Taking Small Groups Online
With the prospect of being unable to meet physically, churches are beginning to think through how we can use digital technology to enable them to continue. What does that look like in practice?
This week we had our inaugural online growth group using video calling. We need to be honest, it was odd and not as good as being physically together. That’s not surprising.
But we did make a good go of it and people who attended virtually all said it was a good thing to do and they are keen to keep going.
Like most groups, I guess, we have a mix of vulnerable and non-vulnerable people in ours, whether because of age (in the case of a few) or underlying health issues. We don’t, as yet, have anybody self-isolating but we wanted to get our system up and running in preparation.
I thought I would share some of the lessons we have learned as we have planned and prepared.
Choose Your Platform
We wanted to ensure the maximum number of people could access the meeting easily and reliably. That means having the facility to schedule online meetings and also dial in by telephone on a standard rate number. We have one couple who are partially sighted and used this method at first, and another of our groups tried a simple conference calling approach - however, it was not nearly so successful.
We decided to use a paid-for Zoom account (£15 per host - including VAT) which allows us to do all of this and a little more (screen sharing for example). The advantage of Zoom is that it doesn’t necessarily require software: you can run through a web browser like Google Chrome, Safari, or Microsoft Edge. No wonder Zoom’s share price has rocketed 58% this year, one of the few shares to flourish in the crisis.
You need to be realistic about what you can achieve with video calling as a small group. For instance, we sometimes like to sing but, with the slight time lag, that simply doesn’t work. The only answer is to listen to one person sing, but you’d have to be brave to attempt that!
Perhaps more importantly, most small group times are a mixture of formal and informal parts. They are not just ‘prayer and Bible study’ and the time we spend together talking about our lives is critical to their health. We really value that in our group but it doesn’t really work online. You can’t have several conversations going on at once nor does this format lend itself to chat.
So, we’ve also set up a WhatsApp chat for our small group. And we’ve explicitly encouraged people to ‘chat’ on it in the same way they would at a small meeting: ‘how did this go?’; ‘how’s your mum?’; ‘did you watch this TV show?’. Such groups need rules themselves – for example, we tell people not to always expect or feel they have to give immediate responses.
Ensure Strong Leadership
These online groups do need to be strongly led: they need someone to chair and make clear who is speaking and – indeed – invite people to speak.
In a physical gathering, such clear leadership is often not necessary as body language also serves a purpose – a nod here, a glance in someone’s direction invites them to speak. That doesn’t work online!
This is new to most of us so inevitably there are some practical issues we’re still working through.
Some devices work better than others. We have an old iPad at home, and we’re thinking through whether it will be useful to give it to someone in the group.
Encouraging people to switch to gallery view (on Zoom) helped. You may need to guide people through how to use the software fully.
Some people sit a bit too far from the microphone and so are hard to hear in prayer times. But don’t be afraid to say ‘speak up’ or ‘move closer.’ It all helps serve one another.
Online is not as good as meeting together, no. But not bad. Not bad at all.