from a company called Rali. Rali is principally a business platform, but the company has a heart for the church. Rali can be used for small group studies, Bible studies, recorded worship services, membership classes, Growth Track, or any other content you could host online. Members can interact with the content in general (like an online worship service) or in an online group. Pastors can view metrics for who is using the platform, where they live, what they’re interested in, how long they engage with the video, etc. I believe Rali is the solution for what 300,000 churches are dealing with right now. (I do not have any affiliation with Rali. I’m just a big fan.)
During the Coronavirus pandemic, every church in every state is facing different pressures. Only about 30% of churches are meeting in-person and are seeing less than 40% attendance. (If you’re the exception, let me know. I’d like to hear what you’re doing). That means that the way the Church fulfills our mission in the coming months will be different from anything we’ve ever done. If you are relying on the metrics that gauged your success a year ago, you are probably very depressed right now. Fear of catching COVID-19, fear of spreading it, and fear of being blamed for spreading it at church are keeping most churches closed and keeping people away. That’s your reality. But, COVID-19 isn’t even close to being the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18).
This is an era of opportunity. People are tuning into online services that wouldn’t darken the door of your church. Millennials are attracted to online worship services because they can watch the service and no one is watching them. Like I said before, support groups like Celebrate Recovery, are posting bigger numbers than when they met in-person. The Alpha Course is doing the same. Pastors and churches are great at developing content, but people also need conversation and community even when they can’t meet for in-person services.
Online small groups – in whatever form – are a strong solution to this current situation. But, it’s bigger than this. There are so many benefits to online small groups that go beyond social distancing.
In a recent conversation, a pastor told me that this season of ministry is not unlike the invention of the printing press that fueled the Reformation. The church is no longer limited to an hour on Sunday, but can now offer worship services 168 hours per week. The same goes for groups, Bible studies, classes, and growth tracks. Could Zoom, Youtube, or Rali be your church’s new printing press?