My friend and I recently started an online small group, and it's been an incredible experience. In a very short time it has become one of my favorite hours of the week. Thanks to the internet and webcam technology, small groups are no longer limited by geography.
To get things started, here are some reasons why I LOVE my online small group:
- I get to do group with some great friends from across the country.
- It's simple.
- I attended once in my bathrobe when I was sick!
- We don't have to coordinate a snack schedule.
- We hold each other very accountable.
- It's one of the rawest, most honest group experiences I've ever had.
Any Church Can Have Online Small Groups
Great news: you don't have to be a 9,000-plus member church and have a crack Web Development team in order to have online small groups. A church that thinks they have to build their own software or applications for online groups is like a church that thinks they have to build an educational wing on their campus to have physical small groups.
Most small groups meet outside a church building in places that are being funded by something other than the church budget—like homes and coffee shops. So I got to thinking, why can't online groups do the same?
There are several free websites and applications out there that can be used to facilitate online groups. Here are my thoughts on a few:
Adobe ConnectNow. Adobe ConnectNow is designed to be more of a business application, but it can works well for online groups.
TokBox. TokBox is a social-networking webcam site and is simpler to use than Adobe ConnectNow.
The catch with both Connect Now and TokBox is that everyone needs headphones. Without them there will be a distracting echo.
- Google Chat and Skype. Google Chat and Skype are also great for online groups, but only for two people. These applications are perfect if you emphasize accountability and/or mentoring in your church.
See? It's not hard. I dare every pastor reading this to go out and start some online small groups! I even challenge every small-group leader to try and have your physical group meet online a couple of times just for the experience. The technology for online groups exists and is free, so what's holding you back?
Making Online Groups Part of Your Ministry Strategy
In my opinion, the debate about whether or not online groups work is over—it has been decided conclusively, and the answer is yes. The question now is, "How can we incorporate online groups into our church's regular small-group strategy?"
Below are some steps you can take to fully integrate online groups into your church's strategy quickly and effectively.
As the ministry leader, start an online group of your own. By doing this you'll learn how to navigate the joys and challenges that your future online group leaders will experience.
Think of online groups like every other group. Don't allow yourself to think that online groups are something different, separate, or less-than groups that meet in physical locations.
Add "online group" as a location or group type category in your small-group database.
Market online groups to the congregation. Specifically target groups like business people and stay-at-home-moms. The convenience of online groups is especially relevant for them.
Give away a few webcams and headsets to the first few online groups that start.
- Use an "online small group tip sheet." Create your own or download mine by clicking here.
There are countless ways to take advantage of online technology in your small-group ministry. All it takes is some out-of-the-box thinking and the guts to try something new. (And if you've got any ideas that I've not shared here, by all means leave a comment and help everyone out!)
Online Groups Are Happening Now
If this article has piqued your interest and you are thinking about taking this bold step, keep the following in mind:
Online groups aren't all that different. People seem to think there's a huge difference between online groups and face-to-face groups. Really, thanks to technology, there's very little difference at all. As my favorite philosopher, Yoda, once said: "No different. Only different in your mind."
Utilize online groups locally. One mistake I think many churches make is to pigeonhole online groups by thinking of them only in terms of "long-distance groups." Online groups can take place locally. I have some friends who have a child with a weak immune system. Their child can never leave the home except to go to the doctor. An online group could be a great solution for them! The couple could attend a group together and never have to worry about special care for their son.
People who work in the busy corporate world can benefit from online groups. People living in a bedroom community can benefit from online groups. Stay-at-home-moms can benefit from them. The only thing limiting online groups is our thinking and our imagination.
Online groups will be mainstream. Decades ago, small groups outside the walls of the church building were thought of as dangerous and different. Video projectors in the worship service were considered wild and cutting edge. Rock and roll, television, and the internet were all thought to be pure evil. Now these things are mainstream in our approach to ministry.
Online groups are new and strange today, but tomorrow they'll be considered normal. Truth be told, online community already is normal outside the church—it's time for us to catch up!
Don't be afraid. Don't wait for a committee to approve it. Don't worry about needing help, just contact me and I'll be glad to walk you through some first steps. Bottom line: stop thinking about it and get started. Online small groups are happening now!
—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.