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Taking Small Groups Online

By Kayla Marcantonio | Church Leadership

Over the past several weeks, nearly every U.S. pastor has joined the media team. As with other challenges believers have faced throughout history, the Church has risen to the occasion amid the coronavirus pandemic. The gospel continues to go forth, through online messages, drive-in services and acts of compassion.

At Crossing Place Church (Assemblies of God) in Bayou Vista, Louisiana, we’ve asked the same questions as other congregations across the country: Which ministries do we focus on? Where can we innovate? What can we continue but do differently?

We decided to keep two things consistently running online: Sunday service and small groups.

With social distancing measures in place, it can be tempting to cut small groups. Bible studies and curriculum-based groups can continue discussion through video conferencing apps, such as Zoom and FaceTime, but will anyone actually log on?

How can we expect people to study through Hebrews when their minds are on unemployment, their next meal, or when they can see their family again?

We consider our small group leaders to be an extension of pastoral care. They serve as pastors to their small group members, those God has entrusted to their care (1 Peter 5:2). But right now, leaders can’t sit next to their people and extend a hug or a hand in prayer.

So, we adapt as the Holy Spirit leads. Shepherding is still shepherding, even during this time of social distancing. Care looks different, but we can continue to connect others to God and one another while remaining at home.

In our short time of leading physically distanced small groups, we’ve learned three important lessons.

1. The clock does not define small group success. I’ve been known to say, “Our small group was excellent. It lasted more than two hours!”

There’s nothing wrong with this statement. We’ve had some amazing extended times of discipleship. But this is probably not the season for long meetings.

Because many people seem to have extra time on their hands, leaders may expect longer sessions. However, technology has trained our brains to process information quickly when staring at a screen.

We also get bored more easily. And if there are young children at home, a 30-minute breather may be all some group members can manage before getting back to family life.

Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by measuring success by the length of your meeting. Our prayer group has landed at a solid 30 minutes when it’s normally an hour or more. Did we fail? Is our group less spiritual? Absolutely not.

Do not give up on your small groups because of social distancing.

Success right now is a smile on a frustrated parent’s face, connection when depression is at bay, and a reminder that someone is thinking of them.

2. Leading conversation is more like moderating. Think about your favorite news or talk show. What makes each of these programs work is the moderator or host. This person sets up the topic, leads by asking questions, gives time cues, and offers everyone a chance to speak.

Without such guidance, the show would not be successful. One person would talk too much. Other contributors would hold back, never saying anything. The same is true for your online group.

Don’t just ask, “So, what’s going on?” Your online group needs a topic, prepared questions and your direction. Statements like these can help guide the flow of online meetings in terms of direction, time, engagement and pastoring:

  • “Here is a verse God put on my heart. I want each person to share what came to mind when I was reading it” (direction).
  • “We have a couple of things left to talk about in our group. Take another minute so we can hear how the story ends” (time).
  • “Before signing off, I want each of us to share one thing we are thankful for during this time” (engagement and pastoring).

3. Creativity helps. Now is the time to embrace innovation. Small group leaders have come up with some ingenious ideas for bringing people together while apart. Consider these examples:

  • The softball group turned into a sports discussion group and held an NFL mock draft online.
  • A leader for a group of preteen girls issues daily art challenges through text. When each girl finishes the project, she texts it to the group for everyone to see.
  • The Couples for Christ group played an online version of The Newlywed Game. The wives answered questions while the husbands left the room, and vice versa. The couple with the most points won a gift card.
  • The Men’s Coffee group asked guys to post “before” and “after” pictures of the projects they’ve tackled.
  • A group leader mailed out stamped envelopes and encouraged group members to send letters to people who are at home alone.

At first glance, these activities may not seem spiritual. Yet they are helping people connect with one another and find encouragement in the body of Christ. During this difficult and sometimes awkward time, small groups are continuing to offer friendship and share the love of Jesus (John 15:17).

Do not give up on your small groups because of social distancing. Don’t just sideline this vital ministry until life returns to normal and you can do things the way you’ve always done them.

People need one another now more than ever. Adopt the mindset of Paul in Philippians 3:13, “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” — or, in this case, what is online.