Bringing Small Group Formation Online
For some time now, every “church growth” event I have attended has stressed the importance of small group formation to deepen relationships among members of a congregation and to bring new members in. I am not sure this is really news – look what Jesus did with a “small group” after all?
Responsible for adult faith formation as well as the formation of children and youth, I am no stranger to the small group discussion and like many of you, I have my own favorites for what works and what doesn’t. Having spent most of my career in the Episcopal Church and serving for the past three years as an educator and professing member of the United Methodist Church, I have had the opportunity to extensively research small group curricula. There are a lot of good programs out there. But the problem I have repeatedly faced in both Episcopal and United Methodist congregations has nothing to do with materials. It has to do with time.
I am sure many of you have experienced the same frustrations I have. If we plan a day-time event, working folks can’t attend. If we meet on Thursday evenings, choir members can’t join. The Stephen Ministers meet on Wednesday nights – and then there are those who travel or who are only available if their child’s soccer / basketball / baseball / football / lacrosse team doesn’t make the next round of playoffs. Sing along with me – I am sure you know the tune!
So this winter, I decided to try a whole new approach. I gave up searching for time and went for space – cyberspace. Using the On Being curriculum materials (Morehouse) featuring programming from NPR’s popular radio show with Krista Tippett, I adapted the materials for use via email and a password protected Google Group. Participants are invited to listen to the mp3 clips and then reflect on several of the questions from the curriculum course (we began with Body, Mind and Spirit: Embracing a Full-Person Faith). I choose (or slightly modify) one question at the very end of the session and post this as our Google Group threaded discussion for the week. I send the new questions for self-reflection and the mp3 clips via email to class participants on Saturday evenings at 6:00 PM. I close the previous week’s threaded discussion at 5:00 PM the same day. Participants have an entire week to listen, reflect and share – and the results are amazing!!!
Not only do I have class members who have never attended adult education before, there are folks of all ages in the class. One member of our faith community is living in Beijing at the moment during a two-year professional commitment. Another member of the group is a young woman who plays professional women’s basketball and is presently training with her team in Istanbul. One member is home-bound this winter because of an injury. Not only is this on-line class feeding the souls of individual members who can’t physically be part of a small group in the church building, parishioners who would never have had come together at any other Church program are getting to know and trust one another. The conversation is astonishing and we have learned so much from each other. These folks are talking to each other at coffee hour or before worship in the narthex. There’s a buzz going around about the class and I have a waiting-list of members for our next on-line class. I am even getting phone calls from other congregations of different denominations in near-by towns asking about what we are doing.
It does take a bit of creativity to figure out how to adapt curricula, and I am already figuring out how to offer some of the UMC small group materials on-line. The results of our on-line experiment have taught us that the Holy Spirit works through any media – and I plan to maximize the opportunity. Baron von Clausewitz, who wrote the book on military strategy used during the Napoleonic Wars, wrote that it is good strategy to “give up space for time.” At Sudbury United Methodist Church, we have turned this axiom on its head. In giving up “time for space” we have found a new way into deepening Christian community. I can’t wait to see where the journey takes us!
Dr. Elizabeth L. Windsor is the Director of Christian Education at Sudbury United Methodist Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Christian formation throughout the life cycle is both her profession and her passion.