The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how people relate to church.
While there will always be a place for the in-person options that churches offer, the use of technology to meet spiritual needs, whether through small group gatherings online or live-streamed worship, has moved from the periphery of discipleship to the very center.
As we transition back to more in-person activities, we face a new reality in our Sunday school classes and small group sessions: hybrid gatherings.
There are many reasons why people choose to join a virtual small group. A hybrid approach to small groups can enable members to stay connected and grow in their faith. Illness, caregiving, traveling or transportation issues needn't hinder participation.
While hybrid gatherings are not without their issues, they can be successful if planned well.
First, you will want to consider how people will be present for the meeting. Member familiarity and comfort with online conferencing will vary from person to person.
Furthermore, sticking individuals who are participating via Zoom on a laptop at the end of the table is less than desirable. If possible, you’ll want people to have the same experience whether online or in person.
For some small groups, the easiest way to accomplish this may be to make sure that each person joining remotely has their own device (phone, tablet, computer, etc.) and connects via FaceTime, etc. This approach may bring the experience much closer to actually being in the room.
For larger groups, you will want to bring in a video projector or large-screen television and connect to a laptop via Zoom. If you do this, be sure to place the laptop below the screen so that people will look in the right direction when they talk.
Of course, some of you may be familiar with business conferencing solutions, but they function best with professional IT support, which many churches don't possess.
Thankfully, the pandemic has brought about several user-friendly solutions. If you have the money to spend, there are several tools available that specialize in making hybrid meetings feel connected.
For example, Meeting Owl Pro's 360-degree camera automatically zooms in on the in-person speakers to allow online participants to better see and hear them. It even has an array of microphones to help bring the important audio to the front and minimize background noise.
Speaking of audio, while it is great to see one another, for most Sunday school classes and small groups, hearing each other is typically more important.
To make sure the audio is good, it is important to test the location of any device that will be used for your video conference. You’ll want to make sure that the speakers used are loud enough and that the microphone is able to pick up a voice from across the room. For most settings, this may mean adding speakers and possibly an external microphone.
Your church might have a couple of old computer speakers stashed away that you can pull out to make things work, but if you want a more modern solution without the hassle of wires, a relatively inexpensive bluetooth speaker such as the UE Wonderboom is great for helping everyone hear the conversation. If you’re in a really large room, you might want to upgrade to the louder JBL Extreme 2.
Adding a microphone will also be an important choice.
While the best option would be to give each person in the room their own microphone, that is far from feasible. Instead, you may want to buy an omnidirectional microphone, which picks up sound from all directions. A great option is the Shure MV-88. It is made for use with mobile devices and even comes in a kit with a tabletop stand to help this be a plug-and-play solution.
Although it can be a bit more difficult to set up, another option is an array microphone and bluetooth speaker combination. These are the next generation of the conference-call systems that used to sit in the middle of every corporate conference table. Anker makes a highly rated model that is only $129.
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Including those who are online
When you take steps to allow for hybrid gatherings, the tendency can be to plan an in-person gathering and add technology to let people watch it. Generally, that can turn those who join via online into second-class participants.
Proper planning for a hybrid group requires giving intentional thought to how those joining online will participate.
Here are nine questions to answer when turning an in-person small group into a hybrid one.
1. If supplies will be passed out in person, how will they be distributed to those joining online?
2. If there is an in-person activity (craft, game, etc.), how will those online fully engage or play a central role in the activity?
3. If slides will be shown on a screen, how will online participants be able to view those slides at the same time?
4. If a DVD is played, how will online participants view the video?
5. If there will be smaller breakout group discussions, how will online participants be included without having their comments heard above the rest in the room?
6. If there is discussion that happens among the entire group, how will an online person signal they want to speak?
7. If attendance is noted or an offering is collected, how will an online participant be able to engage?
8. Who will be responsible for setting up/testing/troubleshooting the technology before the class begins?
9. Who will be responsible for monitoring who is speaking and invite the online viewers to be a part of the conversation?
Imagine asynchronous participation
We have spent many hours delivering content to people via recorded video lessons and online lectures that don’t require everyone to be in the same room at the same time.
For some people, the ability to pause and think about an issue as a lecture is happening (or to rewind it after getting distracted) can be a much better way to consume information.
What if you imagined the entire group as a hybrid experience? What if everyone received a link to a video teaching that they could watch on their own before the group gathering? That way, when the class meets, there will be no sense of rushing a lesson or a conversation because there isn’t enough time. All of the time together can be spent on what is best experienced synchronously: conversation.
Whether you’re outfitting a state-of-the-art hybrid learning room or just allowing people on vacation to log into Sunday school on their phone, hybrid small groups are here to stay. And, with a little bit of thought and preparation, you can take your teachings and discipleship to the next level.
Jeremy Steele is the associate pastor at Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, California, as well as a writer and speaker. You can find a list of all his books, articles and resources for churches, including his most recent book, All the Best Questions, at his website: JeremyWords.com.