By Ken Braddy
When COVID-19 physical distancing rules became necessary, churches pivoted quickly and discovered how to use tools like Facebook Live to broadcast their worship services online.
Once churches figured out how to reach people online for worship, they began asking, “Should our Bible study groups also be online?” It was at this time that Zoom and other online meeting tools became highly sought after.
Group leaders, unfamiliar with the technology, quickly learned they could gather their group members for Bible study and virtual fellowship.
Reports from leaders around the country indicate that attendance in worship services and group Bible studies is rising. This is the case with groups at my church.
New people are finding their way into these virtual Bible studies. This actually mirrors something that happened during another terrible pandemic.
In the years following the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic in 1917-1918 during which 50 million Americans died, the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1919 annual meeting reported on its effects, but found reason to give people hope.
Dr. I.J. Van Ness’s report on the state of the Sunday School throughout the Southern Baptist Convention contained the following:
“The influence of the epidemic stayed with us through December, but the bright sun-shiny months of the opening year gave reassurance. Our Sunday schools rallied, business became more normal, conditions improved, and the working force of the Board resumed its normal operations. We had anticipated that it would take many months for the Sunday schools to rally, but they came back in March. There flowed in a steady stream of orders, which indicated that the Sunday-school hosts were well organized, full of purpose, and had rallied themselves. As a result, the year, which had been so trying for many months, ended full of hope and promise” (pp.449-450).
Why go into so much detail about history? Because a new trend emerged during the Spanish Flu pandemic. People returned to churches in great numbers, and Bible study groups experienced growth.
In fact, the “father of Sunday School,” Arthur Flake, began his important work as Sunday School director for the Sunday School Board (now called Lifeway Christian Resources).
His work helped churches connect people to Bible study groups across the Southern Baptist Convention.
The end of the pandemic and people’s renewed interest in church and Bible study groups ushered in decades of growth.
Inviting People into Virtual Groups Today
Most Americans (96%) now own a cellphone of some kind. The percentage of Americans who own smartphones is now 81%, up from just 35% in Pew Research Center’s first survey of smartphone ownership in 2011.
Along with mobile phones, Americans own a range of other information devices. Because the church has found success in online Bible study groups today, inviting people into those groups is now a growing topic.
Pastors and group leaders are excited that regular attenders are using technology to stay connected and to experience Bible study, but what should the church do to engage people who are unconnected in virtual discipleship groups?
1. Personal Invitation
This has always been the most common way people come to church or a Bible study group. Today, the personal invitation is just as powerful, and that is because people trust people they know.
Just this week, neighbors asked questions on our neighborhood Facebook page about “Who do you know who cuts grass?” and “Who do you recommend to refinish our cabinets?”
Because of the trust factor, the personal invitation into a virtual Bible study group will be one of the top ways unconnected people take a chance and participate in a virtual group.
2. Church website
Your church’s website is the perfect place to let the world know that you offer online Bible study groups.
Perhaps you’ll get permission from your group leaders to post their email there. Maybe you’ll ask interested persons to email or call the church office so a staff person can connect them to a group leader.
Your members may know you have virtual groups, but do guests perusing your website know this? Unless you tell them, the answer is no.
3. Social Media
It’s reasonable for your church members to post a message in their social media channels that their group has a virtual Bible study.
The one thing you must caution them against is placing the login information online for the world to see! This is a cardinal sin in the new world of online groups.
It’s fine for a person to say, “If you would like to join me and my group for a great Bible study this week, send me a private message and I’ll give you the link.”
That way you reduce the chance that a hacker will “Zoom bomb” (yes, that’s a thing) your group’s Bible study.
Online groups are going to continue reaching new people for Bible study. No longer does a person have to commit to attending the on-campus worship service, or an on-campus Bible study group.
From the comfort and safety of their home, people can participate and see what happens during a Bible study.
Ultimately you should connect them with a group of adults with whom they can eat, fellowship, and “do life together.”
But for now, the new first step and the new entry point into group life may just be that virtual Bible study group that your church didn’t have six weeks ago.
KEN BRADDY (@kenbraddy) is the director of Sunday School at Lifeway and disciples a group of adults at his church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including Breathing Life Into Sunday School. He blogs regularly about Sunday school and groups at kenbraddy.com, and is host of The Sunday School Guy podcast.