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Can Digital Church Small Groups Still Be Effective?

Several months ago, when the official pandemic season started here in Texas, my 17-year-old son and I went on a shopping expedition to our local grocery store. As we meandered around isles, dumping random groceries into our cart, (a shopping method that drives my wife absolutely crazy) we turned the corner and witnessed what can only be described as a barren wasteland completely devoid of the normal stacks of plushy bathroom necessities. Even the usually dust covered packages of always present generic brands, sandpaper’s second cousin, was nowhere to be seen!

As we stood there, the reality of the situation slowly sinking in, my son turned to me and asked a poignant question. “Father,” he said “In all of the 40 plus years of your wisdom-filled existence, have you ever experienced a season of such chaotic complexity?” OK, these weren’t the exact words that came out of his mouth. It was more like, “Wow dad, this is crazy right?” But, I’m sure all the sentiment of my version was there, especially the part about my wisdom-filled existence.

Anyway, my son’s observation was spot on. What we were facing at the time was unprecedented, at least for anyone under the age of 60.

We were stepping into a season of chaotic complexity, a season that continues to drag on past the point that anyone except the savviest scientists and cautious dooms-day preppers could have predicted. For those of us in charge of church small groups, I’d be willing to bet the chaos has swirled directly into the core of our ministry, challenging our values, and disrupting our strategies. Time tested group philosophies, like an emphasis on group members being physically present with each other, have become frustratingly obsolete, at least for the time being.

Yet, despite all of the frustrations and new challenges that come with a crazy season like the one we are in, God continues to surprise me, revealing his paradigm shifting presence in different and exciting new ways.

One of the tectonic paradigm-shifts we’ve all been forced to make, due to stay-at-home edicts delivered by governmental authorities, was to embrace digital online groups. I’ve always insisted that online groups work, at best, as a kind of pseudo-community. In my mind, small groups that purely met online existed in the same category as Facebook friendships and group chats. To put it bluntly, they seemed like a shallow alternative that inhibited rather than enriched actual relational connections between real people. For me, there was no substitute for physical presence, being able to use most of the five senses to interact with others in a room. (The one exception would probably be taste. Although, we have had some awesome dessert nights where people have put a lot of heart and soul into their pie making experiments!)

In fact, any time the idea of online groups cropped up in our team meetings, I was quick to dismiss the idea as something that would quickly dilute the power for people to get real by entering into an honest and vulnerable group discussion. In my head, authenticity and physical presence went hand-in-hand. I was worried it would be easier for people hide in an online setting or, at the very least, not be able to connect on a deeper level that would be foundational to their spiritual growth through relationship. And, in my opinion, there were just too many uncontrollable factors that would get in the way of leaders being able to pave the way for establishing authentic relationships among the people of their group: the fickleness of technology, the learning curve for using online meeting venues, the multifaceted possibilities for distractions to derail good conversation, etc. etc. etc..

I could just picture the following melodramatic scenes unfolding:

Opening scene: The small group leader, let’s call her Emily, has prepared well, prayed for her people, and is excited to begin the meeting. A few hours before the meeting starts, she sends out the zoom link and takes a deep breath. All has gone smoothly so far, then “Ding!” the first reply comes in. It’s Gertrude, the aging baby boomer of the group, asking if the link Emily has sent it safe. She has read the New Yorker article on zoom-bombing and doesn’t need that kind of drama in her life. Emily reassures her, but Gertrude still seems skeptical. Over the course of the next two hours, Emily discovers that this is only the first technological question she will have to field that could have been easily answered by a 23 second google search.

Scene One- Meeting time: It’s 7:25 PM, almost a half an hour into the group’s scheduled meeting time. So far, 9 of the 12 people in Emily’s group have managed to log into the meeting. Emily is still receiving texts from the other 3 people asking for the meeting ID number, the same number she posted, texted, and emailed two hours ago. A quick look at her screen shows six people have actually managed to turn their camera on. Jim and Glenda, the couple who originally founded the group several years ago, appear to immensely proud of their popcorn ceiling. This 80’s style texture dominates the frame with only the very tops of their heads visible. True to his name, Bruce is shrouded in shadow with only the tip of his nose and chin visible, giving off a very Batman-like vibe.

Ginger’s phone is still streaming from where she dropped it, half hidden behind a saturated diaper that little Timmy decided to slip out of and streak through living room. In the background, you can clearly hear his high-pitched shrieking and his big brothers cheering him on. All the while Mike, Gina’s oblivious husband, shouts obscenities at the TV because his favorite football team just missed a vital field goal opportunity.

One frame down and to the right from Ginger, Tom, who has failed to unmute himself, has, for some unknown reason, angrily slammed his laptop shut.

Later, Emily will receive a terse email from Tom explaining that he has decided to leave the group due to a “toxic culture of insensitivity.” As proof of his accusation, Tom will cite how Sandra, an aging librarian, was completely unresponsive, “staring slack-jawed at the screen with one eye closed and the other half open in a grotesque parody of an uncaring gargoyle.” In actuality, Sandra’s video feed has just been frozen for the last few minutes due to her instance that paying $30 a month for internet is “beyond ridiculous!” And that her dial-up speed is “just fine, thank you very much!”

And finally, Tim, aka T-Pain, is having similar connectivity issues for completely different reasons. Reveling in his own cleverness, he has coupled the clean-up-my-appearance filter with a virtual background depicting the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise. In addition to attending the group meeting, he’s also playing World of Warcraft on a separate monitor. All these factors are causing a sever lag in his audio quality. When he occasionally mentally checks into the meeting, between the slaying of legendary goblins and farming for epic loot, his voice sounds suspiciously like a rapper obsessed with auto tune.

Closing Scene– Emily is furiously cutting letters out of her Wall Street Journal and glueing them to a crumpled piece of paper. As the scene unfolds, we can see these letter forming a messaged addressed to the Pastor of Small Groups that reads:

I RESPECTFULLY RESIGN MY LEADERSHIP ROLE! MOVING TO THE WOODS! BECOMING ONE WITH NATURE. PLEASE DONT CONTACT ME EVER!

Sincerely,

Emily.

Potential scenarios like these, disruptions and distractions with real potential of getting in the way of group members connecting with their community and growing deeper in authentic relationships with God and each other, had led me to dismiss the possibility of online groups.

Then a global pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, and God showed me just how wrong I was.

Honestly, it’s kind of funny. I’d like to consider myself to be a bit of a theology nerd. Most, if not all, my understanding of scripture has to do with the understanding that the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) has been constantly and faithfully present, here on earth, among His people. Throughout history God has revealed his presence in many ways: in the cloud and fire that led a group of refugees (Ex. 13), in the mobile tabernacle (Ex. 40:32) and Jerusalem Temple (2 Chron. 5:14), in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God and second person of the trinity (Heb. 1:1-4), and in the activity of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity (John 14:15-30). In fact, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would continue the work he was doing, and this work would be done through us! (John 16:4-15).

As I prayerfully struggled to make sense of how God was working and moving among his people, even during a pandemic that forced us to isolate and actively avoid each other’s physical presence, I was reminded of something vitally important.

What actually binds us (followers of Jesus) together in unity and empowers us to enter into deeply spiritual relationships is not our physical proximity to each other. It’s the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit each of us relationally experiences (Rom. 8:9-11) when we place our faith in Jesus Christ. Because of the Holy Sprit’s presence, each of us has a supernatural relational connection to the triune God. But we don’t enter into this relationship solely as individuals. Instead, we become part of a larger Body of Christ, (the “Big C” Church) where our relational connection reorganizes around a spiritual dynamic based on God presence in our lives. In short, you and I can have a deeper relationship than is humanly possible because this relationship is based on the Holy Spirit living in us.

The apostle Paul explains this supernatural dynamic in his first letter to the Corinthian church. After explaining that we, together are God’s building, a building founded on Jesus Christ, he takes this building metaphor to its fullest realization by reminding us that we are God’s Temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Notice how he addresses the entire church (and all followers of Jesus) using the plural “you.”

Do you [all] not know that you [all] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [all]? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you [all] are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16–17, ESV with additions to emphasize the Greek plural form of “you”. See also 1 Cor. 6:19)

Think about that for a moment, the same Holy Spirit that lives in me, also lives in you creating a super natural connection between us that is based on who he is, the omnipresent (a cool theological term that means he is present everywhere, at the same time) third person of the Trinity. No matter where I am physically present here on earth, or anywhere else in the cosmos, you and I are connected by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This supernatural connection doesn’t begin to decay when we are more than 6 feet apart from each other. It’s not based on line-of-sight, lost in tunnels, or degraded by lack of bandwidth. It can’t be corrupted by fickle technology.

Paul thought this supernatural connection was essential, especially when it came to important leadership decisions. In the same letter, he calls the leaders of the Corinthian church to act by kicking out an individual who was unapologetically and blatantly engaging in some sketchy sinful acts.

“For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:3–5, ESV)

The fact that he was locked in a prison cell over 350 miles away didn’t stop Paul from being part of an exceedingly difficult leadership decision. In his letter, (the most technologically advanced form of communication available in his day) Paul reminded his readers that he was already present “in spirit,” a presence made possible through a shared relational experience he and the followers of Jesus in Corinth had as the new Temple of God. (See also: Col. 2:5) Paul wanted them to understand that the Holy Spirit was the one that made this kind of connection possible, a relational connection that isn’t limited by physical distance.

So, what does this mean for online small groups? Well, to my humbled chagrin, it means that the Holy Spirit can work through the chaos, bypass the perceived limitations, and use online venues to create a quality group experience where people continue to connect and grow deeper in relationship with God and each other. So, while online groups are not specifically prescribed in the Bible (obviously), all the theological elements are there to support the possibility that they can be a real option for people grow together in relationship with God and each other. In short, they can be effective if we approach them with an understanding that God can use the unexpected to continue his work in the lives of the people we shepherd.

Just like before the swirling Covidic chaos, when we could encourage our groups to meet face to face, it’s our responsibility as leaders of small group ministries to trust that God can work, is working, and will continue his work in the lives of the people we lead.

We need to encourage our small group leaders that, despite the limitations everyone is facing during this season of chaotic complexity, the Holy Spirit is still binding followers of Jesus together. He is creating and maintaining the supernatural connection that isn’t based on physical proximity.

Let’s be open to new ways of creating space for people to meet, work our hardest to eliminate any roadblocks, and, most importantly, allow ourselves to be surprised when the Holy Spirit shows up through unexpected relational connections that develop in unexpected venues. Even if these venues, in the past, been considered by some (cough, cough) as less than stellar options.

Author:

Just a guy, following God, dedicated to Christ, finding meaning in his walk with the Spirit.

2 thoughts on “Can Digital Church Small Groups Still Be Effective?

  1. With mom grandma I was able to taker her places like flower shopping and tour of old houses and gardens. With our small group e we have been able to share more testimonies. Or saves drive time. I was able to do your s from MN although that wasn’t small group. So the advantages are their, the Holy Spirit uses the online, but I think we need to 1)Be intentional, 2)committed and express our commitment, and 3) get together when we can.
    Not the best at it, but do love you!

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