Church finds pandemic is catalyst for virtual small groups

Mar 29, 2021

By Johanna Willett

You might think that months of meeting as a virtual small group would cause Zoom fatigue, but that hasn’t been Aaron and Melissa Posey’s experience — cats crossing keyboards keep things interesting.

That’s just what doing life together looks like these days.

The Poseys lead an online small group at Enchanted Hills Baptist Church in Tucson. Theirs is one of 10 virtual small groups that started when COVID-19 made Sunday School classes instantly unworkable in the spring of 2020.

That was a change Senior Pastor Aaron Petre had wanted to see prior to the pandemic to improve discipleship at the church. Shortly after becoming the church’s pastor in October 2019, Petre had begun ReFocus, a church revitalization process hosted by the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention to help churches identify strengths, weaknesses and a vision for the future.

“As they assessed their current reality, they sensed a need to make a shift,” says Keith Durham, the convention’s church health facilitator. “COVID gave them an opportunity to take a step into that shift. It was an opportunity to try something that otherwise might have created major waves in their church.”

Following the physical closure of Enchanted Hills, Petre knew they needed to provide people a way to stay connected and grow spiritually. Online small groups seemed like the answer.

Unlike Wednesday night Bible study and Sunday School classes of old, these groups would be intimate, flexible and led by conversation, deciding what to study and when. This was a significant departure from the church’s previous model, which, with classes for senior adults, teens, Spanish speakers and young adults, did not serve a sizable population at the church.

“This has allowed us to make ministry more personal,” Petre says. “Before, it was lecture-style with someone standing up and teaching. When we trained our small group leaders, the focus was to encourage conversation.”

In the beginning, he estimates roughly 90 percent of the church was involved in a small group.

The Poseys have attended Enchanted Hills for more than 12 years, but leading a small group, even virtually, has helped them build more personal relationships.

“That’s the big thing that has impacted us, being more intimate with the people in our groups,” Melissa Posey says.

Their group has met throughout the twists and turns of the pandemic. Over the summer, when one group member was sick with COVID-19, her swamp cooler broke. Because the Poseys had stayed connected through their group, Aaron Posey was able to go and fix the swamp cooler.

“I have seen people who were not involved before in the old model are now engaged, whether it’s coming to the service more often or watching online more often,” Petre says. “When I touch base with small group leaders, now we know what’s going on in their lives, whereas before, we didn’t.”

Just before the pandemic, about 80 people attended service on a Sunday morning. Petre says that number has dropped to around 50, split between online and in-person services. And yes, Zoom fatigue has caused some to stop attending small groups. But Petre says that overall, attendance is still significantly higher than it was for Sunday School and Wednesday night Bible study.

Ultimately, the goal was to create discipleship options for everyone, all week long.

“God is moving,” Petre says. “He hasn’t stopped moving because of COVID. He is just moving in different ways.”

Johanna Willett, a freelance writer living in Tucson, is a member of Mountain View Baptist Church, Tucson.

Next Steps

–To learn more about ReFocus and other church revitalization processes, visit azsbc.org/church-revitalization, or contact Keith Durham at kdurham@azsbc.org.

–During the pandemic, Enchanted Hills received financial support via a grant from the Helping Churches in Crisis Fund, the focus of the 2020 Arizona Mission Offering. To give toward the Arizona Mission Offering to help other churches and ministries in our state, visit azsbc.org.

–Pray for the pastors and leaders at your church as they continue to navigate the effects of the pandemic.

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