By Chris Surratt
The thought of launching anything right now may seem daunting, but we shouldn’t let a pandemic stop discipleship. We may not be able to all gather in person this fall, but we can still meet and study the Bible.
Ken Braddy, Lifeway’s director of Sunday School, and I recently hosted a free webinar on launching and relaunching groups in the fall. Here are the five key questions we discussed.
1. Why launch groups in the fall?
We both agreed that the fall is the best time of the year to launch or relaunch groups.
August/September is normally a growth season for churches as church members return from summer vacations and new people move into the community.
Although this year’s rhythms will look different because of the pandemic, there will still be a lot of people ready for new and old connections after several months of isolation.
Most churches will launch a new preaching series in the fall, which makes it an ideal time to consider a campaign where all of your groups are studying the same thing for a few weeks.
That helps create urgency and excitement around joining a group.
2. What about existing groups that haven’t met this summer? Can they be relaunched with new people, or should they just restart?
The same momentum that helps propel new groups can help relaunch existing groups.
It’s natural for groups to take a breather during the summer months, and especially during this season of not meeting physically together.
A lot of groups started strong with Zoom meetings then quickly developed Zoom fatigue and stopped meeting.
This fall is an excellent opportunity to breathe new life into those groups by starting fresh with a new Bible study or by adding new people to the group.
Also, changing when or where the group meets can bring new excitement. If the group has been meeting exclusively online, try meeting socially distanced at a park or on the church property.
If Sunday morning hasn’t been working, consider changing to Sunday night or a weeknight. Sunday School doesn’t have to be on Sundays.
3. What are the barriers to think through for groups meeting this fall?
Childcare issues are already at the top of the list for most groups, but they’re especially important now.
It will be some time before parents will be comfortable with leaving their children in close proximity to other kids, so you may have to stop offering group childcare for a while.
I’m a big proponent of having food options at a small group meeting. It helps people start to feel comfortable quicker, and who doesn’t love food?
However, how you offer the food may have to change. My small group will normally have a buffet style of snack offerings with a line of bowls and community dipping spoons for each. That arrangement will no longer be acceptable.
Some teachers will be slow to return to the classroom. Older teachers who have pre-existing conditions may not be comfortable serving in more crowded pre-COVID conditions.
Some will return slowly, and others won’t return until there is a vaccine. This means we’ll need to recruit and train new leaders.
Do you have time to deep clean your house or classroom before group every week?
Guidelines for restaurants reopening call for thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting everything between every customer. That includes door handles, tables, chairs and menus.
Are you prepared to offer that level of cleaning for your group each week? People will expect it.
4. What about virtual/online/hybrid groups? Is that a long-term strategy?
Both Ken and I agreed that online—or some type of hybrid group strategy—is here to stay.
Not everyone is going to be comfortable attending physically right away, and some group members may be in the most at-risk demographic and should not attend until there is a vaccine.
Now that people are accustomed to attending online through Zoom or Hangouts, having an option for people to attend virtually is wise.
The virtual option is especially wise for Sunday School. Because of the success most groups have experienced during initial COVID-19 sequestering, the Zoom experience will transfer to on-campus classrooms.
Teachers will use iPads, laptops, or smartphones to broadcast live via Zoom. This will allow absentee members and guests to continue meeting with a group when work, play, or illness takes them away on Sundays.
5. What is a good timeline for a fall launch?
First, determine what leaders are coming back for the fall so you know how many new leaders you will need to recruit. Make sure to think about online and in-person groups.
Next, schedule your next training online. Even returning leaders will need training on new methods and curriculum for this season. Facebook Live or Zoom webinars are tools you can use for your training sessions.
Finally, fully plan out your “Plan B.” What happens if you start with groups meeting together physically, but circumstances change and they have to move back online?
We have the luxury of some experience now, so this is the time to get a comprehensive plan in place for leaders.
CHRIS SURRATT (@ChrisSurratt) is the discipleship and small groups specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources, a ministry consultant and coach with more than 20 years of experience, and the author of Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group.