9 tips for starting online small groups
SUMMARY: Online Bible studies can bring group members together for instant interaction without the logistical hurdles of travel time, babysitters and work schedules. The Internet-based group’s home is always open so members can interact whenever it is most convenient. It may not be for everyone, but some people are more comfortable sharing details of their personal life through text, instead of in front of a group of peers or strangers.
The United Methodist Church hosted an online Bible study during Lent. Participants explored and discussed how contemporary topics relate to the Christian response to Rethink Church. Congregations across the United States—and throughout the world—can take advantage of this convenient, low-cost way of expanding their geographic reach.
As you create this new study venue, use these eight tips:
1. Keep it small.
To ensure everyone has a chance to share his or her thoughts, aim for 10 or fewer people in the group, just as you would with a face-to-face group. If interest is high, form two or three groups that meet at different times, providing more alternatives for people with busy schedules.
2. Set up a real-time chat at no charge.
Many free instant-messaging programs, such as AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk, feature a “group chat option.” Skype also has a group option. Tokbox makes it easy to add video chat to your site. You may need a little help from your information-technology team, but it is worth the time investment. Be sure to send group members a "friend request" or "invite" to remind them to sign up and test the chat application beforehand.
3. Consider on-demand Bible studies.
Some people like the flexibility of participating whenever their schedule allows. Discussion threads allow interaction and build as more people join the study. You can create on-demand Bible studies using Moodle, an open source learning management system that helps you build, monitor and teach online Bible studies. You can learn how to use Moodle by registering for "Moodle 100: Basic Training," provided through United Methodist Communications.
4. Use headphones or earphones.
If you don’t want to experience the annoying echo caused from computer speakers, encourage everyone to use headphones or earphones. Group members with computers that do not already have built-in microphones will need headphones with a microphone.
5. Expect technical mishaps.
Bad connections, power outages and poor sound quality are bound to happen. Expect them, and it won’t be so bad when they occur. Consider using Tokbox for video and telephones for audio. Then if you have technical difficulties or if a group member cannot attend on camera, he or she can call in. Get a free conference-call number at freeconference.com or freeconferencecall.com. Every online small-group leader should consider acquiring a free conference-call number.
6. Use printed materials.
Are you looking for fresh ideas to energize your small group? Here are hundreds of activities contributed by small group experts from across the United States. Also, check out these free downloadable discussion guides from Cokesbury to get the ball rolling.
7. Add variety.
Keep participants interested and avoid monotony by employing a variety of technologies. Create a Web page for the Bible study to link to your church’s main website. The page can help participants prepare for the week’s study and offer tools to use during the study, such as a video to watch or links to related topics. Include the week’s theme and link to the Bible passages to be discussed. Add pictures, video and audio clips related to the topic or host a forum for participants to discuss the topic before and after the “group meeting.”
You may want to include an icebreaker in the beginning or break up the meeting halfway through to help people digest information. Consider playing an online game together on yahoo or just chat informally for awhile until everyone's ready to dig in.
8. Consider supplemental opportunities.
Some participants may enjoy additional activities, such as an online retreat. The retreat itself need not have a leader if it is user-friendly. Set up a website with detailed information, including whom to contact with questions.
9. Free webcams + headsets = great publicity!
Give out a few webcams and headsets to the first few online groups that start. Ask people to suggest who might benefit from an online study and contact them directly. Include information in your church’s bulletin, newsletter and website. Promote online study groups via social media as well as other sites that might draw readers with similar interest.