Last week, like so many small group leaders and ministry leaders around the country, I found myself pivoting toward a new reality hard and fast.
After four years of leading my small group of high school girls, I never dreamed our last seven Sundays together would take place over a Zoom call.
It never entered my mind that they’d send me prom pictures from their closet instead of the dance. Four years ago, I couldn’t have fathomed a world where I didn’t show up and give them a hug after graduation.
In some ways, it’s a heartbreaking new normal, and yet somehow during the week after our first online small group, I couldn’t seem to shake a question I had never expected to ask:
What if this is better?
Now, by “this”, I don’t mean the pandemic. Like everyone, I’m scared and frustrated and desperately missing TJ Maxx and Taco Bell (please leave your judgments in the comment section).
And I know that for a lot of people, the worry about getting sick, the potential loss of a job, or the inability to be physically close to vulnerable family members is a real and prominent fear.
My question isn’t diminishing the real challenges people are facing. No, my question was about this way of doing small group, this way of doing ministry. I’m pretty sure in the last year I’ve stood on stages and told other leaders that nothing beats face-to-face connection, that showing up consistently in the same place each week matters.
I’m pretty sure that’s still true, and yet, I couldn’t seem to shake this suspicion that this not-at-all-in-person version of ministry has its benefits, too. Maybe even more.
1. We’re not confined to a space
Last week, I saw girls in my group that I haven’t seen in months, not because they’re somehow youth group slackers or because they have church senioritis. They haven’t been around because they’re busy.
Because they have jobs, traveling sports, and way harder classes than in years past. NOT having to meet in a certain building meant anybody could join, whether or not they had a ride, whether or not they had time to sit in traffic, whether or not they were at their mom or dad’s house that weekend. Anyone could join from anywhere.
2. We’re not confined to a time slot
All of this “at home” time meant we needed a little more than a 30 minute conversation on Sunday afternoon. So, last week we pivoted to 30-minute chats on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
Since we don’t have to drive to a building, it’s possible to connect more often and be available for more people’s schedules.
3. We’re not confined to a group size
So far, no two meetups have been the same. We’re not seeing all of our group anywhere, but we’re seeing small-er groups of four or five at each online gathering. Smaller groups almost always means better conversations.
There was a time two years ago when my group had 33 girls. The roster has shrunk a little since then, but it’s still big enough that three smaller meetings of 30 minutes creates better conversation than one big group gathering for 90 minutes.
4. We’re no longer confined to programming
I think our church’s youth programming is some of the best in the world—which is why I worry about what happens when my girls are no longer eligible for youth programming. Will they still want to attend church when it doesn’t look the same? Will they still want to be in community when it doesn’t come with lights and a band?
In other words, will they own their faith when they’re on their own? AND, how do we get them ready for life after youth group without causing them to miss out on the last few months of youth group to go to adult service?
It’s a challenge churches face every year…except this one. Suddenly the last few weeks of programming aren’t on the table. Our programs have been replaced with conversations about life and discipleship and what happens next.
We don’t have to worry about “missing” out on what’s happening at youth group in order to check out adult services. We can do both . . . from the couch . . .in our pajamas.
Personal ministry is always better
To be clear, I would never have chosen pandemic—for a million different reasons. The pandemic is NOT better than our regularly scheduled lives.
But in the midst of so much fear and unknown and grief, I wonder what we might gain if we looked at the circumstances forced on us as an invitation to innovate. To imagine. To dream.
Will online services ever replace all of face-to-face ministry? Probably not, but this week I’ve come to realize that in-person is not the same as personal. Personal ministry is showing up wherever they are, whenever they can get there.
And that is always better.