How Online Church Powers Your Small Groups

A couple weeks ago, the lead pastor of one of the churches we’ve worked with at AltarLive had a hard time with a new concept. He could not wrap his mind around the prospect of people talking among themselves during an online church service. “Why would we want people to talk during the sermon? As an old guy, I don’t quite get that.”

Later, after he and his team talked some more about changes going on during Covid, he thoughtfully mused, “Actually, I have heard good reports from some churches about people gathering on a social-distanced porch on a Sunday listening to a livestream and interacting.”

A ‘New Normal’ Sighting: Deeper Engagement

His first response was normal. New things often seem odd, out of place, or downright wrong. I remember when my church introduced an overhead projector to display worship song lyrics on a screen. It seemed like a sacrilege to even consider it. But, after just one or two Sundays of hearing a full congregation sing with their heads up and eyes forward, we all had quickly learned to love that new normal.

It is understandable for a pastor to find it distracting (and rude!) if their congregation is conducting full-on conversations right there in front of them in the church pews. But, doing church online all summer has developed some intriguing new habits. People are talking about the sermon. They are applying the message to real issues going on in each others’ lives in real time. They are having intellectual discussions about theology brought up in the message. They are sharing what they just heard with friends and family who are also watching online. They are going deeper.

For how long have pastors hoped for exactly this kind of engagement? How many have wondered if their hard work on a sermon has any traction or staying power with their flock? How many have politely listened to shallow chit-chat — instead of hearing impact — during coffee hour after service?

I was encouraged by how quickly my “I’m-an-old-guy” pastor moved from “that seems wrong” to “that seems cool” when he thought about people engaging in real-time around scriptural messages.

How can pastoral leaders foster more of this kind of engagement using new techniques discovered during Covid?

Small Group Discussions: Deeper on Sunday

Prior to Covid, our pastoral staff created discussion questions for our many small groups to use for their gatherings in someone’s home later that week. The hope, of course, was that people actually paid attention to the sermon in the first place, and could recall its content and main points several days afterward.

These past months, the discussion questions now show up online during the sermon itself. As we watch online (in our case, a pre-recorded service), the pastor pauses several times during the message and asks us to read and respond to questions posed on the screen.

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The pause lasts for 2 minutes. A handful of people respond in the chat on YouTube.

Meanwhile, some of us conduct our own private chat using text, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or our medium of choice. We have thoughts, but we aren’t comfortable “talking out loud” in front of the entire congregation.

Small Group Discussions: Deeper All Week Long

The big payoff comes with small groups. A typical Tuesday or Thursday evening small group discussion now gets kicked into gear Sunday morning. The “talkative” member of the group (every group has at least one) takes the discussion question posed by the pastor and begins typing away — in an email, in chat, wherever.

Now, a funny thing about people in small groups. Some are quick to talk, others are quick to listen. And, in this new online dynamic, the conversation takes place over the course of hours, or a day, or several days. Not everyone is going to respond in the moment. But, it is helpful when one person gets the ball rolling. It may be later on Sunday when the next person responds or adds to the conversation. And another on Monday morning. And, just like that, there is an ongoing conversation that continues through the week, and perhaps reaches a peak by the time the group meets altogether at their appointed time.

Some in the group will not speak much in the online context. However, they are able to consume the group interaction in their own way, letting it germinate during the week.

“I don’t think people realized what online discipleship would mean beyond Sunday morning,” says Rev. Tony Arnold, online campus pastor, Christ Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia on a recent podcast with Jason Stanley. “We have a solid Sunday experience, we want to extend that beyond Sunday. We know that most of the growth isn’t going to happen just keeping your faith contained on Sunday morning. It’s what you do with your faith throughout the week, the way you intentionally approach it, that really matters.”

Yes, all of this post-Sunday interaction could have been happening for years now, but usually hasn’t. Because church is now experienced online, people have adapted their habits to the medium, and are using it in ways that feel natural to the setting, and conducive to the dynamic of their groups.

“What God has done through this season,” says Arnold, “has forced us out of our comfort zone so that we are able to discover new ways of being in ministry with others.

Did the Pastor Actually Say That?

Another new normal the “I’m-an-old-guy” pastor will come to appreciate: the shelf life of sermon videos. Whether the sermon message is pre-recorded or live, there is a video online that people can refer back to. How many times has a member of a group discussion mentioned something from the sermon, only to have a brother or sister respond, “I don’t remember hearing that. What did the pastor say?” And now, instead of trying to piece together a subtle point from memory from a few days ago, there is a quick clip from the video.

Small group leaders, and the pastoral staff who support them, can even make snippets of key points or illustrations from the sermon available as bite-size media for groups to share as part of their conversation. Likewise, group members can link to other material they have found — articles, social media posts, other sermons — to help stimulate and propel the conversation.

All this video, and the commentary around it, can be contributed, consumed and discussed before, during and after the small group actually meets. As Covid eventually recedes and groups are fully returned to the intimate in-person model they’ve always been, simple sharing technologies adopted during the shutdown will find a fruitful role in small groups that are deeper and more engaged.

Hybrid Church, Hybrid Small Groups

Some churches are still entirely online through at least the end of 2020. Others have reopened, with a portion of congregants gathering in-person and others sticking to online for now. This hybrid model takes some getting used to.

Small groups are a different breed. Most small groups are small enough to hold in-person meetings, with varying degrees of social distancing. Church small group consultant Allen White has seen larger small groups dividing into multiple smaller groups in order to comply with strict social distancing guidelines, leading to an explosion in the number of small groups. While small groups can also meet online, the appeal of a local and intimate in-person small group gathering — especially for a church that is still partly or completely online — is compelling.

This has created a different kind of hybrid: the church is online, and the small groups are in-person. And it has led to one of the unlooked-for blessings of this trying season: a new and strengthened overlap between what happens in church online on Sunday with the discipling that occurs in small groups in-person during the week.

Small Groups + Online Service = New Normal

We all keep hearing that some welcome new things will emerge out of the crucible of the shutdown. Talking with many pastors, it seems that more and deeper discipling within small groups is one of those unlooked for new strengths of the local church.