According to a 2011 study on virtual religion, churches that embrace technology see higher member participation and recruitment numbers than churches that do not. Clearly, there are big benefits for faith-based organizations that can engage members with online tools—but how can leaders incorporate these into their ministries?
One of the newer tools church leaders are adopting is Google+ Hangouts, which is a free video conferencing service that can support group chats for up to 10 people at time. Coincidentally, 10 is also the ideal number for small groups. Thus, some program directors are experimenting with Hangouts to expand their ministry and reach people who may have difficulty participating in person.
To discover the best strategies for expanding a small-groups ministry using Hangouts, I spoke with Michelle Chapin, assistant program manager for The New Church in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, and Ron Sheveland, author, church consultant and founder of Bible Plus Hangouts. Here are their top five tips.
1. Run a Test Series
When preparing to launch an online small group, both Chapin and Sheveland recommend running a test series first. A test run will help you figure out how to use the Hangouts platform and work out the kinks inherent to adopting any new tool. Once the group has learned through trial and error about the capabilities of Hangouts, they can devise guidelines that future group leaders can follow to ramp up more quickly.
Screenshot of a full group view of a small groups Hangout
Sheveland says that when he launched his first online small group with Hangouts, he “hand-picked people who were at ease technically and who were also interested in leading their own small groups.” By the end of the series Sheveland directed, all the participants were comfortable with the format, understood how to use the tools and were ready to recruit members to their own groups.
(To learn how to initiate a Hangout for a small group, go here to watch a three-minute video tutorial.)
To create your test series, ask current small-group leaders who have proven successful at the in-person leadership role to test-drive a Hangouts series. After directing a series, those people can help others roll out more online groups and help new leaders troubleshoot problems as they arise.
This method worked well in Sheveland’s case, where participants in the online group he started moved on to start their own groups, and referred back to him and other members for guidance as needed.
2. Follow a Focused, Discussion-Based Format
Generally, an online small group can mirror the format of a successful in-person small group. Small groups translate well to Hangouts, but keep in mind that you’ll likely have to make some adjustments to the format. For example:
- Use a discussion-based—not an activities-based—format. Activities suggested in small group leaders’ guides don’t translate well to the online format, because most of them (such as games that require members to draw cards) need to happen in person. Chapin says that even reading the Lord’s Prayer aloud as a group can be difficult due to audio lag. For example:
- Have the leader open with a prayer.
- One by one, have each member talk briefly about how they’re doing.
- Have each member explain how their work on a task or focus is going.
- Discuss the week’s reading.
- Have each member share a closing thought.
- Have the leader close with a prayer.
- Keep segments short and focused. Sheveland has noticed that in online small groups, it’s often more difficult for people to stay focused. There are many distractions, such as email notifications, other websites or children and pets demanding attention. To remedy this, Sheveland recommends limiting discussions and video segments to 10 to 15 minutes, to reduce members’ tendencies to get distracted.
- Consider a hybrid format. A mix of in-person and online groups can also be successful. Chapin says some of her organization’s small groups have run hybrid groups multiple times, where “a large portion of participants and the leader meet in one room, and a few other attendees are on a computer screen set up to see the whole room.”
3. Train Leaders and Members on Technology Use and Etiquette
A small group is only as successful as its leader, so helping prospective leaders master the Hangouts format so they, in turn, can train group members is essential. At the The New Church, Chapin conducts hour-long trainings with those interested in becoming leaders.
“I try to schedule online training with a few prospective leaders in attendance so they can see how an actual online small group will operate,” she says.
During the online training session, Chapin shows prospective leaders how to use the technology by walking them through the platform’s functionality. Participants learn how to create a group, start a Hangout and use its features: the chat bar, audio and video mute buttons, screensharing, YouTube videos, multi-screen mode and mobile device considerations.
Prospective leaders also learn etiquette rules that result in a better experience, which they then explain and enforce in their own groups. Six rules Chapin has found helpful include:
- Participants should use earbuds or headphones, especially if attending the Hangout in a public setting where the anonymity of other members must be respected.
- Use the audio mute feature when you’re not speaking to cut down on background noise, which can be very distracting to other members.
- Be on time. If you’re running late, join quietly so you don’t interrupt the prayer or discussion.
- Don’t visit other websites during group time to avoid becoming distracted.
- Use the chat bar on the right to share comments, questions or describe technical issues you’re experiencing.
- Be patient. Everyone will get a chance to speak, so wait your turn.
Other helpful tips to keep members engaged and enable the Hangout to run smoothly include performing a pre-meeting technology check—in which the group leader briefly connects with members to make sure microphones and cameras are working properly—and sharing the meeting agenda beforehand, so members know what will be covered.
Chapin says using Hangouts for small groups has been a valuable alternative for certain people, especially college students and young adults, people living in isolated areas, people with medical challenges and people with childcare challenges.
“It’s easy for anyone to use, even ‘technophobes’ who have trouble learning new technology,” she says.
4. Share Your Screen to Supplement the Discussion
You can further enhance the online group experience by sharing your screen with other members. “Screenshare” is a tool built into the Hangouts platform. By using this feature, all members will have access to the materials they need to fully participate.
Before the session, the group leader can add any quotes or text that will be discussed to a Word document or Google Doc. Then, during the session, they can share their screen, or copy and paste the text into the chat bar for everyone to see.
Screenshot showing a screenshare in an online small group session
Screensharing is also useful for real-time research. Chapin says that during one session she attended, a member raised a question about Greek mythology. Another member did some searching and found information pertinent to the question, then shared their screen so everyone else could see. Because of this, the group was able to dig deeper into the topic than they would have in an in-person group.
5. Market Your Groups to Attract New Members
It’s the responsibility of group leaders to promote their groups and recruit new members. You can effectively get the word out with some light marketing.
Chapin has found three channels that work well:
- Personal invites. The best method for recruiting new members to online groups is by having group leaders and members invite someone they know to join.
- Church email and newsletters. Letting your congregation know about available online groups in your church’s email or print newsletters is another option.
- Social media notifications. Reaching out to friends and followers through your social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, can also be very effective.
Example of an online group invite on Facebook
Moreover, promoting your groups online is especially valuable for reaching a particular audience: people who prefer online socialization.
“On Sunday morning, many people have trouble letting their guard down because they have an appearance they want to maintain.,” Sheveland says. “But on the Internet, and in Hangouts, some of those people are willing to let that facade fall—then they speak to the group more honestly, which is what should happen in small groups,” he says.
Checklist for a Successful Small Groups Hangout
The key to successfully launching and managing an online small group is patience. There’s a lot of trial and error in the beginning, and the same issues that arise in in-person groups—disengaged participants, somone monopolizing a conversation and conflict between members—occur online, as well. But the technology can be mastered and members can be led.
Here is a checklist of tips to refer to if you’re planning to start your own online small groups ministry:
Screenshot taken from public YouTube video.
Feature image © 2012 Google Inc. All rights reserved. Hangouts™ communication platform is a trademark of Google Inc.