Like many churches in Covid, the church I’m part of has been meeting online since March of last year. Because we’re a small community, we opted to use Zoom (video conferencing application) for our worship gatherings, rather than a live-streaming platform like Youtube or Facebook, in hopes that we could maintain some of the connection and interaction that characterized our in-person worship gatherings.  

If Covid has revealed anything, it’s that the folks in our context are looking for connection more than content.  

They can get content anywhere. But what they can’t get anywhere is connection: people who know them, people who know about what’s going on in their lives, people to whom they belong.  

Covid revealed this truth, but didn’t create it. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in 2017 that loneliness was a public health epidemic in the United States, at the root of a great amount of emotional and physical pain. 

The global pandemic gave us the opportunity to enter into the ecclesial research and development lab in search of ways to facilitate connection and spiritual community through less than ideal digital mediums. And while I can’t wait for in-person gatherings to open up as soon as possible, I suspect these digital connection points will stay with us into the future.

Here are four strategies we’ve found helpful in cultivating community via Zoom: 

[Note: These strategies make the most sense in the context of a “mid-sized group” of 20-70 people (that is, not a small group and not a large group) — contexts like small churches, Sunday school classes, or large small groups.] 

  1. Employ leaders as virtual moderators. We offer discussion prompts throughout the course of our gatherings. For instance, every week the communion leader asks participants to share something they are thankful for that week. Those who want to share are instructed to put their name in the chat bar and the communion leader calls on folks one by one to share. For Zoom geeks, we use the chat bar rather than the “hand raise” function because it’s easier to identify. 
  2. Shorten or front-load content. Virtual venues seem to shorten participants’ already limited attention for information, so we decrease the amount of content we share in order to create more space for interaction about it. Some of my fellow Zoom colleagues are shortening their sermons to 5-7 minutes in response to this reality. We’ve also experimented with inviting people to process content ahead of time (e.g., a video message) and come ready to discuss it. This approach just happens to square with the cutting edge of adult learning theory — adults learn best when they are discussing what they’re learning!
  3. Nurture deeper connections with breakout rooms. Zoom’s breakout rooms are a great tool for deeper connection. Sometimes instead of introducing a discussion prompt for a group of 25 people, we’ll use Zoom to break people out into five groups of 5 people where the discussion can go deeper. We put the discussion prompt in the chat bar so groups can see it. Sometimes we prep breakout group leaders in advance to facilitate discussion; most of the time we just let the groups sort it out.
  4. For kids: minimize Zoom time and maximize parent participation. Last fall we started a simple format with our kids that they love. We get the kids together on Zoom for 10 minutes to see each other and talk about a discussion prompt. Then we get off Zoom for 25 minutes and parents do a lesson/activity they have prepared with their kids (we give all our parents access to our online kids curriculum and they choose what works for their kids). Then we get back on for 10 minutes for the kids to share what they learned with each other and pray together. The upside to this approach is that it empowers parents to disciple their kids while also giving kids the chance to connect spiritually with their friends — all while minimizing time on Zoom to account for short attention spans. 

I’m curious to hear from you all: how are you learning to cultivate community in this digital season of church? Leave a comment so we all can learn from your experiences!