Navigating Virtual Connection & Discipleship In Ministry

Determining how to conduct outreach and create meaningful connections during the ongoing pandemic has created challenges for those in charge but has also presented new opportunities to reach people in new ways. Moving forward, small groups and discipleship are going to look different due to the increase of online outreach. We've experienced big wins and lessons leaned during this time that will change the landscape of church connection for good.

To help you as you continue to navigate ways to create environments of fellowship and connection while maintaining safety for vulnerable individuals, Chantel McHenry, Senior Manager of Operations, led a panel of church leaders in a discussion to provide insight into what they are doing to foster meaningful connections in their small groups both online and offline. The panel included:

8 Tips for Navigating Virtual Small Groups 

  1. Create a consistent schedule. Churches are being intentional about meeting and connecting virtually throughout the week to discuss the message, reflection questions, and ways to apply the word of God. In fact, most churches are seeing a spike in small group attendance and interest. Ensuring your small groups have a consistent schedule when members are free and focused will help these connections flourish even online.

  2. Follow a specific framework for each group. A popular structure mentioned was using a 90-minute approach that focuses 30 minutes on the head, the heart, and then the hands. This allows members to know what to expect from each session and improves the effectiveness of conversations.

  3. Take a more proactive approach. No one could have predicted the impact on small groups that COVID-19 would have. Though small groups moving online happened quickly and as a reaction to the pandemic, churches are beginning to take a more proactive approach to sustain the quality of their connections with their church community. With connection being one of the main benefits of a church community, leaders are seeing this shift as a win.

  4. Keep it small. By managing the number of people in each small group, church leaders have found that is has encouraged new leaders to emerge and invited new members to join. Many churches are finding that people are even more open and vulnerable online than they are in person. Limiting the number of people in each groups allows for more time to connect and dive into meaningful topics where people feel comfortable sharing.

  5. Cultivate space for leaders to rest and encourage them to take a break. It’s common for small group leaders to feel the pressure and responsibility for the members in their group. However, leaders need to be able to rest and prioritize their emotional, spiritual, and mental wellbeing while leading their group. It’s also a great way to balance the intentionality of discipleship for members while also encouraging leaders to implement self-care during the pandemic.

  6. Figure out what platform works best for your team to use. There are so many options that exist for churches to host their small groups online. Some churches are using one platform for every group, whereas other churches are allowing their group leaders to choose which online platform works best for them. Platforms will inevitably look different for each church, but it’s essential to do what’s best for your church community.

  7. Assess the climate of your community and pivot accordingly. Pivoting the direction of your small groups can assure that there is alignment and one unified voice within the groups. A church leader shared how they went from having groups based on interests and books to solely having sermon-based small groups where people of all demographics are in small groups together.

  8. Determine the structure of your groups. Decide if your groups are determined by their season of life, geographic location, interest, time, availability, etc. Clearly communicate these guidelines to small group leaders.

Outreach and Missions Becoming Localized

In many small groups, there are outreach and mission projects that were planned. However, COVID-19 has prompted many leaders to reevaluate their outreach and mission efforts. Here are a few creative ideas for adjusting outreach efforts that our panelists shared: 

  • Shift the focus to the local needs in the community and racial reconciliation efforts during the pandemic.

  • Service projects that are now multiple small projects led by everyday believers. 

  • Partner with nonprofits that aren’t faith-based to meet local needs. This is also a  great way to come in contact with nonbelievers and invite new people to church.

  • One panelist shared the way they were able to turn their church parking lot into a home-base that served those in the community without access to clean bathrooms. It was fully equipped with easily accessible hand-washing stations as well. They opened up volunteer opportunities to the entire community  and were able to bring new people to Christ.

  • Create a space on your website with an “I Need Help” and “I’d Like to Help” button so the community can be cared for or meet a need. What better way to serve than having your congregation meet each other's needs. You never know where one member can serve another.

  • Assigning an outreach project to each small group or allowing the leaders to come up with a way for their group to meet a community need. 

Attendance Trends In Small Groups 

  • Many churches are noticing an uptick in attendance for their small groups and other discipleship events during the pandemic. The beauty of the church moving online and going into the local community to be the hands and feet of Christ is the undeniable extended reach of the gospel. 

  • Some churches are also seeing an increase in both believers and nonbelievers in their small groups because they are taking a firm stance on racial reconciliation.

  • Reimagining church outside of the four walls with online worship experiences has played a considerable part in more people feeling comfortable tuning into church services online. It has also created a space for members to invite more people to tune in with them.

  • An increase in online engagement has also been due to the fact that people realize it is the only way they can maintain connection and accountability with their church community.

What Does Outreach Look Like Moving Forward?

When discussing ways to begin planning for the future, our panelists mentioned that planning consists of finding new ways to provide content, connectivity, care, and creativity in-person and virtually. It’s inevitable for some church members to feel more comfortable staying home and viewing services online until there’s a vaccine. Also, while providing virtual worship experiences, leaders need to plan on being honest and promoting care to steward their church community well, especially those who are most vulnerable.

When it comes to planning for the fall, church leaders are looking to use the time that’s available right now to train leaders as well as allow new members to join small groups. Each group dynamic will be different. Therefore, some leaders are enabling their small groups to decide if they are more comfortable with having groups at-home or if they’d prefer being on the church campus. These are challenging but healthy conversations to have as everyone navigates the future of small groups for their church campus. 

Lessons Learned 

  • A viewer’s Zoom attention span is much shorter than it is in-person, and we don't  see it growing again when we're able to meet in person. To adjust to this, it will be useful for leaders to plan bite-sized messages to deliver. One church plans to have a 15-20 minute sermon and then have people break into small groups for a practical discussion that builds connections and feels more engaging. 

  • Stay true to your church's mission through the planning process as you move forward and navigate what things will look like and how they will operate. It’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed when looking toward the future, so by using your mission, it can serve as a reminder of your ‘why’ in the process. Don't be distracted by process or activities. It's okay for things to change as long as you are true to your larger purpose.

  • Find new ways to be creative and innovative while also ensuring you’re meeting a need. Any innovation you bring into new strategies or structures should always tie back to a larger purpose. There is no use is seeking innovation simply for the sake of innovation.

  • Smaller is sometimes better. This can promote genuine and authentic connections in disciple groups. 

  • Although Zoom seems like it doesn’t have as strong of an impact as in-person meetings, it’s good to remember that God can indeed use anything in miraculous ways. Make space for Him to work in new ways as our world continues to  shift, embrace digital communication, and cultivate a space where people can genuinely connect.

The changes we've experienced in this season will undoubtedly change the landscape of church connections and outreach permanently, and this brings so much opportunity for us to experience God in new ways. While change is always uncomfortable, the impact we can make during times of uncertainty are more powerful than during times of rest. How have you seen God moving in unexpected ways during the past few months?