Perhaps never before have churches and small groups been so grateful for the technologies that allow for online group meetings. Likewise, perhaps never before have they been so aware of the challenges and shortcomings associated with them. It’s simply not easy to build community through a screen.
That said, it’s not impossible. Consider these three principles to help you establish and build community in an online group.
1. Adjust your expectations.
I wish I could rightly attribute this quote that I picked up many years ago because it’s been very powerful in many different ways throughout my life and ministry. Expectations are premeditated resentments. Applied to this scenario, we should not come to an online group experience expecting it to be anything remotely like meeting in person. Further, we should press that principle down into every single aspect of the group experience. Conversations won’t be the same. Interaction won’t be the same. The depth of the study won’t be the same. Very little, if anything, will be the same in an online group experience compared to meeting in person. But the online experience will go better for everyone involved if all have told themselves again and again to adjust their expectations accordingly. If they don’t, they’ll come to resent the online group experience and be less likely to participate.
So, adjust your expectations. You can’t build community with people in an environment you resent. Speak truth to yourself about what you’re likely to experience so that you don’t come to resent the best possible solution for meeting with others when you can’t gather in person.
2. Fight for simplicity.
Because meeting online is significantly different than meeting in person, I have found that every participant, especially the group leader, has to strive for simplicity in every facet of the experience. It may be nothing for your group to meet for up to two hours in person, but you’ll likely find an online group experience should be much shorter, probably not more than 45 minutes. You might tackle many different questions and concepts in person, but online you’re probably better off discussing one big idea, two at the most. You might expect everyone in the group to participate in the conversation when meeting in person, but online it’s more likely that three or four people will truly engage in a meaningful way.
I could go on, but let me keep this simple: by making simplicity a core value, you’ll make the online group experience better for everyone involved because meeting online is inherently more complex than meeting in person. So, look for ways you can simplify the experience to help everyone engage in the experience.
3. Give grace.
While some in your group may have lots of experience with online meetings, it will be a brand new thing for many. Because technology is involved, there will be many potential points of frustration and confusion. There are different “rules” for etiquette and behavior that apply to online groups, and practicing them requires, well, practice and patience. All of this, combined with the stress of our current circumstances, can quickly lead to disappointment and even anger toward individuals in the group who just can’t seem to “get it together”.
In short, participating in an online group experience requires everyone to have more grace. Everyone must be willing to bear more wrongs. Everyone must be willing to let many more things go. Everyone must accept others for exactly who they are in that moment, not what they think the others should be in that moment. They must be willing to give more grace.
In these times when we cannot gather in person, meeting online is a grace of God to us. No surprise, then, that doing so requires us to be all the more gracious with those we meet with. By changing our expectations and fighting for simplicity in the experience, we make showing that grace easier.