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?
By Allen White
When you think about such a large scale small group ministry like the one at Saddleback Church, it’s a little hard to wrap your mind around. How could a church of 25,000 or so on the weekend have over 50,000 connected in small groups? A ministry of that size doesn’t sound like small groups. It sounds like a decent sized town.
Sure, any church can get a bunch of people into groups for a short-term church-wide campaign, but how does Saddleback keep the arrow moving up and to the right? If these were temporary, thrown together groups, then you would expect them to disband as quickly as they formed. What’s the secret?
What makes a good group system? Trained, motivated leaders. Visionary direction. Welcoming groups. Growing group members. Any or all of these descriptions would produce effective groups. But, there is one word that captures all of this and is the secret to Saddleback’s small group success: Health. Balancing the biblical purposes of fellowship, discipleship, ministry, worship and evangelism creates healthy groups, which in turn produce healthy group members. Leading Small Groups with Purpose is a multifaceted resource. Steve Gladen not only gives the theory of small group ministry, he offers practical next steps to hit the group where the rubber meets the road. Whether a group has just started or has been together for a long time, each topic contains Crawl, Walk and Run steps to integrate the biblical purposes in the group, thus producing group health. This book is not over any leader’s head and is certainly not beneath any leader either.
Beyond the tools Steve offers in the book, he points the reader to many tools available on the web as well as quite a number of other resources. The book even comes with a small group assessment tool created by Dr. Les Parrott, which addresses group dynamics.
In practical, honest and humorous ways, Steve cleverly relates many stories from his own group experiences to convey his points. Having learned from the laboratory of over 5,000 groups at Saddleback Church, 30 years of ministry experience, and especially his own small group, this book speaks to the heart of small group leaders from a small group leader. While leading one of the largest small group ministries in the country, Steve is a small group leader through and through.
My only objection to this book is the author’s support of the Anaheim Angels in the World Series. Being a long time San Francisco Giants fan, I believe there never should have been a Game 7 in that Series. Other than this significant difference in core values, I’m a big fan of this book.
Every small group member, whether new or experienced, will benefit from this book. If you’re a group leader who feels a bit like you’re on your own, this book will serve as the small group pastor that you wish you had. If you are a small group pastor or director, do yourself a favor and buy a case of these books and hand them out to your leaders ASAP.
Related Books: Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen Connecting In Communities by Eddie Mosley
By Allen White
Church-wide campaigns are a powerful vehicle for connecting congregations into community and impacting spiritual growth. 40 Days of Purpose from Rick Warren, One Month to Live by Kerry Shook, and a number of other church-wide experiences prove the catalytic impact of a small group study aligned with a sermon series. Churches and their members will never be the same.
One size never fits all, especially in a church-wide campaign. When you invite all of your groups to do the same study that aligns to the weekend service, you might have just set yourself up for trouble. Your groups are made up of new Christians and non-Christians, “mature” Christians and critical ones. How do you meet the needs of all of your different groups with one curriculum?
Over-Promising + Under-Delivering = Great Frustration
1. State Up Front What the Curriculum Is and What It Isn’t
Managing expectations is key to focusing your groups on the right track. If your curriculum is designed for the broadest appeal, you will soon be hearing from your “mature” folks that the study is “light weight.” For the critics I know well, my usually is “I can see how you could think that if you were only talking about the material….”
Recently in helping a church full of nuclear engineers and rocket scientists develop a curriculum on the One Anothers of Scripture, we concluded that if the group members simple memorized all of the One Anothers, then we had failed. Practicing the One Anothers was the key, and it isn’t rocket science.
Let your groups know up front how the curriculum is designed and why. “We have created this curriculum for any person to use in doing this study with their friends.” It’s not that you avoided creating a “deeper” study – boy, that’s a loaded word – but, you have intentionally designed or chosen a study to include as many people as possible. After six weeks, they can choose something that’s maybe more to their liking. 2. Mayday, Mayday — If a Study Does Work, Throw It Out.
The worst thing that can happen to a group is to feel obligated to complete a study because they spent $10 on the book. Some studies just don’t work in every group. It’s better to lose the study rather than to lose your group.
Problems with ill-fitting studies can range from outright complacency to lack of participation to high absenteeism. This is not the time to just tough it out or put your head in the sand. State the obvious: “Is it just me or is this study not going very well?” Then, get feedback from the group. If the feeling is mutual, then it’s time to move on. If your members didn’t use the books (and they didn’t), there’s always Ebay.
The problem may not be the whole study, but just part of the study. A few years back, a group of 20-somethings were participating in a church-wide study. They were enjoying the study guide, but felt the DVD-teaching wasn’t scratching them where they itched. I recommend that they do the study without the DVD. Their response, “Oh, we’re way ahead of you on that one, Pastor Allen.” Some groups will never do a study without a DVD. Others will never do a study with one. And, that’s okay.
The bottom line is to do what makes sense for each group. Even if other groups raved about the study, it has to fit each group in order to work. 3. Design Your Curriculum to Meet a Variety of Needs
In designing your own curriculum, you can meet a variety of needs with one study. As my friend, Brett Eastman at Lifetogether.com says, “You need to double clutch the study.” At the beginning of the study offer two different ice breaker questions. For new groups and new believers, maybe the question is light-hearted and offers a way for folks to get to know each other. This is something that everyone will feel comfortable talking about. “Who is your favorite super hero and why?” “What was the source of warmth in your home?” “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (That last one’s a joke.) For more mature believers, the question should go something like, “How did you apply what you learned in last week’s study?” Deeper involves doing.
For the rest of the study, you can offer a variety of questions at different levels. For newer folks, you want to start with questions that are easy to answer right out of Scripture. For more mature members, it’s good to include a “Going Deeper” section that offers more personal questions as well as Scripture cross-references to the core text. The aim in the “Going Deeper” section is to meet a need for knowledge along with a greater need for application.
The point here is to create different questions for different types of people, then articulate the study design to the group members. Some groups will use the first half of the study only. Other groups will skip the first section and dive into the deeper questions. Giving group members the full picture of the design will help them to understand and appreciate what you have developed.
You can’t please everybody all of the time. But, by taking the time to develop your own study with different group members in mind, you go a long way in meeting a variety of needs. Hearing and addressing their expectations up front will go a long way in leading a unified campaign.
The pace of life can certainly interfere with group life. A wise person observed, “Today, people have more ways than ever to connect, yet are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” I would certainly agree. There is a big difference between things that keep us busy versus things that keep us connected. Facebook is an incomplete substitute for face time. But, face time can be rare. What do you do when group members are on the road with their job or overwhelmed with their kids?
Well, what happens outside of the group effects what happens in the group. The time we spend with our group members outside of the group meeting will increase the quality of the group meeting experience. Typically, we would think of inviting group members to a barbecue (or is that grilling out?); meeting for a cup of coffee; or even running an errand together. But, what do you do when they can’t get together?
Phone a Friend. Busy friends probably don’t have an hour to talk, but they might have a few minutes. Just call to let them know that you’re thinking about them. A quick check-in to follow up on a prayer request or let them know that they’re missed means a lot to group members. Recommendation: It’s best that male leaders call male group members, and females call females. We wouldn’t want our concern to appear to be something else.
Pray on Their Voice Mail. If you feel prompted to pray for one of your group members, why not let them know? When you call, even if you just get their voice mail, let them know that you are praying for them and their situation. You might even want to pray right there on the phone. It will especially mean a lot to let them know you just called because you care, and that’s it. If you add on two or three reminders, questions or other information at the end, they might wonder why you really called. Suggestion: This works great on personal voice mail, but not so great on a home answering machine. Just imagine if someone else in the house hears a message that says, “I am praying for you and the difficulties you are having with your spouse…”
Email. Written communication is far more difficult than in-person or even voice communication. Emails lack tone of voice and attitude. If I emailed, “Glad you could make it to group last night,” did I mean:
A. I was glad that you were there. B. Even though you were very late, I’m glad you could make it. C. Even though your attendance has been very erratic, I’m glad you could grace us with your presence. D. I feel like the group is a very low priority to you, so…
You get the picture. Emails can help us stay connected, if we know a person well, and if we are very clear with what we mean. Caution: Never try to resolve a conflict via email. It will turn into a nightmare. Even if someone shoots you an angry email, ask when you can meet face to face to discuss the situation. If you write an email in response to a conflict, push “Delete” not “Send.”
Social Networking. While Twitter, Facebook, Text Messages, Instant Messages, Skype, Tokbox and other social media tools can be overwhelming, they can also help you stay up to date with your group members. Again, the same cautions apply as with emails. It’s not the same as a conversation over coffee, but sometimes 140 characters or less is better than nothing.
Blog or Yahoo Group. A blog is a great way to share announcements and information with your group and receive their comments. Blogs are fairly easy to set up and many like blogger.com are free. Your group members can subscribe in a variety of ways and connect with each other. Yahoo Groups are another way to stay connected. Like blogs, yahoo groups can be made public or private depending on the level of communication your group is giving.
It’s great to get everyone together, but sometimes that’s hard to do. While these other means of keeping contact are not as good as a group meeting, they just might help your group stay connected with busy people.