Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had a dramatic impact on all areas of society, including the church. As I write, President Donald Trump has just strongly discouraged all gatherings larger than 10 people, and multiple counties in California have instituted shelter-in place measures to restrict all non-necessary travel away from home. No one knows for sure how long the restrictions will last, or whether similar shelter-in-place ministries will spread to other areas of the country.
In response, many churches met online this week -- which, for most churches, meant a live or on-demand version of the Sunday morning message. That’s a great start, and will provide spiritual encouragement for many in this tumultuous time. There are numerous resources available for quickly launching online services, including those right here at thechurch.digital.
But church is more than a large group gathering. The early church met in both the temple courts and house to house. Modern churches gather in smaller groups throughout the week. These groups include small groups meeting in homes. Many churches still have a traditional Sunday School model or group-based children’s and student ministries. And many church-based recovery meetings include small groups in addition to a larger group gathering.
With the government now discouraging gatherings of ten or more, and many believers cautious about meeting face to face in any size group, how can a church meet online in both large and small venues? How can we provide community digitally in a time when social distancing and work from home policies are likely to increase loneliness and isolation at the very times people need it most?
The what is obvious: meet online rather than face to face. This article will address how to create these online communities in a way that anyone inside your church and importantly, those currently outside your church, can participate quickly and easily.
The Most Obvious Solutions Have Significant Shortcomings
Many people leading small groups will have already taken steps to connect digitally with their group. And they will have often chosen platforms they are familiar with. While this initiative is to be applauded, it can also present challenges in bringing your whole church together in digital community. Here are some of those challenges.
You Need a Digital Community that Works on All Devices
A group Facetime call seems like a great idea. Until you realize that people who don’t have Apple devices can’t participate. Same thing with Facebook Messenger group calls -- not everyone has a Facebook account. Skype? Same problem.
For global users, the same thing is true of WhatsApp. If digital community is to be available to everyone, you need a system that works on all devices -- iPhone, Android, Mac, Windows, Chromebooks, and even Linux -- so that it can include all people.
You Need a Digital Community that Passes the “Grandma Test”
Ideally, your digital community needs to pass the grandma test -- if the only thing grandma knows how to do is click a link in a web browser, then your digital community needs to be accessible to grandma. Digital natives will be able to use whatever solution you provide. Digital immigrants and digital refugees need a solution that is as simple as possible.
You Need a Digital Community that Doesn’t Require Members to Be Added to Groups in Advance
Want to do a group Facetime call? Then you need to create that group in advance. Want to do a group video call on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp? Want to use Skype? Same challenge. If you want to include everyone without building a whole series of groups in advance, you need a solution that allows you to invite people with a simple URL, so that anyone with internet access can easily join.
This is particularly important if you want to connect people who are currently not participating in your groups, classes or recovery ministry. People are already looking for community, and that need will only grow as social distancing leads to greater social isolation and loneliness.
You Can Benefit from a Digital Community Which Allows Large Group and Small Group Participation
If you’re running a decentralized small group ministry where each small group leader takes the initiative to provide digital community, then all you need to do is offer them a few technical solutions that meet the criteria above, some coaching in how to use those platforms, and then send them off to host and lead their groups. If this is the model you choose to pursue, then any of the following platforms will be helpful: Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts Meet, Zoom.
But there are significant advantages to a “hub and spoke model” which brings people together into a large group digital gathering before breaking them into smaller groups. These advantages are particularly helpful for groups that normally meet in the same physical time and space, like recovery ministries, student ministries, and Sunday School ministries. But this model also has significant advantages for decentralized small group systems. We’ll take a look at that hub and spoke model in part two of this article.