As the pandemic drags on, churches continue to find themselves in perpetual holding patterns. Hoping, praying, and waiting for the number of cases to significantly decrease or for a vaccine to be discovered and distributed. However, churches are increasingly realizing that these holding patterns have no end in sight, and they can’t remain in this position forever. After all, the church is still the church, even in a pandemic. Rather than continue to wait and see, many are choosing to adapt and bring back some of their primary ministries, with obvious adjustments.

Recently, I recommended that churches consider bringing back at least three primary ministries in some capacity: (1) small groups, (2) outreach, & (3) prayer. Having addressed how it might look for outreach and prayer to return in other posts, today I want to discuss 4 options for your church’s small group ministry. Church leaders may choose one of these 4 options for everyone. Another approach would be to allow groups to choose which option works best for them. (That’s the approach we are taking at my home church.)

Option #1: Online

For months, groups had no other option except to meet virtually. While initial participation was strong, “Zoom fatigue” eventually set in for many class members and participation waned. However, I have heard of other small groups that have thrived using the online format. 

For many groups, the online format may still be the best option. If your group includes many folks in the vulnerable population or a large percentage of the group still feels uncomfortable regathering, it’s possible to experience community in an online format. While the group dynamics change somewhat when you are staring at a screen, an online group is the safest option during the pandemic.

Another advantage to online groups is that they can meet any time during the week. If your church continues to provide this option, make sure to communicate when those groups meet and how someone can join an online group. You may even gain a few folks who teach a children’s class who had previously been unable to join in an adult group. 

Option #2: Onsite

For churches with a traditional Sunday school model, this was the only option until March. Groups would meet in the educational wing of the church during designated times. All age groups (from the Nursery to the Senior Adults) would have classes just for them.

However, COVID changed all of that. Many churches have yet to return to small group gatherings on the church campus. There are many reasons for this, but one of the primary reasons is that many classrooms are too small to allow for proper social distancing. Childcare has been another challenge.

Still, some churches are allowing a limited number of small groups to return onsite by making only their largest classrooms available and also by offering more than one designated meeting time. While the onsite option is the most difficult to coordinate and prepare for, the reality is that many classes will not reconvene until they can do so at the church. Therefore, the online option may be best for some groups.

Option #3: Offsite

A third option would be to physically gather in a location other than the church building. Groups can meet in homes, restaurants, community centers, or any other large gathering space where they can practice proper physical distancing. Similar to the online option, this allows the group the flexibility to meet any time during the week, and not just during designated times set by the church.

In a small town or rural context like mine, most churches have never tried offsite groups. However, the pandemic has provided the opportunity for churches to explore alternative methods to fulfill biblical mandates in other areas, and an offsite location may be just the right fit for your group. Also, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the small groups in the book of Acts utilized this option as well!

One other benefit of offsite groups is that it does not require the church to coordinate childcare on a churchwide scale. Most offsite groups can handle childcare on their own.

Option #4: Outside

A final option is for groups to gather outside. I live in Kentucky, so outside groups are not going to be a viable option much longer in 2020, but if you live in a warmer climate, this might be a great option. Groups can gather in parks, under picnic shelters, on a large patio at the home of a group member, or anywhere else in the great outdoors. 

Outside groups are also not confined by a time established by the church. They can meet any time during the week, and this is also a great option for groups with parents of small children. I’ve seldom met a child who didn’t love an outdoor space large enough to run and play.

Hybrid Options

Please note that these four options are not mutually exclusive. The groups in your church may choose more than one option. For example, a group that gathers onsite at the church may have some group members who are not yet comfortable in returning. For those members, your group may choose to create a Zoom meeting so that they can participate from the comfort and safety of their homes. Another group may be meeting offsite, but then they choose to change locations to a local park on a beautiful day. Groups in your church don’t have to be locked down to just one option. Flexibility is critical as the pandemic continues!

As a former Minister of Education and Sunday School Director, I firmly believe that small group ministry is crucial to every church’s mission to make disciples. As the pandemic continues, I pray that the groups in your church will utilize one or more of these options in the days ahead!

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