As we head into the 2020/2021 ministry year, many of us are unsure how to proceed with our plans. Many of our schools are starting in virtual environments for at least the first quarter. Lots of parents are opting to keep their kids in virtual environments for the whole school year. Churches are still trying to navigate in-person and online, and what part of their services might be a hybrid of those. Throw in virtual small groups and leaders have tons of questions!
How can we make virtual small groups work well on Sundays?
1) Create new metrics for engagement.
We’re used to seeing these kids in small group, in an actual circle, in a building. Now, they each occupy a tiny square on a screen with virtual small groups. As we’ve been trying this since the spring, we’ve learned that no matter how hard we try, engagement will not be the same as it was in a physical location.
With school starting back up, engagement will more than likely be sporadic, and attendance patterns will be random and unpredictable. Not every kid will have access to a device at home during the time you’ve designated for small group. Not to mention digital fatigue for kids also engaged in distance learning at school.
Consider how you’ll track engagement in this new normal. Let yourselves off the hook and decide not to track attendance in this new normal. Be available for families with consistent spaces for kids to show up when they can. When they do, measure how they engage with their peers and leaders. Celebrate when you see them, and be sure to let them know you miss them when you don’t.
2) Set clear expectations for kids
Kids have gotten used to their expectations for how they experience your ministry and the rhythm of going to church, large group, and small group. That has changed, of course. On some level, they’ve become accustomed to what you’re able to offer in the new reality.
Going into a new school year is a great time to reintroduce expectations for how you hope your kids and families will engage with your ministry this year. Decide what day, time, and technology you’ll use and communicate that to your families. Stay consistent. Don’t switch things up too often, especially which technology you plan on using.
Consider creating a fun video that you can post and share with families to watch at home. Be clear about what you expect when they show up online. How you hope they participate. Or what they do if they’d rather just watch—remember, introverts are introverts even in a virtual small group.
3) Seek to engage multiple learning styles
Just because you’re trying a new model for connecting doesn’t mean kids have a new way they learn best. Keep in mind how you can use the digital learning environment to tap into various learning styles.
Visual learners often learn best when they have access to visual aids instead of reading only text.
Have images ready for your virtual small groups that you can share on your screen to help kids connect to the topic. If you’re offering instructions, create bullet points that you can share on-screen as well.
Auditory learners connect with information as they hear it.
Very few kids are solely auditory learners. As you engage these types of learners, remember it’s not just your voice they connect with. Try using music or sound effects to enhance what you’re wanting them to understand.
Social learners enjoy working with others, so these students can feel isolated when taking courses online.
Be sure to ask questions and allow kids time to answer and have discussions in virtual small groups. This time is as much for them to connect as it is for them to learn something.
Kinesthetic learners work best when completing hands-on activities.
This will be the most challenging learning style to address in an online environment, but it’s not impossible. Consider what kids might have at home and how those objects can be part of the discussion. Have kids in the virtual small group use hand motions or facial expressions for different story characters. Have them draw something related to the story and show it to the rest of the group. If you decide to try a hands-on activity, consider creating a video that you can share ahead of time with simple instructions and a supply list.
4) Keep it fun.
Chances are many of your kids will be spending their school day on Zoom where the focus is learning material for tests rather than having fun. This is where your church can come in and bring a needed bit of enjoyment to their week.
I know you already know this, but just keep in mind your online environment is not school. This is virtual small group. Keep fun at the forefront of your time together. It’s a currency for their attention span and their willingness to pop back online next week.
Play games. Host a show-and-tell or a Zoom talent show. Make sure laughter is a part of your time together.
5) Build relational equity with each kid.
Just because you’re not in-person doesn’t mean the mission has changed. Relationships are still the most important thing for you to cultivate, it’s just happening with digital discipleship now.
Regardless of how you’re able to meet, authentic faith is primarily built in the context of relationships. With all that’s happening now in the digital space, having consistent leaders is even more critical. Familiar faces will build trust. Kids will be more likely to open up and engage when they have relationships with the people on the other side of the computer screen.
Leverage technology for small group leaders and parents to stay connected. Use group texting or private Facebook groups so parents have easy access to share what’s happening at home. This may also have the side benefit of creating a type of small group community amongst the parents.
Have your small group leader film personalized video messages on their phones and send them to parents to share with their kids.
Make it easy for leaders to send postcards to their virtual small group. Send them packets of already-stamped and addressed notes they can fill out and drop in the mail. Kids will love this in-person touchpoint.
Those are just some ideas to get you started. After all, we’re all learning this as we go. As you discover something that works for you, comment below and share it with other ministry leaders. We’re in this together!
For some more tips and resources on virtual small groups, download the Orange Virtual Small Groups Guide!