Technology and life have changed fast in the last twenty-five years. Our ability to communicate and comfort to do so by cell phone, email, text, Skype, and social media have grown substantially in that period. At the same time, computers, phones, video, and software have made sharing images easier as well.
Today, it is rare for a person to be out of reach. Few go anywhere without an electronic tether called a cell phone. Wireless internet is readily available in many places, often for free. At times I find it necessary when travelling to stop at Panera’s, McDonalds, or similar places which offer free wireless internet to check email or send a file.
I just finished teaching an online course for Rockbridge Seminary. In the course, I had students from California, Texas, Washington, Colorado, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Hong Kong. The course included fourteen students and myself. During the eight weeks, we got to know one another well through sharing prayer requests, classroom forum conversations, and assignment interaction. I am excited about the future of the church because of these students and church leaders. If they had been forced to take time off from ministry and work to travel to a specific location for eight weeks, this group would never have gotten together. Today many are wanting to learn while they are on the job. This is true for Christians as well as church staff.
The church should be paying attention to all of these things. While many prefer face-to-face interaction with people, we also know that time is precious and gas is expensive. Some express the fear of the loss of the human touch and accountability when conversation about online small groups begins. Is it possible for someone to pretend they are someone they are not? Is it possible for an individual to fake the Christian experience and fake community and biblical conversation?
Yes, there are risks, but think about this. How many of these risks are realities in our face-to-face groups? How many slip in and out without human touch? How much accountability is really part of most classes? How often are we real and honest face-to-face. These are risks for all groups. And they should not be reasons to miss a venue that may connect with some people.
I want to encourage you to read an article by Steve Gladen entitled Online Small Groups: A New Frontier. He is the author of a new book, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities. In the article, Steve shares his work with online small groups and ideas about starting online groups. Stretch your thinking by spending a few minutes reading his article and thinking through the idea in your context. Avoid missing an opportunity!