Note: this article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource Effective Online Small Groups.
Churches and ministries all over the world are asking an important question: "can online small groups actually work?" You may have researched this question yourself. If so, you may have heard some psychologists and other experts say that today's technologies are hampering the ability of young people to create real and lasting relationships. I've heard people saying those things, too, and therefore I know it's easy to recoil from using internet technology in small-group ministry. After all, developing healthy, meaningful, and lasting relationships with Christ-followers is a vital part of small groups.
However, I think we're asking the wrong question. Rather than asking if online small groups work, be need to look at the broader issue: "Is online community real?" My answer to this question is a resounding yes! I believe this because of the countless people who are experiencing very real community through the latest technologies—myself included.
Defining the Questions
First, if you're someone who denies the validity of online community, please remember that puppy love is real to the puppy. When I was a youth pastor in the 1990's, I often had parents downplay the meaningfulness of their teenager's dating relationships by saying, "They're not in love; it's just puppy love." The condescending attitude of these parents caused them to miss the fact that the feelings and experiences of their kids were very real. My response to these parents was always to help them see that their child's experiences were valid to the child. Yes, the young teenage relationship was probably not the most mature example of "love," but to the kids experiencing it, everything was very real.
Opponents to online community argue that people need physical touch, eye contact, and proximity for a "real" community experience. Then they attempt to trivialize online community by calling it "virtual." My response to these opponents is the same as my response to the parents I mentioned above: "Online community is real to the people experiencing it." So let's stop fighting about whether or not it's "real." Let's stop belittling online community by calling it "virtual."
When people who are experiencing online community say that it is powerful, authentic, impactful, and real, we can choose to believe them or call them liars. For the sake of having a constructive conversation, we must be willing to assume the best about the experience of others, rather than the worst. We must stop making judgments about online community based solely on biases, doubts, and opinions. We need to seek understanding through peaceful dialogue and personal experience.
Now that I've got that off my chest, I'll do my best to share my thoughts about the validity of online community by telling you about my own experiences with online small groups.
My First Online Small Group
In 2007 I became the Central Team Leader for Life Groups at LifeChurch.tv, which meant I was in charge of over 1000 small groups on 13 campuses in 6 different states. One of our campuses was the fairly new internet campus—an entire church online. To be honest, at the time I thought this was a neat experiment, but I didn't think it would last. Our internet campus had a pastor in charge of small groups, and part of my job was to help him be successful. Although I had my reservations about online small groups, I thought I should try one out so I could have intelligent conversations about them with the campus pastor.