There is a difference between starting a group online and moving a group from meeting in-person to online. And each scenario presents its unique challenges. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, I can now say I have done both! In either case, having an engaging setting is essential. The "room" or environment really serves as another character in the experience.
My pastor frequently says the 12 apostles did not have the internet, but we do, so how do we leverage it for God's glory? I must admit that I was never one to look too hard into online groups before social distancing became commonplace. I have learned so many things during this time, and one of the biggest is that virtual groups are definitely viable and, in some cases, the only option. My 82-year-old mother has been in assisted living for three years. With church services canceled and all shapes and sizes of churches moving to online group experiences, my mother joined her Sunday School class for the first time in three years! It has been incredible to watch her reconnect.
As leaders, we can set the stage for an engaging experience. Online groups allow for a wide variety of meeting times. Weekend times could be a great option and groups meeting later at night help those with kids and bedtimes. Small group times vary from an hour and a half to two hours when meeting in person. Without as much “social space,” an hour is more realistic for digital groups.
Preparing to Start a New Online Group
Before your online group meets, let the members and guests know what to expect. Listing names in an email, but not sharing their contact information at this time, helps everyone preview the group. They may already know another participant, and they can assess the size. Explain how long you plan on meeting and what you plan on doing during that first time. Should they bring a Bible or have the YouVersion app ready?
With each participant comes a different technology background. Encourage your group members to go ahead and set-up whichever tool will be used for the meeting before the start time. There are several great virtual options: Google chat, Zoom, FaceTime, etc. This preliminary work will hopefully eliminate or at least shorten the awkward first moments when strangers are looking at each other, and others are trying to clumsily log on.
How to Have a Great First Meeting
Just like you would give an overview of your home before and during the first small group meeting, covering parking, snacks, and where the bathrooms are, it is vital to do the same for an online group. Help give a quick tutorial of the "screen." Go over muting and how to use it, different screen views, and even how to position the camera. I have had a few new groups where we were looking at someone's ceiling fan the whole time! Lay any ground rules that would be helpful. Here is an email I sent to a new group I started online:
I've heard from several of you, and I think we should give this a go! We will meet at 1:30 PM on Sunday using Zoom. We will get to know each other a bit and discuss how this group will work. Plan on 45 minutes for our first meeting. If you have not used Zoom before, be sure to take the time to get set-up before we meet. Do not hesitate to ask if you need help. Hopefully, we can each find a quiet place in our homes. Below are the names of those that are interested as well as the information on how to log in. I would love to know if you plan on being there! I am praying for you this week and for our time together.
When you have a digital group in place, it will take time to get used to the new normal. Even our established groups have benefited from ice breaker questions to allow everyone to get into the virtual groove. Playing online games also provides for a comfort level with each other and the technology. Houseparty, Pictionary, and QuizUp are few. A quick Google search will produce a lot of options.
Another way to get to know each other is by having a little show and tell from each person's home, your favorite place to sit, a meaningful picture, or a souvenir from a special trip. You can let people know what you plan on doing ahead of time. Anything to help make connections!
Having a Great Discussion Time
Now for the discussion! All of your preliminary efforts will set the stage to have in-depth conversations and Bible study. If you are using a video study, it works well to have each group member watch ahead of time. Should there be a discussion guide or questions, you can also send those in advance.
Know that the situations that occur in-person will happen here too. For example, there will be an over talker and sometimes life happens with unexpected news and you drop the plan to extend support and encouragement at that moment. It is definitely OK to allow silence after questions and it may even last a little longer. I also think it is fine to ask someone directly, “Susie, what are your thoughts?” Or, “Share a little bit more about what you mean.” Zoom offers breakout rooms for even smaller groups or to separate by gender. That is a great option for prayer requests. Or, end the group and pair people up to connect on their own for closing prayer. The end goal of a biblical small group to help people grow in a relationship with Jesus is definitely achievable.
The Importance of a Follow-up
The follow-up for the first meeting is equally as important. I like to make contact with each person to allow them the opportunity to ask questions and thank them for attending. It may be worth acknowledging the uniqueness of doing group this way and encourage them to stick with it for a few weeks. As you connect individually, be sure to do a follow-up group message of some sort that shares all names and contact information of those present, as long as everyone is comfortable with that. Making that follow-up quickly is helpful. As a leader, it is key to help your group members connect to each other and not only to you.
A few days before the next meeting, remind your group of the time, send the meeting link, and express that you will be looking for them! I always think asking for an RSVP is helpful for you and them. Sending the link out an hour or 30 minutes before the group is also beneficial.
And finally, as you set the stage for your online group, be sure to pray! Pray over each person, ask the Lord to give you wisdom as the leader, and pray for the Holy Spirit to move beyond the barriers of computer screens.
The disciples did not have cell phones, tablets, or computers, but we do. Let's leverage it for God's glory!