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Making the Most of Online Small Groups

By Scott Hughes

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For many of us, we are living in unprecedented times. The recommendations for social distancing and even self-quarantine threaten to raise our collective anxiety levels and keep us from experiencing community. Yet as the baptized community, the church affirms the need to continue meeting together (Hebrews 10:25). Now is the time for churches to be experimenting with digital tools and social media to help small groups and Sunday School classes connect in new ways and continue the church’s efforts of faith formation. There is an abundance of tools such as Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, etc., that can be leveraged to maintain and grow relationships with those in small groups (small groups being broadly defined).

In these unprecedented times, the church has an obligation to foster deeper connections with God and one another. Since we are created in the image of the Triune God, we are designed to be in relationship with others. More practically, it can bring a sense of normalcy to connect with our small group or Sunday School class while so much of life has been disrupted. Digital mediums are becoming more user friendly and widely accepted, with the introduction of applications such as FaceTime.

Faith formation leaders should be clear about the goals of connecting online and that participants are aware of their expectations. The goal could be focused on relationships and sharing experiences such as having a lesson, which could include elements of both. Adults are more likely to fully engage when they understand what is required of them. Even though our connection is imperative, our goal remains one of compassion and intimacy. Online connection will always be supplemental to tangible and incarnational ministry.

In these unprecedented times, the church has an obligation to foster deeper connections with God and one another.

We have an opportunity in this moment to equip our congregations to connect, learn, and deepen their relationship with Christ and to strengthen their relationships with others. Therefore, how we do this work is essential. Do not take the following points as an end-all-be-all. Here are a few suggestions to foster some best practices and brainstorming of ways you can maintain important relationships during this trying time.

  • Realize that using an online platform will be initially awkward. Expect less from the first meeting as participants become familiar with the technology. Without the normal cues that are more evident when we’re face-to-face, people are more likely to talk over one another. For those who are new to these platforms, take the time to help them discover the functions that are available (chat messaging, muting their microphone, turning off their video, sharing their screen, and so on). Ask participants to mute and silence possible distractions. Give a minute or so at the beginning of each meeting to allow for participants to look around the room for potential distractions.
  • Focus on relationships and sharing experiences more than a lesson or curriculum. Much like an in-person class, begin with the experiences of adults and then move into a lesson (if there is one) or more focused conversation.
  • Utilize a flipped classroom for the lesson. Have your group read an online article, listen to a sermon via podcast, or watch a video prior to the online gathering. This will maximize your group time for conversation.
  • Find ways for participants to participate. This is not the time for monologues or lectures. For fun have participants share what’s around them in the room, share photos of friends and family, show off their pets, and so on.
  • Make time for silence. Before prayer give time for silent prayer and centering. After asking a question, make the group hold off answering for 30 seconds to one minute to give participants time to reflect. Such practices can also help participants experience the difference between isolation and solitude.
  • As with in-person meetings, there is still a need for facilitation. Without some of the physical cues when meeting in-person, facilitators can call on participants when needed. Again, much like an in-person gathering, facilitators should balance exerting too much control with allowing the free flow of the conversation among the participants. Sometimes it is helpful to mute all the participants microphones except for the person speaking. It works even better when the participants mute themselves except for when they want to talk.
  • If your small group does not already have it, set up a closed Facebook group or another private way of sharing stories, experiences, crowd sourcing, best practices, and so on as a way to continue being in relationship with each even while not meeting.
  • If your church does not already have resources and platforms in place and cannot afford them, check with your district and conference.
  • Lastly, continue to adapt. If the online gathering did not go as hoped, make adjustments. Communicate with the group that this is an experiment and a learning opportunity. Keep in mind that our main objective is to maintain and build relationships.

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Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.

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