The word diaspora was first used in John 7:35 to refer to the Jews who were dispersed and lived among the Greeks. In Acts 8:1-4, it is the Jewish Christians who were scattered because of the persecution of the church that began with the stoning of Stephen. In Acts 11:19 the word diaspora is used again in connection with scattered Jewish Christians who began sharing the gospel with Gentiles. Online Sunday school will be part of the “new normal” when the church returns to its buildings. Online worship and Sunday school will become the next great diaspora of the church.
The word diaspora means dispersion. Today, because of COVID-19, the church is undergoing another kind of dispersion. Our present diaspora is not a scattering caused by persecution, but one created out of necessity. God’s people have been forced to scatter from church buildings and Sunday school classrooms and into cyberspace because of shelter in place orders in our communities. Larger gatherings of people have been discouraged by local, state, and national leaders. Untold numbers of churches have quickly moved online for worship; Bible study groups have quickly followed suit. It’s a welcome and wonderful scattering of the church that wouldn’t have happened without the COVID-19 pandemic. We may ultimately look back on this as a great moment in church history. God has used a terrible disease to make the gospel more accessible than ever before. Sunday school has now moved online to stay.
Group leaders who have moved their Sunday school classes online have quickly discovered that it is not the same as teaching a group in person. Within weeks, Sunday school teachers have rediscovered the adage that you cannot place new wine in old wineskins. New rules exist, and for most groups the experience of an online Sunday school is also brand new. Successful group leaders are going to do things in new ways as they guide their groups to study the Bible in a virtual setting. As Sunday school groups have been dispersed online, successful leaders have already begun discovering a new set of rules that govern online groups.
1. Bible study sessions must be shorter.
If a teacher’s only experience has been in a traditional classroom or living room setting, they will discover a much different environment online. It may seem counter-intuitive, but groups move online, less is more. Teachers must cut their normal group session plans in half. The new rule for online Sunday school is to create a 20-minute Bible study experience. People will check out, click out, and teachers will be left wondering why people bailed out. Attention spans will be lower because of distractions in home settings (how many of us deal with barking dogs and children who are going “COVID crazy,” bursting into rooms when mom and dad are working online? Teachers cannot engage people like they once could in a face-to-face setting. 30-minute television shows have 22 minutes of show, and eight minutes of commercials. There’s a reason that producers aim for about 20 minutes of attention span.
2. Teachers must “share screen” and introduce images that enhance the study.
While people will enjoy seeing each other’s faces, they will enjoy seeing interesting images, maps, charts, and other items that can be shared through a group’s online meeting tool. Group leaders should take full advantage of the “share” feature in online meeting tools.
3. Teachers must work hard to keep people engaged.
In an online environment, teachers should talk less. A savvy online teacher will ask specific group members to read sections of Scripture. An old trick is to assign a verse to each person in numerical order and ask the group to read the passage of Scripture aloud (everyone must pay close attention for when it’s their time to read). Teachers must learn not to throw out blanket questions but should develop the skill for asking specific people to respond to specific questions (this also helps keep members' attention, not knowing who the recipient of a question will be). Even though people’s attention may wander, teachers can redirect them and pull wandering minds back into the online Bible study.
4. The use of Personal Study Guides is more important than ever before.
Because of social separation, it is vitally important for every group member to have a Personal Study Guide in hand. These study guides make sure that every group member has a discipleship tool built on a wise scope and sequence of topics that help them grow spiritually. If group members miss an online session, they can keep up with the group’s study plan (because discipleship doesn’t take a week off). Online Sunday school teachers can wisely call attention to items in the Personal Study Guide such as quotes, questions, and images to help keep people engaged and interested in the Bible study. Personal Study Guides also create synergy at a time when we are separated physically, giving the real impression that “we’re in this together” even though we are apart. This is the most practical tool that a church could possibly place in the hands of its members for online Sunday school.
5. Churches are wise to provide an ongoing online Bible study experience.
When the church returns to its buildings, some churches will be tempted to abandon online Bible study groups. Viewed by some as a stopgap measure during COVID-19, others will see it as a new way to reach people. Churches would be wise to encourage some groups to not meet together on campus and to have an ongoing study online. Sunday school groups were once the front door of the church. Back in the 50s and 60s, it was normal for families to visit a Bible study group first, then attend a worship service. Over time, worship became the front door of the church, but online groups may reverse this. It has been reported in many places that online groups have grown during COVID-19, attracting new people who have never been in a group before. Churches should consider the benefits of having one or two permanent groups online weekly. These groups can serve as a front door ministry by reaching people who find the church online and are not ready to attend the worship service or an on-campus group.