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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Facilitating Studies Online

Summertime can be a challenging time to gather people in person around a Bible or other book study.  Our sister brings an idea for a Facebook group bible study, and would like to hear from some of us who have had some experience with this means of interaction.

Somewhere, sometime during Lent an idea was posted in the comments section of RevGals...about starting a FB group bible study.  Intrigued, I made a mental note to myself to file this away.  Now, as summertime approaches I am wondering about doing something like this for summer.  Here is what I am working with.

1.  Very few people in the congregation are on FB.
2.  The church does not have a FB page.
3.  I do have a FB page.
4.  I made the decision to include parishioners if they friended me...I won't post anything on FB that I would not say in a public space.
5.  One of our very few younger working women has expressed an interest in a bible study which does not meet at night or during work hours.

Here is what I am thinking/pondering/asking:
1.  What has been the experience of those who have done this?
2.  Any unforeseen pitfalls that occured?
3.  I could see some of our "very interested (read nosy, gossipers) signing up just to "keep tabs"...not with the intent of participating.  Am I being overly concerned there?
4.  This has the potential to reach those who do not attend, not members, but are social media types

I realize perhaps not a typical AtM...but I always glean so much wisdom from the "M's" and other who comment.   Thanks.

Martha, who blogs at Reflectionary, has some experience using social media in this manner…

I tried adding a blog component to a Bible Study last fall, but I found writing up the topics of the day after teaching the class was more of a time commitment than I could make. It took over an hour to write an adequate blog post, and after spending 90 minutes in the class itself, I had to move on to other things. I feel badly, because one of our younger working moms was reading it and left some comments.

If I were going to do an online Bible Study for church via Facebook, I would use the closed group option. A group is great because all those subscribed get notifications of activity, so there are prompts to keep up. A closed group means people can't stop by just to snoop. They have to be *in* the group. 

The drawback of the closed group, obviously, is it's not an effective outreach tool unless you have another page from which to promote it and invite people. And if, as you point out, there aren't many church folks on Facebook, it may not be the best "setting." Like any other church activity, social media requires critical mass to feel like a thing that's actually happening.

Hope this helps.

Kathryn adds:
I have been involved in both the congregations that have a fb presence and those who do not. I'm not sure I would use a Bible study as a reason to get people on fb. There are challenges with a congregation that expects fb to be used as a communication tool (how come you didn't see that my status update said that my grandmother died?). Also, do you want to be the one teaching  fb etiquette to the social media newbies?

What if you started something with the folks that are already on there? Or if you did a blog instead of running it through fb. Would it be live chat for a certain period of time during the week or would it be a post with folks free to comment through the week?

Okay, now to answer the questions you actually asked... :)
1) The attempt at a FB Bible study didn't take. We are now building a blog following and that has been easier to maintain.
2) The way folks filter their newsfeeds made it so some folks missed what was going on inadvertently. Also, we had folks join fb that should never have been on fb.
3) No. You are not being overly concerned there.
4) Maybe. For your situation you'll need to do a 'work smarter, not harder' analysis. If it does build some steam, but no one in your church notices, does it become something you are doing in your free time? And is it worth that free time?

Looking forward to reading the other answers as well. I'm sure someone has pulled it off effectively! Blessings upon your ministry!

Earthchick, blogging at earthchicknits,  also has some experience with this type of study:

I started a Lenten study group on Facebook this past Ash Wednesday, and it ended up being a really wonderful experience. I did it almost on a whim, after reading one of the RevGal comments about this sort of thing right before Lent. I created it as a "Closed" Group - meaning anyone could join (though I had to approve their membership) but that no one outside the group could see what any of us wrote. It felt safest to me that way.

25 people joined the group. Of that group, roughly a third of those had no official connection to our congregation (with the bulk of those being people who don't live in the area but know of either me or our church somehow); another third were people on the fringes of our congregation (either very sporadic attenders or brand-new to the congregation); and the final third was made up of active church members. Two of the people who participated were former congregants who no longer live in the area, one fringe member who participated was someone who is hearing impaired - for these three people, the Facebook group made involvement in the congregation possible in a way that it hadn't been before. Of the 25 people in the group, the most active participants (judged by regular comments) by far were those who are on the fringes of congregational life and those who have no official connection to our church - it was quite surprising, really. 

So to your fourth question, YES, doing something like this has the potential to reach a whole sector of people your congregation might not otherwise reach. As long as your goal isn't necessarily to turn those Facebook participants into people in the pews, then it's great. For me, this effort was an experiment with a goal of helping connect people to each other and to God in meaningful ways beyond the walls of church, without concern for whether or not they had (or would have) official affiliation with our church. I believe it accomplished this goal, and to a greater degree than I anticipated.

What I also didn't anticipate was how much time and effort it would require from me. With the pace of social media as it is, I felt the need to post something every day. That was great in the beginning of Lent, when I had a lot of energy and ideas, but towards the end, it was feeling a little overwhelming. On the whole, though, I felt the effort was worth it, and I felt like the experience helped me grow spiritually and relationally as well. It was really great to get to connect to people in this way, and I would highly encourage you to give it a try.

Can you offer some insights based on your experience?  Or do you have more questions than answers?  As one who is planning to facilitate a book study this summer in real time and via blog, I am interested to hear more.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I haven't used facebook, but I have used our blog for various kinds of studies, some with more success than others. I did run into the problem Martha mentions--it takes a lot of time to keep the blog going and to encourage participation. I had to let it go recently because I had too many other things going on, though I hope to pick it back up soon. I'm intrigued by the idea of a FB group and also petrified, because we've had some experiences of people misusing the media as a place to air grievances or start arguments, so I'm wary of inviting that kind of drama...I think if you did have a closed group, you would still have to be very up front about what is an is not appropriate for FB, and your policy on removing content that does not belong in that type of forum.

  2. I am at a training on using google apps. Hangout looks good for live up to 10 people. Can be open or private by invite. Looking to try this for summer. Looking into google for non profits. Anyone use or know more?

  3. We've done a hybrid meeting/FB study. Ours is a bedroom community, so we have met on Sunday mornings and then continued the dialogue throughout the week.

    On the positive side, it did pull in some people who don't participate in other ways, and most of them were younger. It allowed participants to post ideas as they thought of them rather than saving them for the class time, so our discussion was wider ranging.

    On the other hand, it almost seemed to exclude our older members, and I concur with Kathryn's point that some people should not be on FB. Plus, in our community, technology is an economic bar, excluding the poorest from participation. I also agree with whoever said that it's time consuming, because if you're not paying attention, a group can go far afield very fast.

    My recommendations are that a) a FB study should not be the only one going on; b) to avoid "monitoring" you could create a group with clear criteria, although that creates issues of its own, and c) try to have at least one other way to participate, e.g. print out the FB convo for the weekly meeting, etc.

  4. I haven't tried this, but a few thoughts occur to me.

    First, although it might not be accessible to some folks, that is true of lots of IRL programs too, just by virtue of timing. For example, a weekday morning group excludes anyone who is at work then. No harm meant, however, just that there are different ways and times to reach different people.

    Second, what came to mind for me would be something like the Friday Five. What if one were to post a passage--scripture or otherwise--and then some questions for people to think about and respond to? Or maybe just some questions with an introduction? Responses would be on the site itself. Probably would take monitoring, especially to ensure that people are gentle in their comments. Wouldn't be so much a study in this format, but it still could encourage reflection and growth.

  5. I think there's a FB place also for the one-on-one conversation on a topic, which would not have happened on the telephone, nor in person (geography!) nor even -- so fluently -- on email. I know there are early mornings when there are terrific theological duets going on in the lower righthand corner of my screen!

  6. I wasn't able to comment on this because I am old enough to not have the computer skills to do something like this. I think that I would feel safer doing a closed group thing. Most of my seniors are able to deal with email but are still wary of fb. With some help I think I could pull off a closed group. It will be especially helpful during the summer when I am going to be tied to the house taking care of a recovering roomy. Thanks for all the good idea and giving me the vocabulary to know what to do. Kathryn, I may be giving you a call.


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