by Carolyn Moomaw Chilton
A vibrant Episcopal congregation in metropolitan Washington D.C. grew frustrated with their paltry number of adult small groups. They were even more frustrated with the paltry number of adults who participated in small groups! When they asked people why they didn’t participate the number one answer was…..you guessed it….”I don’t have time,” or “I’m too busy.” But from their young adults they also got “I work crazy hours and travel a lot, and so can’t commit to a group one night a week.”
And that answer led them to try online small groups. And you guessed it…it is a huge success. Why? For two reasons they say: one it allows people to participate at their own schedule, and two, it feeds people’s interest in studying about the church and learning about spirituality. And the church benefits by providing education and formation, especially to young adults (20’s and 30’s) and growing the sense of connectedness and community to their congregation. It is also a great evangelism tool for reaching out to people who may be on the fringe of the congregation or are exploring a church community, but aren’t yet ready to make a bigger commitment.
This church uses Google Groups. The first and last meeting is always face-to-face. All the meetings in between are online. The first meeting lasts several hours preferably over a meal. They spend 90% of the time getting to know each other, and the other 10% going over logistics and participation norms and expectations. (One of these always includes that everyone must visit the group site and comment at least once a week.)
Then the group begins the online discussions. There is a facilitator who posts the schedule of readings and throws out discussion starters. And people are free to comment at any time throughout the week. There is no set online meeting time, rather the conversation continues throughout the week. “We notice lots of posts late at night,” the rector told me, “and this tells us that people are engaged with the group and the church but able to make it fit their travel and work schedules.”
At the end of the group (they usually last 6-10 weeks) they group again meets face-to-face for wrap up, another meal, evaluation, and planning next steps.
It’s important to note that this church attributes part of their success to the face-to-face first and last meetings. This builds relationships and helps people have a more personal connection with the people whose comments they see online. And when they come to church on Sundays or other times, they recognize each other. Another evangelism benefit!
They are doing book studies, topic discussions and some teaching about various aspects of theology and the church. They use online resources as much as possible, posting them to the online group site. They take advantage of YouTube videos, movie clips, and journal and newspaper articles allowing everyone in the group to post these to the site.
I would like to start taking advantage of this church’s wisdom with online groups. And yours. Does your church use online groups, and if so, how?
Carolyn Moomaw Chilton writes and blogs as a spiritual discipline and an invitation to conversation with others. She is currently on staff at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia as the Assistant for Evangelism and Stewardship.