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."