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Small Groups and Social Distancing

A helpful resource from the Canadian Baptists of Quebec and Ontario

By Sheldon Dyck, 
Pastor of Discipleship and Small Groups, Mississauga City Baptist Church (MCBC)

One of my favourite things to do as a pastor of small groups is to invite new friends into Christian community. When I meet those who are new to our church family, my first thought  is, “Which of our small groups could embrace this new friend and journey together with them into spiritual growth?” This person may be new to faith and need the nurture of those mature in faith. Or they may have experience in small group ministry and have the potential to become a leader. They may be someone who knows little of Jesus and would benefit from joining Alpha.

Whoever they are, I know that God can use small groups to grow our faith. Here are the critical components that make this happen:

  • Think life change–come expecting God to be present and to lead you into deeper knowledge of him
  • Cultivate relationships–invest time and energy into your small group members as these are the people that God will use to help you grow
  • Promote participation–everyone brings a gift that God will bless, so look for that in each member
  • Develop group care–group members have the best opportunity to hear, acknowledge and support each other through joys and sorrows
  • Search and share the Scriptures –receive God’s word together and let it change you
  • Be involved in something bigger than yourself–discover opportunities to reach out together and serve beyond your group

We have various components of group life at our church. If someone is just exploring who Jesus is and is at the beginning of their spiritual journey, we will invite them to Alpha to get acquainted with the basics of the Christian faith and a group of friends with whom they can make these discoveries. We offer short-term discipleship courses (that last from 6 to 8 weeks) that serve to introduce people to a discipling community and important themes of the Christian life. As a next step in their spiritual journey, we invite each person to take the Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Courses where individuals are challenged to pursue emotional and spiritual maturity in Christ. And as a foundation for long term discipleship, we encourage each person to be connected in a small group where meaningful relationships and spiritual growth can flourish.

As our small groups have grown and developed, each group meets at a time and location that suits their members. But sometimes, people have unique needs that make it hard to attend a group in person, such as shift workers, those with small children and those with health issues. Over the past few years, we began developing online groups and hybrid groups with some members meeting in person and some virtually. This met a significant need.

And then came the pandemic! Now, instead of making small adjustments, we had to rapidly revise our discipleship ministry. Small groups have pivoted to virtual platforms. Currently, at MCBC, we have about 80% of our groups connected online via video chat. The other 20% stay connected through phone calls and text messages. Every group has had to make adjustments in pursuing spiritual growth.

What I have learned from this shift is that social distancing has not stopped our discipleship ministry. Our discipleship pathway now has two tracks: physical and virtual. I think of the apostle Paul’s words in Colossians 1:6. “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” Our groups continue to have thoughtful reflection on the Scriptures and are able to enter into authentic conversations.

The struggle is real in the challenges faced by virtual online groups. We definitely are missing out on handshakes and hugs, and, of course, sharing food together—we are Baptists after all! But there has been a silver lining to all of this, and here are a few things we are seeing in our groups:

  • An increased hunger for God and some who desperately want to see this season as a time for spiritual growth
  • Some have found more time and space staying at home to join into group life
  • New connections and friendships are being formed in our church, even during this season of social distancing
  • Some have overcome the challenge of new technology and are surprised at how virtual meetings can continue to help their group grow

If you are starting to lead small groups online, here are some things that we have learned:

  • Be patient with yourself and others as you learn new technology. Expect a learning curve, do practise calls, take advantage of tutorials and laugh along the way!
  • Check in regularly with your small group leaders in your church. This is new for them too. Plan an online group meeting with leaders to learn from one another.
  • Connect with other small group pastors and leaders in your community. Find others who are moving to online small groups in your association. I also recommend joining the Small Group Network: contact my friends Dennis Funk or Paul Lam, Church Life and Leadership Associate at CBOQ. You can always email me at dyck@mcbc.org

Here’s the big question: “What will your small groups look like after the end of physical distancing? Perhaps some groups will not want to go back quickly to meeting face to face while others can’t wait to be together again. Either way, let’s offer our leadership out of our own growing confidence in the goodness of God. Remember David’s words in Psalm 62: “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.”

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