Keeping Congregations Connected: Online Fellowship and Small Groups

by Mary Frances, FaithX Senior Consultant
Online Small Groups

This post is part of a blog series on
“Keeping Congregations Connected in the Face of COVID-19”
Click here for the previous post

I was chatting with a good friend the other day. She’s a pastor; retired for about a year now after serving a very long pastorate.  In her retirement, she has been trying to find her way in a new congregation…as a participant, as a member.  Of course, she’d been at this new church for several months before the pandemic, but that is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the majority of members who have been there for decades—many, many decades.  And now the congregation is not only holding worship online but also the highly-revered small group, “coffee hour.”  Everyone comes to Zoom with their own home brew and pastry and the fellowship begins.  Or does it?

If you have ever been a visitor at a church and wanted to bolt for the door during coffee hour, you may have an idea what I am talking about.  Bad coffee, too much sugary food, and too many cliques—lots and lots of cliques.  Often, the longer people have been at a church the more they feel entitled to tune out visitors and use Sunday morning to catch up with their friends, and now we have moved this online.  Putting everyone in your church into one big Zoom call and letting the conversation rip is not going to feel inclusive, considerate, or welcoming.  Even for the most experienced Zoom users, Zoom can lend a sense of awkwardness to a conversation.  Only one person can speak at a time while everyone else watches.  People often hesitate in response because they aren’t sure if it’s their turn, so the chance to chime in is lost if you are at all meek. If the group is large, then most people are watching just a few people have a conversation.  What happens to the introverts? Will they even show up for this virtual fellowship? How will visitors navigate this?  Is this an improvement on our in-person fellowship?  I am afraid not.

So then what is an online congregation and an online small group to do?  How do we help people engage in fellowship in this modern COVID-19 world?  Do not lose hope, there are two things that can help:  

Zoom rooms and online small groups.

The novice Zoom user is often lost when it comes to Zoom rooms. But it’s a feature available in any Zoom subscription. The host can divide people into groups or rooms the size and duration of the host’s choosing. The host can decide ahead of time who should be in each group or allow the program to choose at random.  And the host can move around from one room to the next. If you have 30 people showing up for fellowship, after the first few minutes, divide them into Zoom rooms, maybe 6 groups of 5 each. Give them 10 minutes to talk and then switch up the rooms.  If folks are really new at this, give them some discussion questions or conversation starters to increase their comfort level. This is a quick, easy solution to an age-old problem.  When we met in our buildings, it could really be a challenge to get people to move out of their same old groups on Sunday morning.  With Zoom rooms, you can help them move around, get to know more people, and increase their participation.

Small groups have been around the church, well, for as long as there has been church!  We moved away from them in the 50’s and 60’s except for women’s groups and men’s groups.  We tried to bring them back in the 80’s and 90’s but by then the church was in decline and people were already feeling over-committed.  Today, small groups are the solution to the question, “When can we be together again?” While no one is advocating for opening church buildings yet, there are some places where groups of 10 or less can gather – preferably out of doors – for short periods of time, with physical distancing and masks.  Small groups provide your congregation with the opportunity to worship, study, have fun, and socialize in ways that are considered safe by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Small groups can be flexible, so that they can gather in someone’s backyard one week and online the next. And small groups can easily allow for the newcomer.  Not all groups should be filled to capacity when they are formed: allow room to participants invite a friend or neighbor to join in. And if the group gets too big, divide it up and form a new group.  

Have you started small groups at your church?  Do you have other innovations for supporting healthy fellowship?  We’d love to hear from you. Comment below or send us an email at [email protected]

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