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.
I wish I could say my first experience was enough to make me love online groups, but I can't. All we had back then were small-group chat rooms with no video or audio interaction—everything was typed. The only video was the curriculum, which was taught by me. So every group in the church knew who I was, including our online groups. As a result, I felt strange about showing up to the group as myself, thinking that I might intimidate the group leader. My solution to this quandary (and I'm not at all proud of this) was to lie. I logged in as a 60 year old man named Dale (my middle name).
So there I was, pretending to be someone else, in a group with a bunch of people I couldn't see or hear, all of whom I didn't know. It was all pretty surreal. Anyway, it astonished me how quickly people opened up in the group. One first-time attender confessed an addiction, and another group member was very vocal with opinions. It felt like a strange, anonymous free-for-all, and I didn't like it.
As a result, I pretty much wrote off online groups as something that was relevant only for a very niche group. I felt like online groups were definitely a "less-than" experience when compared to a typical face-to-face small group.
My Second Online Small Group
Two years later a friend of mine asked me to start an online group with him. I was very reluctant, but this friend is a guy I've known since 1990. He's a man that I respect and trust. Reluctantly, I agreed. Little did I know that it was a decision that would alter my perspectives regarding groups—both traditional and online—for the rest of my life.
The group started with just the two of us, and we used www.tokbox.com because it was a free group video chat service that allowed for up to 20 people in one video chatroom. Within a couple of weeks I was loving my new small group! We had five people in the group and it was amazing. I felt as connected to these people as I'd ever felt in a face-to-face group. This experience was nothing like my first online group experience because I could see and hear everyone in the group. We were in different parts of the country, but we all felt very connected. Eventually I even connected face-to-face with some local people in the group.
I experienced genuineness in this group. I had fun. I experienced powerful prayer and moving Bible study. I was held accountable like never before, and I even got to participate in mission with my online group. After being a part of that group for more than two years, I can say with absolute confidence that it is the best small group experience I've ever had. Period.
This is only my opinion, of course, but since it's an opinion based on my own experience, no one will be able to change my mind. Someone might claim that my love for this group is just "puppy love," but I'll quickly retort, "It's real to this puppy."
Why Do Online Small Groups Work?
I believe that people who say online community isn't real simply haven't experienced legitimate community online. Think about the people you've met in your church who say, "I tried a small group but it just didn't work." That's because they didn't really experience community. They tried it, but they didn't really experience it. No sensible person would say, "I've had one piece of bad pizza so all pizza must be bad." Likewise, we're foolish to say, "I had a shallow online community experience, so all online community is bad."
Don't just take my word for it, though. Consider the fact that more and more churches every year are leveraging online small groups. Every time I attend another small-group conference, I meet more people like myself who are experiencing very real, very powerful Christian community through online small groups.
I believe online groups work for three simple reasons:
- Online groups take less time (driving to and from group), so they help eliminate the "I don't have time" excuse.
- Satan is dominating the war for online territory, and God honors our efforts when we fight to claim online territory for Christ's sake.
- Online community is proven. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites have proven that community can successfully take place online. We can deny it and have experts point out all the reasons that it is bad, or we can jump in and leverage online community for the sake of Christ's Kingdom.
Hundreds of millions of people are experiencing community online every day, and it's definitely time for Christians to get involved.
—Alan Danielson is the Senior Pastor of New Life Bible Church in Norman, Oklahoma. Alan is a popular conference speaker and consults regularly with ministries and leaders on topics relating to small groups and leadership. Learn more from Alan at www.3Threat.net.