Post COVID-19: online small groups here to stay

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MIAMI— As local and federal governments make strategic moves to re-open the state while continuing to prioritize social distancing in the ongoing fight against COVID-19, Florida Baptist churches are determining a new normal for online small groups in a post isolation world.

The challenges and uncharted territories churches have had to navigate during the lockdown will certainly change the way many do discipleship, especially through online meetings.

While some have leveraged this tool with their congregations and communities prior to this time, others have identified the value a virtual meeting space can provide to their ministries. Through online meetings, pastors and leaders have been able to stay connected to their members offering them the care, support and community needed during this global health crisis.

If small groups are then here to stay, what is the best way forward?

This is the question Ray Perez, small groups pastor at Christ Fellowship in Miami, sought to answer for Southeast regional pastors during a virtual videoconference call Tuesday, May 5.

“If this is the future, then this is the route,” he said of the five-step system he advised churches to follow.

Churches “must train their leaders; train their members; define the goal of virtual small groups; differentiate between remote groups and online groups; and the senior pastor has to be all in,” he said.

Perez’s experience with online groups has allowed him to see what does and doesn’t work when it comes to online discipleship. “We tried this three years ago and set up several groups. At first, we saw our attendance to small groups go up, especially in the men’s groups which is one of the most difficult one to do.

“But then it completely died down because there was a lack of training. All the attention went to the people in the room and it became cumbersome to pay attention to the people joining virtually.”

To avoid that happening, Perez said leaders must be trained on using the virtual meeting technology but also on how to interact with members joining virtually.

Church members must also be trained to understand that the group is not just about them but also people on a screen. “Be aware that Jon, Sally and Pedro are up on that screen but don’t be overly aware where you are distracted from the lesson.”

To be successful with online groups, churches should have a clear definition of the goal they expect online small groups to achieve. “Our purpose is multiplication and to that end if we notice that some people are clearly more into remote, then we break them off and make them their own group and so on,” Perez said.

It’s important to note the difference between remote groups and online groups, he added. Virtual remote groups are for church members who are loyal to the mission and vision of the church as well as the strategy to achieve those.

Online groups, on the other hand, reach people beyond the church and the tone of those will be different.

Finally, for virtual discipleship to work, the senior pastor of the church must be all in, Perez said. “If the pastor is about it then the church members will also be about it…Your pastor has to own it and have a meeting with leaders to develop strategy.”

For more information on running successful online small groups, view this Florida Baptist Convention ministry coaching session on online small groups with guest speaker Ken Braddy from LifeWay Christian Resources.

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