10 tips for a better (and safer) online group experience

The word diaspora was first used in John 7:35 to refer to the Jews who were dispersed and lived among the Greeks. In Acts 8:1-4, it is the Jewish Christians who were scattered because of the persecution of the church that began with the stoning of Stephen. In Acts 11:19 the word diaspora is used again in connection with scattered Jewish Christians who began sharing the gospel with Gentiles.

Today, because of COVID-19, the church is undergoing another diaspora. We are being forced to scatter from our buildings and into cyberspace. Untold numbers of churches have moved online for worship and Bible study within the past three weeks. It’s a welcome and wonderful scattering of the church that wouldn’t have happened without the  COVID-19 pandemic. We will ultimately look back on this as a great moment in church history. God has used a terrible disease to bring spiritual encouragement and healing to all kinds of people who are now discovering the church in a new way online. The gospel is going forth!

But this period of advancement is not without its own perils and pitfalls. Already there are people, bad people, who are using their time and “talents” to hack into online meetings. These unwelcome visitors must be managed or they could disrupt your next online Bible study. And in addition to that, most of us are brand new to the world of leading online group Bible studies, so we’re feeling our way each week.

I thought it might be handy to have a quick list of “best practices” for leading online groups. Some of the suggestions below relate to teaching the group – others relate to the security that needs to go hand-in-hand with our virtual meetings.

In no particular order, here are my thoughts about best practices that create a better online Bible study experience.

  1. Plan for a shorter teaching session than in a classroom setting. If you are used to teaching a group in a classroom or living room, you’re going to find a much different environment online. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when you’re online, less is more. Cut your normal group session plans in half. Aim for a 20 minute Bible study experience – 25 minutes at most. People will check out, click out, and you’ll wonder why people bailed on you. Attention spans will be lower, you are not able to engage people like you could in a face-to-face setting, so accept the new reality.
  2. Use “share screen” to introduce images and other content that enhance the study. While people will enjoy seeing each other’s faces, they will enjoy seeing interesting images, maps, charts, and other items you can share through your computer. Take full advantage of the “share” feature in online meeting tools. You’ll engage your online group members more fully.
  3. Call on people in the online session to read and answer questions. Online experiences are different than classroom or living room ones. To keep people engaged, ask them to read sections of Scripture, and be sure to ask them to respond to questions you pose. People’s attention may want to wander, but you can redirect them and pull them back in.
  4. Ask everyone to mute their microphones if they are not speaking. Because many of us are spending lots of time at home these days, our children are, too. To keep from becoming a distraction to your fellow group members, mute your microphone so that barking dogs and rambunctious kids are not picked up in background noise.

And now for some tips about creating a safer online group experience:

  1. In your online tool settings, set up a meeting password to keep hackers out. Online meeting tools like Zoom have a setting that can be put into action. You won’t be able to do this from your calendar when you set up an online meeting. You’ll want to go to your Zoom account and view your scheduled meetings. Open a scheduled meeting and turn on the password requirement. Hackers will hate this.
  2. In your online tool settings, don’t allow screen sharing (hackers can post inappropriate images). Some groups have reported that a hacker was able to share his or her screen with the group, and it wasn’t an image for the feint at heart. Can you imagine people’s disgust (and distraction) when a sexually explicit image suddenly appeared during a Bible study? In Zoom settings, change this to “Host Only” sharing.
  3. In your online tool settings, don’t use virtual backgrounds (hackers might post inappropriate images). It has also been reported that hackers can wiggle their way and share an inappropriate image if you are using those delightful virtual backgrounds…you know….the Golden Gate Bridge or other famous places. If you’re tempted to share those images, don’t.
  4. Never show your meeting ID in social media. You might be tempted to text your meeting ID to group members and guests; you might also be tempted to send out that ID on Facebook. Please don’t! If a hacker comes into contact with it, you’ll have an unwanted guest that could destroy your meeting.
  5. Disable file downloads. As the host, be sure that you do not allow file downloads. This will prevent malware from finding its way into your computer.
  6. Disable the “Join Before Host” feature. If you don’t turn off this option, and if you as the host can’t start the meeting because you’ve been detained (or maybe you forgot you had a meeting) then the first person who joins the meeting automatically becomes the host and has control over your meeting.

If you practice these simple steps, you’ll dramatically increase the security of your online meeting. Most of us will never experience a meeting that is hacked while we’re online. Don’t be afraid of using this meeting technology – just take adequate precautions and you and your group members will be just fine.




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