Yesterday I described the benefits of starting online Wesleyan class meetings now. The basic principle of online small groups is: Online is good, but in person is even better. Because we cannot meet in person right now, this is the time to start online groups.
If you already have a vibrant small group ministry, you can also temporarily move them online using the relevant steps below.
Before you read these steps: This may initially seem intimidating. This is a long post. How can it be quick and easy?! But it really is simple. You are going to invite people to join the groups for an 8-week trial. You are going to identify leaders and place those who say yes into groups. And you are going to communicate with them what they need to get started.
Here is the quickest and easiest way to launch online class meetings with maximum effectiveness:
1. Pick up a copy of my book, The Class Meeting. It is available as an e-copy or physical copy. I’d recommend the e-copy if you’re trying to ramp this up as quickly as possible. The Kindle edition is currently only $10.99.
2. Read the first two chapters in one sitting. You can do it! This will give you a basic understanding of what the class meeting is and the reason these particular groups are needed in contemporary Christianity. This is important because you need to be able to describe the value of these groups in your own voice. People will not follow you if you are just pointing to something someone else said they should do. You need to be able to make the case for this yourself, which is why you should read these chapters before you do anything else.
3. Make a decision about what software you will use to host the online meetings. I would recommend Zoom or Google Hangouts. I prefer Zoom. The free Zoom account limits the length of the meeting to 40 minutes, which is a potential disadvantage. Shorter meetings can also be an advantage in this particular time when many people are forced to work remotely and are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. Choose which platform you will use now so you will have seamless communication about the groups when you start them.
4. Decide when the groups will start meeting. If you are able to work through this process this week, I would encourage you to start next week. That may initially seem like a very short timeline. But this is a season where thing change quickly and I’m not sure a launch that is a month away makes sense in the way it usually would. People are missing in-person connections and are ready to respond to a plan for connection now.
5. Write a general email inviting everyone in your church to start an 8-week trial of a new kind of small group that will meet online. Keep this email short and simple. Make the case for the benefit of this group in your own voice. You should think of this email as a pitch. You are trying to get people to say yes to something, to respond to your ask. The focus should be on the positive benefits you believe they will get from being in this kind of group. Here are some things your email should include:
a. A basic summary of what a class meeting is. What you are you inviting them to do?
b. A brief description of what they will need to do to be able to join the group.
i. Set up an account in the platform you have decided to use. Emphasize that this is an easy process that should take about 5 minutes.
ii. Purchase a copy of The Class Meeting. If you’re starting next week, tell them to buy an electronic copy if they can, or they will not receive it in time for the first meeting. If participants buy a physical copy and it doesn’t come before the first meeting, they can read the first chapter here for free.
iii. Read the first chapter before the first meeting, which is only 13 pages.
c. Make the strongest and most energetic ask that you can. Specifically ask them to reply with a commitment to give this a shot and see what God does. Remind them it is an 8-week commitment and there will be a chance to reevaluate whether the groups should continue after 8-weeks.
d. Invite them to contact you directly with any questions that they have. This will give you a chance to remove obstacles to people being able to say yes.
6. Make a list of people that come to mind specifically for you when you think about these new groups. Who would most benefit from being connected to other Christians right now? Who do you think may be particularly struggling with loneliness and isolation and would be blessed by a weekly meeting with other people? Who has been growing in their faith and is ready to take the next step? Who seems stuck and might benefit from a nudge to stretch themselves and try something new?
7. Write a separate targeted email to these people. These emails should be personalized (I.e., “Dear Kevin,” instead of “Dear First Church.”) People often need to see something more than once before they respond to it. Send an initial church-wide email. And then send a second email to specific people with whom you have influence. You are not writing an individual email to each person at this stage. You are writing a general email, but including personal details, most importantly a personal greeting with the recipients name.
8. Optional: Take this to the next level by writing an email that targets each of the different groups on your list. Someone is more likely to say yes if the email inviting them is directed at the particular reason you think they would benefit. This is not required and likely depends on how many people you are reaching out to. If you are connected to a small membership church, you may want to write a separate email to each person you reach out to where the main paragraph is the same, but the introduction and initial invite is tailored to each person as you know them.
9. Buy a copy of the video companion to the book. This will significantly lower the work required of the leaders of the group each week. I would recommend purchasing the digital streaming option. (Click on the drop down box on the right after clicking the link and choose “digital streaming of video.”) Ideally, each leader of a group would have a copy of this and can use the “share screen” function in Zoom or Google Hangouts to share their screen to show the video during the group meeting. (I apologize in advance that my stylist didn’t do a better job combing my hair before I filmed these videos! Also, I am my stylist and am considering firing him.)
10. Identify specific people to serve as the facilitator of the group. A facilitator does five key things:
a. Convene the online meeting by signing in and being present for the entire meeting.
b. Open the meeting with prayer.
c. Sharing first about the state of their soul or how they are doing in their walk with Jesus Christ.
d. Ensuring that everyone in the group has a chance to share.
e. Close the meeting with prayer, or inviting someone else to do so.
Tell them that a facilitator does not have to have all the answers. They are chosen because of their spiritual maturity.
11. Send a final email with a last call for signing up to join a group 2 or 3 days before the groups are scheduled to start. Give a 24-hour deadline for a response.
12. Divide the people who have responded into groups. Ideally, you should have at least 6 people in a group. You should not have more than 12 in a group. Each group needs a facilitator. If you are starting one group, you are the facilitator. And if you are starting one group – celebrate that and do not fall into the comparison trap of what larger churches are doing. Your faithfulness is helping the people in your group grow in their faith and experience connection during this time of isolation. That is a huge win!
13. Ask the facilitator to contact the members of their group. They should tell each group member the following:
a. Where the group will meet (the online platform that will host the meeting).
b. What time the group will meet and when it will end.
c. What they should have read before the meeting (with a link to where to purchase the book).
14. The weekly meeting. The weekly meetings will consist of the facilitator opening the group with prayer and then showing the video for the week (about ten minutes). The group will then use the small group discussion guide from the book which includes discussion of the content of the book and a weekly “Transformation Question.” When the videos and book are used together, this makes preparation for the group meeting as minimal as possible. The group members prepare for the group by reading a short chapter before each meeting and giving some thought to where they are at in their relationship with God.
That’s it! You can use this process to launch new groups now, whether we are able to meet in person in our churches or not.
To those of you who have already moved your groups online, or have started new online small groups since the outbreak of Covid-19, what would you add? What have you found to be especially fruitful in launching new groups?
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.