Thursday, January 2, 2014

An Online Bible Study Road Map

One of the things that we're blessed with at FUMCA is a diverse young adult program, with a lot to offer each generation of young adults.  From college students, to post college, to young careers and families, to business owners, we run the gamut of life change from the early 20s to mid-30s and beyond.  We have several small groups, but we figured it would be nice to get everybody together in one place for a study for the season of Advent.  But how do you gather people from different walks of life, with varying levels of real-life business, in one space without creating a burden?

Our answer was venturing in the online study realm.  It's not a new thing, but I noticed that not a whole lot of people are trying it in the UMC, so I thought I'd drop out a road map for what we did - because it worked.

I can't take credit for the whole thing.  Before committing to leading anything, I first reached out to a friend of mine and fellow candidate for ministry, Kyle Roberson, Online Community Developer of White's Chapel UMC in Southlake, TX.  Gotta give credit where credit is due!  Kyle has tried and researched multiple formats, so it was great to pick his brain on where to go.

In weighing options, I decided the best way to go was - free.  So, here's the who, what, when, where, why, and how of our online study.

The Why

Our church frequently facilitates seasonal, short-term studies.  They can be quite fruitful, as they can pull people from across generations and get people together that wouldn't normally study together.  But we needed something that wasn't typical, and wasn't at the church.

The Who

Young adults from 18-35, with all of the various generational changes therein.  We ended up with two college students, one graduate student, four families (all with young kids), one man without his spouse, and my wife and I.  All plugged into various small groups.

The When

We needed a time that was good for young families with kids and college students that might have a more adventurous night life.  So we landed on Monday nights during the season of Advent from 8:30 to 9:15 PM.  Short and sweet.

The What

We studied the Bible.  The focus was on the study being free and low-maintenance for participants.  It was built out of our Advent sermon series, with discussion questions generated from the message of the week.  The overall focus was on how God was calling us to turn away from the life the world calls us to into the hope we have in a repentant life in Christ.  We kept it pretty simple and focused on discussion, with three separate 'topics' each session.

Overall, the format started with gathering, prayer, reading of the scripture, discussion, and closing thoughts with motivation for the week.  We always ended with something to be thinking about or doing, some kind of response.

The How ...

We chose the Google+ Hangouts on Air as our meeting place.  It's free, and it has natural limitations that are quite helpful.  For one, it's limited to 10 computers participating in the chat itself, which is perfect for discussion.  Me, plus nine others seemed to go really well.  We had more than 10 participants on some night (several married couples), but it didn't seem to get too bogged down and people were able to participate in the discussion as they felt called to.  More people than that, however, and not everybody gets to join the discussion, which is the whole point.  Hangouts can also be recorded, which is also nice.  The Hangouts post to your Youtube account through Google (has to be set up in advance!), and they can be made private to only be shared within the group.  One thing to be careful of with the chats, is that if you don't take off the "Public" option, anybody can view the chats even if they can't participate.  We set this up to be a covenant small group, so we never wanted things to be viewed publicly.  Which brings us to the next major item for the format ...

I set up a private blog through Google Blogger as a place to post discussion questions in advance as well as the chat videos.  Blogger is very user friendly as a basic blogging platform.  You can set it up as an invite only space that can only be viewed by discussion participants.  This makes it a sacred space for discussion and sharing.  I found it to be an excellent place to post ideas, and our participants used it to prepare for discussion at their leisure.  I usually had up discussion questions the Thursday before the Monday night study, but they had the plan for the study itself (scripture and topics) before the study formally started.

Google has all the right pieces to make an online study work, but it all works best if participants have a Google account.  Again - it's FREE!

The Results

This study was a success any way you slice and dice it.  One of the things my friend Kyle counciled me on was having clear parameters for the study.  Date, time, beginning and end.  This was set up as a short term study, and people really dug that; it enabled us to dig into the themes of the season really well.  I'm seminary educated, sure, but any lay person can do what I've done to set this up and go with the proper preparation.

All in all, we had the full nine people/families participate.  I think there was only one date out of four when all were present, but many went to the videos (I posted them to the blog the day after) to get up to speed on where we were if they missed.

There were some technological hiccups along the way.  The first night we tried to use my laptop for the study, and it didn't have the processing speed to handle it.  So we had to quickly switch to my wife's Mac to start things off.  And I'll admit, even with practice, it took me a few sessions to get used to starting the chats off, for which my more fluent in Google+ wife was a saving grace.  Some had wifi issues, others had computer issues as I did.  I highly recommend doing a practice chat in advance, or having your people make sure that they have installed all of the necessary plugins for Google+ (if that's what you use) before the first chat.  I tried to be sure to put the invite out at least 5 minutes before starting to give people time to get in and settled.  You also have to have solid wifi and strong bandwidth to use this platform, but part of the benefit of sticking with the Young Adult niche was not having to do a lot of hand holding with the technology.

We concluded our run with a potluck at my house as a little family.  That was worth it in and of itself.  A lot of relationships were built that probably wouldn't have otherwise, and that's church to me.  But even if we couldn't gather in person, we proved through our time together that two or three or fifteen could gather in a space on the internet and the Lord was there.  Thanks be to God for being able to experience the Word of God and the Spirit of God in new and fun ways.

Have you ever led or participated in a study online?  How do you do it and how did it go for you?