By Karen Wingate
My friend Linda Hulse posted this observation about Facebook:
“If you are a gossip, you use Facebook to gossip. It’s what you do. If you are one who complains, you use Facebook to complain. It’s what you do. If you are a follower of Christ, you use Facebook to spread the gospel. It’s what you do.”
Like anything, different forms of social media can be tools for good or arenas of distraction and division. As Christ followers, we get to choose our response to this phenomenon. Lowell Applebury, minister of the church I attended while a teenager, repeatedly said to his congregation, “Use every available opportunity to proclaim Christ as Lord.” Will we view social media as another societal blight or as an opportunity to advance the kingdom of Christ?
When the number of women in my small group Bible study expanded beyond the boundaries of our meeting room, I discovered that Facebook could transform and expand the way churches do small group Bible studies.
What We Did
For several years, eight women met in a church foyer on Thursday afternoons to study the Bible together. As I invited others to join us, I realized many couldn’t attend a daytime session. In a step of faith, I decided to hold a second study on Tuesday evenings. Our numbers doubled. Yet we were still excluding a significant number who couldn’t attend due to tight schedules, health issues, or distance. They wanted to study at home. Could I print out my discussion questions for them?
I was at a crossroads. How could I create a cohesive group without eliminating anyone? How could I help the at-home ladies become a part of the larger group? I distributed my discussion guide at church on Sundays, but I couldn’t catch everyone. What practical way could I get materials to an increasing out-of-town constituency who longed for some form of Bible study and fellowship?
I sought advice from a contact who administered a group on Facebook called “Women’s Bible Study.” She told me I could organize what is called in Facebook lingo a “secret group.” Only the administrator can add people to the group, and only those in the group would see any posts or have access to uploaded files.
I balked at such a paradigm shift to small group Bible studies. Would it work? Was my particular group of women Internet savvy enough to buy into such an idea? Would they actually use it? This second step of faith proved more beneficial than I ever dreamed.
Social Media Benefits
This past year has kept us on a learning curve. Like settling in with any new program, we needed to allow time to find what worked best for us and make adjustments. Originally I thought the Facebook group would become a separate cluster of women to add to my growing network of Bible study groups. Something better happened. The Facebook group became a gathering place for everyone. It augmented the on-site groups rather than replacing them. As the various groups settled into the new style, we discovered four benefits of social media Bible study.
Accessibility: The Facebook page expanded our reach beyond the walls of the local church. When others heard we were studying the Liz Curtis Higgs book Bad Girls of the Bible, out-of-state friends and ladies from churches where my husband and I had previously served asked if they could join. Facebook provided the capacity to post a Microsoft Word file containing my discussion questions. Local women quickly learned that if they had to miss an on-site session, they could go online to get my notes.
Inclusiveness: The social media group produced more participation, not less. Often as a teacher, I’ve been frustrated when my group responds to my questions with deer-in-the-headlights looks. One woman confided that, under the pressure of an hour time frame, her mind often went blank and she wished she had more time to process the questions. Another lady told me, “I don’t want to sound stupid, so I don’t say anything.”
A Facebook group removes the pressure to process the material within a certain time limit. Participants can reflect at their own pace. An online discussion guide allows members the luxury of thinking through their answers. It’s great for the more introverted members and appeals to a broader variety of learning styles, especially for those who prefer to write rather than talk out their answers.
Our Bible studies have become a weeklong affair rather than a one-hour event. On Monday morning I post a prompt for the coming lesson. When we meet together, the session begins by repeating the online prompt. Women now jump into the topic with more eagerness because they know what to expect and where the lesson is headed.
Consistency: In addition to the more leisurely, steady, weeklong discussion, members stay in touch with each other throughout the week via the Facebook page. This constant connection covers our off-season as well. Since small groups need a beginning and ending point, I schedule three studies per year, working around holidays and summer vacations. When we weren’t meeting, our ladies found we weren’t accountable to each other as much and we began to lose our sense of community. Now during the off-season, prompts, announcements, praise and prayer reports, Bible verses, short studies, links to my Bible study blog, and other links posted on the group page keep members engaged.
Immediacy: We don’t have to wait till the next on-site meeting or rely on a phone prayer chain to get the word out about urgent needs or individual crises. Group members can immediately let a person in crisis know that they are praying and ask if they can help in other ways.
One More Tool
Like any social media, an online group Bible study loses the benefits of face-to-face interaction. There’s nothing like getting a hug from a friend when you share about the bad week you’ve had. A common complaint about social media and email is that conversations can be more stilted, impersonal, and misunderstood. While social media isn’t a perfect small group alternative, the ability to include those previously left on the sidelines makes the obstacles worth overcoming.
I still get goose bumps when I realize how social media has expanded our discipleship efforts beyond church building walls and city limit signs. Our group now has 43 women from four different states studying and sharing within our fellowship. For us, social media acts like glue that holds our various groups together in one community and teaches an expanding group of women about Jesus.
I think Lowell Applebury would have been pleased with our use of social media. It’s one more tool we can use to proclaim Christ as Lord.
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer and blogger in Roseville, Illinois (www.graceonparade.com).
Online Bible Study Tips
• Keep it focused: While a social media group allows you to reach beyond the church facility, you still need to ask, “Who am I trying to reach?”
• Create a safe zone: A closed group allows you to share things with only those involved in the group. Like any small group, your members need time to build trust with each other. Be sure to introduce new members so others are not caught off guard.
• Establish ground rules: Remind the group of your purposes. Establish that “what is said here stays here.” Keep prayer requests limited to needs of only those in the group and immediate family members.
• Create an interactive environment: Online groups have a three-pronged purpose: study, fellowship, and outreach. Encourage members to connect by celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. Post calls for prayer and praise. Encourage members to respond and share related links, Bible verses, and memes (humorous images, videos, or pieces of text that are copied—often with slight variations—and spread rapidly by Internet users).
• Get others involved: Ask someone to administrate the page with you and post events. Another person can post a relevant meme or link each week. Assign a host from any offline groups to post their discussion summaries.