— Diann Philips Ash

The Covid 19 Pandemic descended upon the world, bringing us to our knees, and forever changing all that we knew as normal. Those churches that remained operational in the wake of the pandemic, were challenged to pivot on a dime in order to continue and expand the reach of the gospel. They gained renewed respect for the blessing of technology, and the invaluable resource of Online Groups. Many began this journey into uncharted territory with great trepidation.

It has been nearly a year and a half since the onset of the pandemic. Vaccines have been developed, and are being administered worldwide in the fight to return to a new normal. The blueprint for leading the church out of the pandemic and into the future requires that we carefully reflect on what we have learned in this season of sheltering in place. We must squarely face the reality that a percentage of the congregation may not return to a physical sanctuary. Our expectation must shift from filling buildings to fulfilling the Mission. It is a certainty that a full edifice does not guarantee a fulfilled mission.

Our expectation must shift from filling buildings to fulfilling the Mission.
This presents an overarching question regarding the use of online groups, “Are online groups (online ministry) a temporary fix for a short-term problem or part of a permanent fix for long term solution? Put another way, “Is a hybrid model the best option to accommodate a multi-generational congregation as we return to our physical buildings with new wisdom gleaned from the pandemic?”

The term online groups is used as an umbrella term to encompass the many new types of Internet-enabled gatherings that leaders are called upon to facilitate such as global virtual teams, virtual communities, e-groups, discussion forums, chat rooms, facilitated blogs, and audio and Web conferencing teams. These new kinds of groups communicate collaboratively across time, distance, and borders through the use of information and communication technology. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus our attention on open groups (those always open to new members), closed groups (those open for a registration period and closed for the duration of the study), Bible Study, affinity/open market (groups joined by common interests), and Discipleship online groups.

Pre-Covid, our church (Greenforest Community Baptist Church) had no online groups. Early into the pandemic our online groups increased to 23, and we currently have 42 online groups across all divisions for Fulfillment Hour (Life Groups) and Bible Study. We utilized online groups to host our 2020 and 2021 Virtual Vacation Bible Schools and our Virtual Harvest Fest, complete with breakout rooms for all age groups. Staff meetings are operated via the Teams application, and all other meetings and trainings are held via Zoom. Like many churches, we have restructured our entire ministry program to operate totally using online groups (see chart below), Facebook Live, and the V102.5 radio broadcast for weekly worship services. It was a massive undertaking, and there is still much work to be done for both the laity and instructors in order to make a successful shift. Additionally, we are now in the process of prayerfully transitioning back onsite ministry as well.

Greenforest Community Baptist Church Online Group Transition

Lessons Learned

The quality of the online instruction is contingent upon preparing with excellence (becoming the learner), facilitating with enthusiasm and conviction (receiving the message first), and walking in obedience to the Holy Spirit’s direction. Exceptional instruction strives to create opportunities to engage all of the senses in the lesson presentation. The oral discussion is limited depending on the size of the group. The goal of every lesson must be to admonish, instruct, and transform. Lesson outlines are prepared and distributed to the participants ahead of time to enhance the quality of the online experience. Power point presentations with introspective questions, video clips, and engaging activities are beneficial for all age groups. Each online group session begins and ends with prayer, a few minutes of community time (including announcements), and the invitation to salvation.

Pros and Cons of Video Driven Online Groups

The focus for these online groups must be content, connections, and community. No longer does a person have to commit to attending the on-campus worship service or Bible study. We see this most clearly when we think about our present relationship with Christ. The deepest and most significant relationship anyone can have is with Jesus, and though this relationship grows and matures over time, it has no physical closeness in this life. We are presently physically separated from Christ, yet we grow in our relationship with Him. One day our relationship with Him will be physical. But the point is that, theologically, though relationships with physical proximity are ideal, true relationships—deep relationships—can develop without physicality.

Making Application

  • Train the Congregation. Most Americans (96%) now own a cellphone of some kind. The percentage of Americans who own smartphones is now 81% (up from just 35% according to Pew Research Center’s first survey of smartphone ownership in 2011). In addition to mobile phones, Americans own a range of other informational devices. As with many churches, we have gone to great lengths to educate our congregation on the use of Zoom, Facebook, Teams, and the RightNow Media platform for our online groups. It is time well spent and will pay high dividends for the kingdom as we focus on our theme: “Going Global with the Gospel” (Acts 1:8).
  • Cast the Vision. Casting the vision for a hybrid delivery model will provide a more robust ministry as we make the sacred journey back to our sanctuaries. As a veteran public school and Christian educator, a common adage shared among my contemporaries was “one size does not fit all” when making the pitch for providing differentiated instruction, meeting students where they were, and providing a tailored program to help them advance. This concept also applies in the spiritual arena. Each church must be prayerfully intentional to discover what instructional system works best for their congregation through the lens of a long-term solution that will honor God and fulfill His will and purposes.
  • Advertise Online Groups. Your church’s website is an ideal place to advertise online groups. Personal invitation is one of the most effective ways to connect people with online groups.
  • Protect Your Groups. A cardinal sin in the new world of online groups is placing login information online for the world to see! It is better to request that persons of interest send a private email to request the link to utilize the registration options in Zoom or other online meeting platforms. This helps to reduce the chance that someone could troll your chat, conference call, or “Zoom bomb” your online Bible study with inappropriate language or behavior.

Colossians 3:16 admonishes us to “Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (CSB) An escape clause was not provided in this mandate. We cannot forget that the clarion call for believers is to be Great Commission Christians (Matthew 28:18-19) in all seasons of our lives. We would all agree that church is more than a building, but can a digital ministry become more than a sermon? This question sets the stage for prayerful evaluation of what we have learned from onsite and virtual ministry with the goal of forming a hybrid system, tailor-made to meet the needs our each of our unique congregations. Our hearts long for face-to-face worship and Bible study, and it is certainly not a thing of the past but will be enhanced exponentially by a hybrid model that includes online groups.

Provided by Diann Phillips Ash
Diann Phillips Ash is the Director of Christian Education, Greenforest Community Baptist Church, Decatur GA