This was first published in Faithfully Magazine. I primarily wrote this for my student leaders at Wheaton College who lead small groups seeking ways to take their small groups online. I pray it is helpful for all who encounter it.
Necessary Connection During Social Distancing
Many churches have made the difficult but prudent decision to suspend in person gatherings and move online in the midst of the current pandemic. To slow and hopefully mitigate the spread of the virus, churches have followed medical advice to minimize person-to-person contact with others.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading national public health institute in the United States, it takes between 2-14 days for symptoms of Covid-19 (also known as the Coronavirus) to surface. In fact, we may be carriers of the virus without even being aware of it. Most concerning is the fact that infected people who aren’t showing symptoms might be driving the spread of the coronavirus more than we initially realized. Further, the virus may last in a person’s system for up to 37 days. As a result, the CDC has continued to call for the cancellation of larger gatherings. Several Christian leaders, such as Andy Crouch, Esau Mccaulley, and John Inazu have already provided helpful Christian perspectives on why churches should cancel or postpone in person gatherings.
As I recently tweeted, at this point, the wisest course of action around Covid-19 would be to act and make decisions as if you were infected. We need collective action that every individual participates in.
In times like these, it is worth asking how Christians can apply the exhortation in Hebrews 10:24-25 to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (emphasis added). While many churches have already shifted their Sunday worship services into livestream services, Christians may be wondering what can be done about small group meetings. Given the fact that small group meetings are often where deeper and more intimate relationships are formed under the auspices of the church, it’s necessary to talk about how Christians can navigate small group ministry with the requirements of social distancing.
Though in-person meetings are still preferred by many and are important to building relationships, thankfully, we can take several of the key components of a small group online: 1) meaningful connection, 2) biblical content, 3) prayerful confession, and 4) consistency. These virtual communities can serve as a powerful means to stay in touch, seek the Scriptures together, pray with one another, and provide consistency in the midst of uncertainty. Whether you are already providing small groups online, are considering it, or trying to figure out what to do, here are a few tips for those who are leading and facilitating online small groups.
Tools to Move Your Small Group Online
There are several video chat platforms you can use to connect members of your small group. Many of these have already been tested and implemented throughout the professional world, such as Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Skype. Each platform has a range of capabilities and associated price tiers, ranging from free to monthly or yearly subscriptions, that should be able to fit the needs of any size small group. In fact, I even know of some who are using video gaming platforms to meet online – connecting as their video game characters in a virtual world. Explore them to see which might fit the needs of your community best, prioritizing accessibility.
If you don’t already have a group text, you can start one through a cell phone carrier or through apps like Slack, KakaoTalk, GroupMe, or WhatsApp. There are a variety of apps that allow you to send documents and content to each other as well. Facebook groups and Facebook messenger can also provide good ways of communicating along with traditional e-mail. These non-video based communication tools provide helpful ways to connect on a more frequent basis.
Tips for an Online Small Group
For most of us, even if we have the right tools to move our small groups online, this is uncharted territory. You might even be asking, Now that we’re connected online, how should we even go about doing a small group in this new way? There are helpful online tutorials people can send to their group members for each of the platforms. If this is difficult to navigate, small group leaders should do their best to walk with the members of their small groups who are less technologically inclined.
Some elements of in-person small groups are easy to replicate in an online format, such as reading and engaging Scripture together, praying for one another, and participating in formative practices together. Here are a few suggestions and tips that can be helpful in cultivating community virtually:
- Consistency is key. Make sure the group has a designated time to log on every week.Have them schedule it into their calendars. If they have an online calendar, send them invites.
- Over-communicate. Don’t assume people know the logistics. It is helpful to ask yourself if they know the answers to the who, what, where, when, how, and why. Clarity is key when it comes to online communities. You might need to send them reminders when it’s time to meet.
- Share content through communication apps on their phone or email prior to meeting. Make sure people know exactly what they need to read beforehand. On many of the apps (and text messaging services), people can respond with a thumbs-up or a heart, letting the leader know that they have received and read the message.
- Create spaces where members can share highs and lows at each and every gathering. Remember, people don’t feel like they are a part of a conversation until they are able to contribute something to it. Create spaces for everyone to have the opportunity to share.
- Stay in touch throughout the week (outside of the gathering) by sharing encouraging and thought provoking ideas that you come across via the group app or email. You don’t have to limit contact to the gathering itself.
- You can also check in throughout the week by asking fun and creative questions:
- What’s something that surprised you today?
- What’s the most embarrassing thing that happened to you this week?
- What are you doing to serve your neighbors?
- Do something fun together – virtually!
- Cook a meal together online. It doesn’t have to be fancy (think sandwiches, or chili, or if you want to try making Korean food, check out Maangchi.com for some easy-to-follow recipes).
- Play a game together.
- Do a craft, draw, or something artsy together.
- Do a trivia night.
- Assign prayer partners that rotate so they have an additional point of contact throughout the week and can be praying for one another more deeply. Encourage them to schedule a time to get on the phone with their prayer partners and pray for one another.
These are certainly disruptive times as Christians have historically gathered in person to read God’s Word, sing God’s Word, pray God’s Word, and proclaim God’s Word. These are unprecedented times for many, if not all of us. But what is unprecedented to us is not unprecedented to God.We may not have it all figured out, but the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, who brings good from evil, who so loved the world that He gave His only Son, promises to never leave us or forsake us and to be with us to the very end. Although virtual gatherings are neither the ideal nor a permanent option for the life of the church, in this unique time of a pandemic, we can be encouraged with the fact that Christ will be present as we find creative ways of gathering together virtually.