My small group wrapped up our final online gathering last week. After 5 months of meeting weekly via Zoom, our church will launch in-person small groups next week. Groups who have been meeting virtually will once again get to gather in person at church. We are so, so excited! While meeting online presented some challenges initially, gathering virtually became an important tool as the COVID-19 crisis extended from weeks to months. Our group was able to connect, pray together, and look to God’s Word for guidance one hour each week with the help of technology. Meeting online has been such a gift.
Meeting online required some adjustments. After reading blogs and articles about how to transition from in-person to virtual gatherings, I adopted some teaching practices, tweaked others, and evaluated each week. My goal was for our online gatherings to be just as valuable and engaging as our in-person gatherings had been. It wasn’t a seamless transition, so I learned a lot. Or rather, I was reminded of a lot. Some basic practices I had known about leading an effective small group became increasingly important for online gatherings. These “basics” were crucial to our group’s success.
Here are three things COVID-19 reminded me about leading a successful small group.
1. Connecting outside of group time is critical.
Before COVID-19, I saw many of my group members once or twice a week at church. Stopping to talk before or after worship was common. We physically saw each other. As our group transitioned to meeting virtually, chance meetings and casual chats disappeared. I quickly learned that sending a weekly text was not optional. Connecting outside of our group time became a necessary link to share information and foster group interaction.
Each week, I texted our group the Bible passage we would study as well as an ice-breaker question that would kick-off our discussion. This practice no longer seemed like just a good habit; it was a vital tool used to foster relationships and increase participation. This practice reaped enormous benefit.
2. Focused, prepared teaching is necessary.
Online gatherings are just different than in-person meetings. For many, communicating through a computer screen has its limits. Our time together was shortened to stave off inattention and fatigue. So, my teaching time needed to be focused and intentional. Preparation was key. I needed to communicate the study in less time than I was used to. Brief, but clear teaching would keep our time moving and interesting. Teaching virtually meant I would sometimes need to wrap up one verse or idea and move our discussion on to the next. Keeping an eye on the clock and shepherding the overall discussion allowed us to examine the whole passage and respect the time limits of our gathering.
3. Group member engagement is not optional.
Gathering virtually changed the dynamics of our Bible study discussion. While our previous in-person discussions were easy, fluid conversations with lots of input from group members, hosting a discussion online was simply different. Some group members were hesitant to talk. Several times we accidentally talked simultaneously, making it difficult to understand. It took time. Clearly, it would have been easier for me to do most of the talking and everyone else to simply listen. But, that wasn’t the goal. So, I framed our discussion in a way that allowed time for everyone to discuss. I also clarified that group discussion was still a goal even though we were virtual. Ultimately, we overcame the challenges and enjoyed rich conversation. Meeting online for weekly Bible studies continued longer than anyone imagined and strong group member engagement was vital.
I’m so thankful for technology that allowed my group to connect virtually. This season has reminded me of several basic practices for effectively leading a small group and it sharpened my skills as a Bible study leader. I can’t say it’s been easy leading a small group via Zoom, but it has been worth it!
Since online Bible study group experiences are considerably different than gathering in a living room or classroom in person, it's important to rethink how to structure your time and interaction. Try these effective tips for participating in or facilitating an online Bible study group experience.