It won’t surprise you to read that strong relationships are integral to the growth and health of a church. People are more likely to stay connected to a church when they’re connected to the people there, especially among younger generations. A 2013 Barna study of twentysomethings found those who stayed active in their faith after high school were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church than those who dropped out.
Traditionally, we’ve looked to groups and classes to form the bonds that aren’t as easily attainable through Sunday morning worship attendance. But as schedules get busier and families are stretched thinner, a new solution may be in order. May I suggest virtual community?
Right off the bat, it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, I know. After all, what’s colder than a screen? Is it really possible to build strong relationships and warm fellowship when everybody stays at home? As a member of a recently formed virtual discipleship group, I can tell you the past few months have revolutionized the way I think about Christian community and relationships.
Six of us meet for an hour every week, late enough that kids are in bed and I’ve even had time to brew a cup of (decaf) tea. My husband, Chris, and I settle in and log into a virtual meeting, and we spend the next hour talking to four of our friends about the spiritual discipline or practice we’ve studied that week.
We’ve covered Bible-reading, the practice of Sabbath, and Scripture memorization, among others. Our next training module is on evangelism. In more than 30 years as a Christian, the concept of discipleship has never seemed as attainable as it has in this season of walking with others along the same road—from the comfort of my own couch.
When I think about what has made my virtual community so effective, I think it boils down to three things:
Our meetings are consistent and mostly distraction-free. The coaches who lead our group (my pastor and one of our elders) have worked hard to keep our meetings to an hour. We start with a brief time of prayer requests and reasons to celebrate from the previous week. Since our time together is relatively short, we maximize the hour by sticking close to our material for the week.
No one in our small group gets off easy either—our coaches are quick to aim a question at one of us who hasn’t spoken much during a particular session. Sometimes the answers are easy, but not always. More often, one of us “verbally processes” an idea for a few minutes while the others listen closely, then respond. This virtual “iron sharpening iron” has illuminated why the writer of Hebrews encourages Christians to meet together:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV).
The second key to effective online community has been study material that is focused on personal discipleship. The curriculum we use, developed by the North American Mission Board, includes articles and book chapters to read, videos to watch, and a few written assignments to complete every week. The homework, which amounts to around three hours a week, points me as an individual believer to deeper devotion to Christ and stronger commitment to spiritual disciplines.
Each unit of study has a Scripture verse or two to memorize, which we practice at the beginning of each meeting. Although the meeting is online, the homework often takes us away from our screens and into the real world. The session on spiritual disciplines, for example, asked us to develop a plan for practicing a particular discipline, and share it with another Christian.
Lastly, our time on each week is formatted like a coaching session. We submit our assignments online before our weekly meeting. Our coaches review them and ask discussion questions about what we’ve written. It’s discipleship in real time. The format compels me to get my homework done, and allows me to learn from how my fellow group members are interacting with the material.
These principles are transferrable to in-person gatherings too, but they may be especially helpful for people who are new to the concept of community. Those of us who are busy or easily distracted can benefit from the accountability of weekly assignments and a consistent meeting time.
My community has invited me into warmer fellowship with fellow believers because I know there are people personally invested in my spiritual development, as I am in theirs.
Meredith Flynn is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist.