Online social networks such as Facebook come pre-built for community, which can be quite helpful to small groups. At Grace Hills, almost every small group sets up a closed Facebook group to stay in touch between meetings. There are some good companies who have developed software that effectively provides this online connectivity, but we've found the participation rate to be highest when we allow groups to use the cloud they're already breathing daily.
A small group's Facebook group serves several rather important functions:
- Church-wide announcements are reinforced by hosts and group leaders.
- Prayer requests are shared and contained within the micro-community best equipped to provide pastoral care.
- Encouragement happens as people talk about things they're dealing with in the moment.
- Leaders are developed and volunteers are recruited as people are tapped on the shoulder through a personal message to participate on a ministry team.
- Links and helpful resources that aid and supplement the group's normal study content can be posted and discussed.
In addition to the closed groups set up for each small group, we also use separate closed groups for all small-group leaders and hosts. These groups help us communicate with leaders and equip them for their roles. While coaching still happens best face to face, we can check in on how things are going and see what concerns exist with a quick message posted to our group for leaders.
One thing that really helps leaders grow is exposure to challenging ideas. Anytime we live inside a bubble, we wind up maintaining the status quo and doing things the way we've always done them. But when we venture out, we learn what's going on in the world, what God is blessing, and what is working for other leaders.
Small-group leaders and coaches should be encouraged to use social networking for research and development. It's helpful when church leaders pass along a list of the top five to ten blogs and newsletters about ministry, leadership, and small groups. (You can subscribe to a free newsletter from SmallGroups.com here.) You can also provide a list of thought leaders to follow on Twitter and Facebook. There is a veritable firehose of fresh knowledge being created and curated online each day, which places an ever-evolving library of free resources at the fingertips of developing leaders.
When I was on staff at Saddleback Church in southern California, I was in a meeting with a half dozen other staffers trying to tackle the issues surrounding launching an online campus. The usual questions that come up relate to online worship, giving, and membership. But David Chrzan, Saddleback's Chief of Staff, asked a different question that has stimulated my thinking ever since: How do we give a cup of cold water in Jesus' name online?
In other words, how do we truly serve people in hands-on ways when we aren't sharing the same physical space? The answer has to do with the encouragement vacuum that exists in our culture. Because the Internet has turned us all into publishers, harsh opinions and cynical thoughts dominate social networks. But God's people, changed by the radical grace of Jesus, get to enter that void with genuine love and encouragement.
Small-group pastors can encourage leaders, and leaders can encourage their group members. But we can also teach all our group members to use social media for encouragement—no matter what they're posting. There's enough criticism out there, and God's people can point to a better way. We have the opportunity to use social media to acknowledge and affirm people right in the middle of their pain and their mess. And nobody should do that better than the communities we call small groups.
—Brandon Cox is Lead Pastor of Grace Hills, a new church plant that meets in a movie theater in Northwest Arkansas. He's also Editor and Online Community Facilitator of Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Free Weekly Ministry Toolbox newsletter. He can be found online at BrandonACox.com.