An Appeal for Small Group Churches to Network Online
If you have known me for very long you’ve heard my lament over the need for effective communication if we’re going to network together in our Kingdom work. Yes, I know. Your fellowship is communicating. Maybe it does group texts or has an email list, Or you have a Facebook group. Perhaps, you use Slack, Discord, GroupMe, Mattermost–the list is endless. But you are communicating within your group. That’s a good thing.
On the flip side, we are scattered all over the internet and often “caught up in traffic.”
Let me tell you a story of a text.
A Texting Tale
Omigosh! I have to push our meeting to a later time. I can’t count on an email in this case so I’ll shoot you a text.
You’re driving when you hear the notification. No problem you’ll check it when you get to the office. Few minutes later you hear another ping–another text. Just as you’re getting into the parking lot you hear three more notifications. It’s a group text coming through. You go into the office check on a few things and head down to your workspace. Meanwhile two more texts have come in.
Guess where my text about the time change is? It’s about the 12th one down in your feed just waiting to be accidentally skipped over as you deal with some of the other ones. As a result you arrive at our meeting about an hour early.
I know. I should have left a voicemail. Bummer!
Then there are email lists… I will forever remember poor Diego. We created an email list for our fellowship in which one of the addresses had one wrong character in it. That erroneous email address belonged to somebody named Diego. He emailed us and kindly asked us to take his name off our list, which we did by correcting the error. But not before that list had gone out to the group several times. You can guess what happened. Everyone kept answering those previous emails with “Reply all” essentially preserving the inaccurate list for eternity. Amazingly, the person whose address was incorrect got added while the erroneous one was never removed.
Poor Diego. After awhile his request to remove him from the list sounded more like a desperate plea. He even got kind of hostile.
And how about this one? You remember that you have an appointment but can’t remember where it is, so you go looking for it in your smartphone or on your computer. How many days ago was it? What was the first line? You can’t find that silly text. Several minutes of frustration later you remember it wasn’t a text at all it was an email… Or maybe it was a Facebook message. RATS!
The sad thing is that these messages were priority, that is they were from your church; your Kingdom community.
For us here in the Northwest, the the solution to the email debacle, and many of the other problems I described, was to shift over to a single platform. Moreover, that allowed multiple groups to have a central point of connection, which is not possible if individual fellowships are splattered all over the communication landscape on the internet. The group who communicates with their text list has no idea what’s going on with the a group that uses Slack. The fellowship that does their internal communication by email has no connection with the one that uses Discord or GroupMe. They are islands.
To be honest, some groups see no reason to interact with other groups of a similar kind. They don’t care. They’re simply self-contained. They’re doing fine, thank you very much. I think that’s short-sighted and breeds independence, but there’s not much I can do about a state of mind. On the other hand, there are some groups that would welcome the opportunity to share ideas and resources with other small groups. That’s where a single platform is essential.
I recommend a platform called Zulip. It behaves similarly to other platforms in common use (Slack, Discord, etc.) But with some important advantages.
One, is that it is open-source and not as widely used as some of the others. The advantage here is that, since Zulip is not trying to monetize their platform, they’re not always trying to sell you upgrades. Furthermore, you don’t get the feeling, as you do with platforms like Facebook, that you’re being swept along the informational superhighway with advertisements and random posts in a never-ending, constantly changing stream.
Secondly Zulip (specifically summit.zulipchat.com) is just for small-group Kingdom communities (house churches, if you will).
With Zulip, a fellowship has its own channel, called a stream, that is not shared with anyone else. Nobody but the group sees it. It’s locked and private–just your group.
Perhaps most importantly, when you post your thoughts and ideas using Zulip, you can attach a topic to them. This is most helpful in your group’s private stream. Here’s why.
On other platforms the posts are all organized in chronological order. Let’s say somebody posts prayer request. It’s read by the members of the group, some of whom request updates. Then, somebody posts about the upcoming gathering and its food prep. Several chime in. Then someone posts about an activity for the children. Then someone else posts about…
A few of days pass and, remember that prayer request? The one who posted it brings an update. A group member who may have missed the initial post has to wonder what that’s all about. Where is the original request? It’s there, but to get to it you have to sort through all of those posts about other stuff that came after the original request.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sort all of those posts according to their topic, similar to a subject line on an email? You could just click on “Prayer Request,” or any other specific topic, and all of those posts would appear together. Rather than having to scroll through day after previous day to find all of the posts about a particular subject, you can read them from the first to the last without any other posts in between.
Zulip does that and I haven’t found anything else that does.
Finally, you can find and collaborate with other simple fellowships. That’s not possible if they’re all hidden away in various data streams on other platforms. Are you searching for other groups that might have ideas and resources that would be helpful to yours? Not easy if they are online in multiple different locations. You probably won’t even know they are there.
On a delegated platform there can be other streams, including one that includes all groups – -a “global” network–and streams that are reserved for local or regional clusters of fellowships. Those more inclusive streams are good for collaboration. Groups can request help, share ideas, even arrange face-to-face meet-ups. In other words, encourage one another on the Kingdom journey.
This is where I hear, “Our group will never go for that. They say they have too much clutter in their in-boxes already.”
Seriously? That’s what the communication from your brothers and sisters in Christ is to you? Clutter? Might I suggest that Kingdom work is high priority traffic. If clutter is the issue, declutter something else. I offer an observation from Jim Wallis about the priority of the church—click here.
What that response tells me is that church, for some folks, is just another activity on an already crowded calendar. For them it is not a priority. As I said earlier, I cannot change a state of mind. What I can do, though, is appeal to people who do small group fellowships to prioritize these relational connections. Invite (even coerce) your fellowship to put all of their communication on a unique, delegated platform. Give it a unique notification sound and realize that all communication that comes over Zulip is “priority traffic.” Anything that comes from there is “Kingdom.” Moreover, if they want to know what’s going on, that’s where they’ll hear it.
Sadly, there are some small-group churches that really don’t care if there are others out there doing what they are doing. As I mentioned earlier, they are islands and happily so. I wish I could argue for the importance of being connected relationally to other fellowships, but for a few, maybe more than a few, networking just doesn’t matter. I wish that weren’t so. We could accomplish more, I think, if we were available to encourage one another.
What I can do is make a case for a shared communication portal for small group churches. Not an organization with bylaws and a statement of faith, but a hub for sharing and communicating within and among functionally autonomous churches who are voluntarily interdependent.
It’s not complicated. If you’re familiar with Slack, Discord, or even Facebook you’ll find much that is familiar. But, it is new. If you want more information on how we use this platform, get in touch. We’ll do a Zoom call and a screen-share and I’ll show you why I am so enthusiastic (even relentless) about getting simple churches on the same page.
For the redeemed, and for the King!