eLearning: Is it Virtual or Reality?

Using the internet to boost your training process.

You are reading this because you value small group community and relational ministry…me too.

A big part of small group ministry is trying to figure out the best way to train and to model relational ministry to emerging group leaders who will then do the same for others in their future small groups. (Sounds a lot like 2 Tim. 2:2!) That makes the connection between you (as a church leader) and your small group leaders critical. It is worth thinking about and using methods, technologies and tools to get that job done well.

As soon as I say the word technology, some will say that relational ministry cannot be effectively done in the high-tech, low-touch cyber world of email and the Internet! Some have argued that online interaction is a cheap substitute for "real" community. It is virtual at best, some would say. When it comes to helping small group leaders in your own church, while I would be the first person to tell you relational ministry still revolves around face-to-face, soul-to-soul interaction, the reality is that online community and training methods hold a great deal of power as well.

An eLearning Story

A ministry friend of mine named Spencer Burke tells the story of a member of the community at theooze.com—an online community with participants from all over the world who share with one another about faith issues. One particular member of this online community was a staff member at a fairly large church. During one of his church staff meetings, which was his primary small group, he shared that his wife had just suffered a miscarriage. As expected, there was concern and prayers offered during that staff group time. He also posted his loss on theooze.com's discussion board online.

While the staff small group expressed concern and prayers, they did not ever offer to provide a meal for his family. They did not follow up with a note or a call or a visit. Meanwhile, the online community that was notified of the loss sent hand-written sympathy notes. Some took the time to do searches until they found this couple's address and sent them flowers. Some did the same with gift cards to restaurants. Some even called information to get their phone number and called them to pray with them over the phone. These were people they had never seen face to face.

I am not saying or advocating that an online community is preferable or more effective than a local, face-to-face community. I am not saying an online community is better. I am simply saying that relational community, relational caring, relational training, and mentoring can happen and can be effective through the use of some emerging technology.

Are My Small Group Leaders Online?

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project,* nearly two-thirds of the adults who use the Internet in the United States have used the Internet for faith-related matters. That represents nearly 82 million Americans. Among the most popular and important spiritually-related online activities:

- 38% of the 128 million Internet users have sent and received email with spiritual content.
- 35% have sent or received online greeting cards related to religious holidays.
- 32% have gone online to read news accounts of religious events and affairs.

*(Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2004 www.pewInternet.org)

In a survey of small group ministry participants conducted by SmallGroups.com this summer (2004), we found that 92% of the churches we surveyed across North America said that "most" of their small group leaders have email access. All of the church leaders we surveyed said they used email, at least occasionally, to communicate small group ministry information. 63% said they use email often as a small group ministry communication tool.

Therefore, at least consider using tools like email to regularly contact group leaders in your care or group members in your own small group. At least consider establishing email newsletters, web pages, online discussion forums, or blogs for your own people (a blog is a web journal).

What Makes eLearning Reality?

Our SmallGroups.com survey indicates that nearly three quarters of small group ministry leaders are planning to increase their use of email/Internet technologies for acquiring and distributing small group leader information. However, a reality-check response on this same survey was this: While nearly three-quarters said they were planning to increase use of email/Internet, 67% said they were "not confident" or were only "somewhat confident" that increased email would be read or that more recommended web sites would be visited. Thus, it is important not just to use technology, but to have a strategy for incorporating technology into your overall learning and training pathway.

This survey also identified 8 learning tools that are being most frequently used as part of a small group leader's learning and training pathway by those involved in small group ministry. Below is that list in alphabetical order. (No order of importance is implied.)

  • Tool #1 - Apprenticing (on-the-job experience)
  • Tool #2 - Books
  • Tool #3 - Curriculum Study Guides (Leader Guides)
  • Tool #4 - Church-Sponsored (In-house) Training Events
  • Tool #5 - Email
  • Tool #6 - Outside (off-site) Training Events
  • Tool #7 - Personal Coaching
  • Tool #8 - Web Sites

Now, with each tool, I have suggested a way to enhance the tool with eLearning ideas.

Tool #1 - Apprenticing (on-the-job experience)

There is little that can replace the experience of actually watching someone lead a group from within and actually doing it yourself, but how can you take these experiences to the next level? One critical way is for an established leader and an apprentice leader to meet one-on-one or couple-to-couple outside the small group time to debrief and provide encouragement about life and ministry in their small group community. Do most find time to meet like this frequently? It can be difficult at best to schedule these get-togethers, so why not maximize your face-to-face times with email journaling. Email journaling is just a way to share your real-time thoughts when you cannot find a real time to meet. Simply type your question, insight, or prayer concern in an email to your leader/apprentice, and they can do the same.

Here is what one individual said about this process on a www.EasumBandy.com email community: "The experience of watching my fellow co-leader begin journaling since January has been the single most spiritually rewarding experience of the last several years. It started slowly but we added another apprentice and increased the frequency of entries with experience so that we are now daily sharing our entries with each other via e-mail. The e-mails reveal the growth in our spiritual lives as we really do strive to be who God has created us to be—and we are finding incredible strength in that experience even and especially through difficult times. I dearly value journaling myself, but when finished each day I can hardly wait to open my inbox and experience how the Lord is working through the others. And often times I'm able to reply to their e-mails, either with my own additional insights or, more often, by reflecting on how their insights have in fact helped me to grow."

Tool #2 - Books

The Internet has revolutionized book selection and book buying. No longer do you have to wonder whether a particular book will be helpful to your ministry or not. There is now an abundance of book reviews that you can find online. Many of the online bookstores also include sample portions of the book as well as reader reviews, so that you can try before you buy. There are many such online bookstores. Here is just a couple of examples:
(an affiliate of www.amazon.com Christian books)

Additionally, eBooks (books that are downloaded digitally to a computer or hand-held viewer) are still in their infancy on the adoption curve. Even so, there are several good resources out there and some are free. Try http://www.jesus.org.uk/... or http://www.prayerforallpeople.com/free.shtml or http://www.palm-press.com/Christian.html or http://www.toptwentychristian.com/.

You can also go to your favorite author's web sites. Sometimes you can get "advance looks" in the form of ebooks or portions of new books before they are released.

Tool #3 - Curriculum Study Guides (Leader Guides)

Many small group curriculum study guides have built-in leader guides to help you, not only facilitate a study, but to develop your overall group leadership skills. Most of these leadership guides are found printed in the published study guide. However, these study guides are being made available in other forms including DVD and online. A couple of examples can be found at:

Tool #4 - Church-Sponsored (In-house) Training Events

Many small group ministry leaders will say, "It is hard to get my group leaders to come to training events at the church building." This is a common problem. How do you solve it? Certainly the on-site gatherings are important, but perhaps some of the "in-house" training can be accomplished through decentralized methods rather than centralize methods. SmallGroups.com is producing a tool called "Interactive Online Training" that would allow group leaders to experience "seminar-like" content, but would allow them to do it on their own time at any computer with Internet connection. This eLearning experience can then become the basis for the group leader gatherings, minimizing the amount of content (and the amount of meetings) needed to present the needed information. Here is an example of just such a tool.

Tool #5 - Email

Email is used for everything from personal one-on-one communication to mass distributed email newsletters going to thousands. But here is an idea—how about using email to enhance your precious time in face-to-face meetings?

At my local church, I am part of the primary leadership team. When we get our leadership group together we mostly focus on the stuff you can do most effectively face-to-face—eating a meal together, acting out stories and testimonies from our lives and ministry, crying and laughing together. If we have a task or logistical decision to make, say involving money or programs or facilities or schedules, we have agreed to take care of this by emailing the question and then having everyone respond back with the "reply to all" button. That helps us to focus face-to-face time on relationships and utilizes online tools to supplement the process.

Tool #6 - Outside (off-site) Training Events

The first place to check out a list of off-site small group training events being held around the world is the Internet. SmallGroups.com has a Training Calendar that lists many small group training events. The SmallGroups.com Resource Provider list will also have several training opportunity listings.

Beyond listings of training events, you can often find online reviews of training events and articles that will give you ideas for choosing the best training event for your small group leadership team to attend together.

Tool #7 - Personal Coaching

Coaching, like apprenticing, is a relational task that traditionally happens face-to-face. However, the use of online forums has opened up a new world of opportunities for "distance coaching." If you do not have experienced and dedicated coaches in your small group ministry situation (which is a common challenge many face) then consider getting your leaders to interact with experienced small group coaches outside your area through an online forum. A few such forums already exist. Many use the internet, and some use telephone conference calls.

Some of the advantages to distance coaching:
- You receive free or inexpensive information and ideas of enormous value to your ministry and personal leadership development from colleagues on mission around the world.
- Just one individual online can link entire small groups and mission teams to a long distance learning process.
- Learning can be summarized for forum participants so that they can build their own data bank of growth.
- Each participant can seek advice and post questions, often receiving replies from many colleagues in like contexts or facing similar issues.

A couple of distance coaching resources can be found at:

Tool #8 - Web Sites

The Internet is an incredible small group information source…if people know how to find what they are looking for! Just because you know a great web site, does not mean that your small group leaders will know how to browse around the site as easily as you do. If you send a link to a web site for your leaders to check out, be specific. Send all the important information like login procedures and specific page addresses you want them to view. If possible, hyperlink right from the document or email so that the process of them going to the page is as seamless as possible (most applications allow you to add hyperlinks with the "Insert" menu).

It also helps to have a short list of sites that you check regularly. This helps you cut down on your internet search times and helps you find the nuggets of information that will be most useful to your ministry situation. For small group ministry, I have found these sites to be great places to do some nugget mining….


As you can see, eLearning can be done in many ways. It is decentralized, it is available any where and any time, and it is need-directed. It can equip your small group leaders for greater ministry. It is not just virtual, it can be a reality!

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