Online small groups are proliferating, yet there continues to be debate about their effectiveness. Some find increased freedom of expression and connection to others enhanced through them; others believe them to be restrictive to relationship building. Some say online groups better accommodate their schedules; others find dealing with the challenges of technology to be too frustrating.
Online groups can be very successful for making and growing disciples. They satisfy the needs that attract people to online activity. I believe to achieve success, matching appropriate technology to the specific online needs of those you want to attract is crucial. For example, while many are attracted to the opportunity that occurs in live video discussions, others prefer using online venues for written expression, flexibility in scheduling or anonymity.
As you develop your online groups, consider the following:
For a video experience:
- Google Hangouts, Zoom and Skype offer real-time interactions for participants. The video and sound qualities are good, scheduling is simple, and a variety of options such as showing images and documents on the screen and live written chats are available simultaneous to the video interaction.
For more participation scheduling flexibility:
- BeADisciple offers opportunity to either use the website’s platform to set up your own small group and curriculum or you can invite participants to join preset, Wesleyan-theology based groups with members from around the world. Prerecorded videos and other materials guide the group. Members correspond in writing on a discussion board to materials as they are introduced. Several church leaders throughout GNJ use this resource, including Deb DeVos and Rev. Jenny Smith-Walz, Trinity UMC in Hackettstown.
- Moodle provides open source software for learning and teaching. You provide your own content, but it has a simple interface with drag-and-drop features to make it easy to learn and use.
- Northwind Institute, founded by retired GNJ Elder Dr. Robert Duncan, can set up small groups for churches. This platform uses Moodle and Adobe.
- Facebook has functions for groups but can be more limited in capability, less secure and lacking in storing and searching solutions. However, because so many people are familiar with Facebook, it can provide an easy solution. During Lent last year, Juel Nelson of Succasunna UMC instigated a Bible study for both laity and clergy in GNJ with Facebook. Participants took turns choosing and leading the lessons to lighten the load and offer a broader learning perspective.
For integrating online experience with in-person meetings:
- Combining options can be an effective means of leading small groups. The PaCE group (Pursuing a Clergy Excellence) on Time Management, meets three ways: in person, via Zoom and on Twitter where there is a running dialogue.
- Meetup is a great tool for small groups intended to attract members from the broader community. They can advertise the group via the online message boards.
So the question is not whether to meet online, but rather how best to use technology to meet the needs of the group.
Personally, I have enjoyed Bible studies on social media, I have had powerful experiences through virtual prayer groups, and I’ve designed small groups that use more than one online tool to make them effective.
How have you used online tools in small groups?