Tuesday, 19 January 2021

10 top tips for running a church discussion group online

I’ve just been writing an appendix about how to run an online course for my forthcoming book on reading the Bible (pre order it here!), and I thought it might be useful to blog it. 


 I’d encourage you to think of some of the things that are different about online meetings as features, not bugs.

 Online, people are always free to turn off their camera, and/or mute themselves, or simply unobtrusively leave, as they wish. This puts them in control in a new and liberating way.

 Online, we have entered into their space and are a guest in their home, rather than the other way round.


So here are 10 practical points to think about:

1. 1. Recruitment

 You can advertise an online course in various ways: create it as an event on Facebook, advertise it on your website and other online places, and perhaps ticket it on Eventbrite or a similar platform (which is free if you make the tickets free). Any of these methods enable your congregation, family, friends and social media acquaintances to share the link easily (do encourage them to do so!).

 2. Participants

 Recruiting this way can mean that people you have had no previous contact with might join you, from all over the country (or indeed overseas). Do be aware of this in how you run the course. It is a great missional opportunity, but you need to be prepared to be joined by people who may have very different levels of knowledge of the Bible or of Christian faith, and very different life experiences. Remember that people who have joined by simply seeing the link online might not be thinking in terms of joining a local church group; they may have seen the link at third or fourth hand, and just be thinking of it as on online course on an interesting topic. If so, be careful to treat them as equal participants, and avoid in-jokes and letting discussions of the local church or area predominate.

 3. Relationships 

My experience is that, although people often worry that online relationships aren’t going to be as good as ‘the real thing’, they will get to know each other very well indeed over the course. Meeting online seems to create a particular intimacy amongst scattered participants, perhaps because they are each meeting from their home ground, and/or because they are used to using the online space for personal discussion and self-revelation in social media contexts.  


Which takes us onto ...


4. Names


The fact that people are labelled with their name is hugely helpful for those of us who are not good at learning names. It’s also brilliant in that awkward situation when don’t want to offend someone by asking their name when you’ve seen them around in church for years!Do ensure that you ask people to label themselves online with their real names (whatever variant they want to be known as). Sometimes people enter a meeting with a default label such as ‘dad’s ipad’, or are using someone else’s account or device so come on with a completely different name or a company name, and that can be very confusing for participants. If they don’t know how to rename themselves you can do that yourself as meeting host - just ask their permission to do so, and ask them to write in the chat what name they would like you to use (great if you’re not sure of their name yourself!). Similarly, people can use the name field to specify their pronouns if they wish to do so. If you don’t know everyone in the group, inviting people to do this is a great way of signalling that this is an inclusive space.



The timing and dynamics of gathering are rather different. In a physical meeting, there is often a substantial period of time over which people arrive, during which we’d make a hot drink and catch up with how people are. Online, people tend to arrive promptly, and there is less appetite and scope for general chat. So whilst for a physical meeting I’d open the church or meeting room half an hour before the advertised starting time, an online meeting room only needs to be opened 5 minutes in advance.

 6. Getting started


Again, in a physical meeting, I would often begin with some general greetings, and some worship - a song, some simple liturgy. This functions partly to set the mood, and partly allows for late arrivals! Online, however, we found it worked best to greet people, and then get straight down to business, with simply a short opening prayer.

 7. Silence


Communal silence - though it can be powerful - does not work in the same way in an online group. Keep it relatively short unless it is the whole point of the gathering. If the latter, it can work really well – a group in our parish is meeting weekly to be led in a time of silent contemplative prayer. But where that isn’t everyone’s expectation, keep it short – a minute silence online has the impact of 5 minutes silence in person.

 8. Discussion


Whole group discussion can be intimidating with a sea of faces all looking directly at you, and you can’t simply ask people to turn to their neighbour and discuss something for a moment. It is not possible to have simultaneous conversations in the main group, and it is harder for people to sense when it is their turn to speak.


For substantial discussion, it is best to have a version of your conferencing software (eg pro Zoom) that allows you to put participants into smaller breakout groups. You might then ask someone to feedback from each group. You can either plan who is going to go into particular groups in advance, or allow the software to allocate people randomly - and if you do the latter, you still have the option to move people between groups when you see the groupings. Consider placing somebody in each group who you have asked in advance to take on the role of chair or facilitator. Practically, it is advisable to have a co-host for the meeting who is organising the breakout groups whilst you are leading the first part of the session.

 9. Chat


Don’t forget that the chat facility is also useful for doing discussion differently. Using the chat, people can add comments or questions as they occur to them, and then they can be discussed at a later point.


Some people are much more comfortable formulating a comment in writing, so it is helpful to offer both ways of engaging.

Again, it might be helpful to nominate somebody whose job it is to monitor the chat and identify questions, themes or topics to be discussed.


A particular feature is the ability for participants to have simultaneous conversations, alongside or even totally ignoring whatever you have planned and are delivering as group leader(s). In a physical meeting this would often be considered rude or disruptive, but online it is normal ettiquette for people to give simultaneous comment or have additional conversations. Try not to be put off by this, but embrace it. It is a democratising feature of online meetings, blurring the boundary between who is leading and who is receiving – and that’s a good thing.


 10.        Comfort breaks

Finally, don’t forget to build comfort breaks into an online session just as you would if meeting in person, and encourage people to get themselves a drink at that point.


Do give it a go. We've had Bible study, retreat days, silent contemplative prayer, meetings and are now planning Lent courses all online. Obviously not everyone can attend these, and it is important that other things are put in place for those folk who aren't online, but don't let this put you off doing this for those who can benefit. (And see Bryony Taylor's blog for other ideas such as dial-in church).An entry-level smartphone  or tablet is quite good enough for people to join an online course, and online opens up attendance to many people who would have been excluded from what you normally do, such as those who are housebound.


Saturday, 31 October 2020

Online communion

 I’ve blogged for Modern Church (published in the Church Times too) this week, on the phenomenon of online communion and how the tangible and the virtual are combined in every celebration of communion.

You can read it here: 


Friday, 4 September 2020

Learn to Paint in 3 Easy Stages: Genesis

Start by laying down an indication of sky -
Leave some space white, to suggest light.
Place a distant mountain or two.
Working forwards in layers
Decide where you want to be land,
Water, vegetation.
Perhaps a tree in the foreground,
To push everything back?
It could be a fruit tree -
You decide.

If you’re not happy with the way it’s going
You can always change it.
You’re in control.
You can move the paint about, add new layers.
As a last resort, wait until it’s dry
And paint over.
Perhaps an all-over wash of blue
To hide the mess you’ve made-
Let’s make it an ocean.
And perhaps - here - a happy little boat?

But however much you paint over
You’ll always know what lies beneath.
It’s your creation -
Make your peace with it.
Commit to it.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

A poem: reflecting on communion, past and present


I chose carefully for my first time.
Slipping quietly off the marketplace
Into the taken-for-granted quiet of an old church.
Midday, midweek,
when I calculated that nobody of any importance
would witness my humiliation.

Drawn as I was to kneel and tacitly offer
My submission to this ancient order,
my faith was still too raw a wound
to hold it out for inspection -
not yet scabbed over enough to bear the thought
of people reaching out to touch and exclaim over it.

The few old ladies who gather at these things didn't count in my young eyes -
Nor the priest - by definition, irrelevant.
This was as close as I could get to privacy
For my capitulation.

It was just what I'd hoped for - A Ladybird Book of Church.
School-room-vintage chairs with rush seats.
Stone flags that had seen it all.
The noonday sun blurred through old glass diamonds.
Slim liturgy that neither patronised nor presumed.
One step, a wooden rail, an unassuming altar.

I took deep breaths and told myself I had a right to be there.
Smiled politely back at the welcoming lady who caught my eye.
Tried to look as if I often popped into a church -
People do, don't they? -
And just happened to stay for the service that happened to be about to start.

The moment that I knew that God had got me
Wasn't, as I'd expected,
When I knelt to receive the bread and wine.
It was when, at some point in the service, a latecomer entered.
I’d thought I’d got away with it until then.
He was one of my lecturers.
And not just any old lecturer, a half-recognised face in a crowd -
I knew him well. He taught just me, and one other student, that year.
He smiled in surprised recognition.
And in that small gathering it seemed inevitable
That we would end up kneeling side by side at the thin wooden rail.

Okay, I said silently. You win.
This can't be private. 

Twenty five years later, we’re in lockdown.
Now I’m the irrelevance.
Shielded, cloistered –
Unable to bustle about parsonically,
Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, celebrating the sacraments.
Unable to take your funeral, hold your hand as we pray through your pain –
Unable to offer a wordless hug.
Unable, however hard I try, to save the church.

My diary lies abandoned, a bookmark three weeks ago
Marks the last time my time was relevant.

Now my humiliation is finding a Red Cross parcel on my doorstep,
And needing it.
I want to say I’ll give it to the foodbank, but then realise
That this is the only pasta, potatoes, tinned tomatoes, in the house
And the shops are bare
And in any case, I can’t go shopping.
I take advice from a friend who writes post-apocalyptic fiction
And stock up on lentils online.

Those first Sundays, I hardly know what I am doing.
I tie my phone to a music stand with string
And try to look my congregation in the eye.

Perhaps, I say, this feels like that last supper
In a borrowed room; aware of darkness falling outside
And the exponential rise of hate.
Fearing a painful death, or the pain of loss.
Waiting for something to happen -
Helpless to do more than wait.

A ‘like’, a ‘love’ and ‘tears’ float up the screen in well known faces,
And God gets me again.
I realise we’re as close now, whatever our distance,
As we’ve ever been to those first twelve at that last and first supper.

And I say – take something, please.
We’re all broken.
Eat something, please,
As a sign of our communion.
This isn’t private.


This isn’t private,
But at first it feels it.
Daily, slowly, a small group gather.

Howls of protest fill column inches with complaint
That an empty church can no longer be taken for granted
For slipping into.
Our irrelevance is missed.

I feel the weight of others’ success, reports of hundreds – thousands! – of new followers,
Instagram stardom, converts flocking, a new Pentecost.
I post letters and liturgies to those not online,
And try to believe them when they tell me on the phone
That they’re quite happy with what’s on the radio.

I take a deep breath, and tell myself I have a right to be here,
Smiling back at the few precious fellow-travellers who gather with me,
Mid-morning, midweek,
In this new space we’ve found to slip into.

And as the weeks go by, strange traveller’s tales reach me –
Of people encountering our online church on the fringes of the marketplace
And popping their head round the door.
Some are enraged, seeing only some strange distorted masquerade.
Others have stories I treasure up in my heart.
And I wonder, who that anonymous priest was,
All those years ago,
And if any of us ever know what impact
Our faithful reliability has.

I never told my lecturer about that moment, before he died.
I wish I had.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Liturgical Material for Online Services

In putting together some liturgy for St Bride’s Liverpool to use in our livestreamed services that I’m doing from home for Holy Week and Easter, I’ve written some material with a particular focus on the unusual circumstances in which we are gathering online. I offer them here in case they are of any use to anyone else. Feel free to use/adapt as you see fit. 

They are all my own compositions apart from the Closing Affirmation, which was written by Steven Shakespeare originally for when our children and young people go out to their groups during our services, but which we then realised works perfectly for this situation too.

I’ve ended up live streaming a morning prayer service daily, and communion on Sunday, from my home. I’ve been very struck by how present those who join me on line feel, and how present I feel to them. Seeing their faces and names appear on my tablet throughout the service, with their comments, input, and little ‘likes’ or ‘loves’ or ‘sad’ faces floating up the screen like bubbles, makes the whole thing feel not at all like a broadcast but rather a genuine expression of community. 

This isn’t ‘virtual’ church as opposed to ‘in real life’ church – it is totally real, just with different physical space being involved. I think it helps being live, as it makes the service genuinely interactive. People contribute thoughts on the readings – this is our usual practice at St Bride’s – and also contribute prayer requests, by typing them in as a comment. Everyone who is following can see and respond not just to me but to others. 

Several people have asked what we are doing about communion. I’m presiding fairly normally at home, and my family are communicants (though in this extremis I’d have no qualms about presiding if I were at home alone – it passes the ‘desert island’ hypothetical question test for me!). I personally  have a fairly high sacramental view of communion, though the trappings are unimportant to me, and I’m in a church that broadly speaking has a fairly low one, so this seems to work for all of us! 

I am encouraging people to have something to eat or drink at home – not to get bread and wine necessarily, I’m in no way purporting to consecrate over the ether – but to eat and drink together while I do so, as an expression of our unity and community. It’s very clear from Paul’s letters that in the early church communion was a common meal as much as a ritual and sacrament, and consciously eating and drinking together is a good expression of that.

Up til now I’ve been using the Lent liturgy we already had, but at this point it seemed right to compose some new material that reflects the particular and peculiar dynamic of this livestreamed expression of church. I hope they are of use.

The Gathering
We come into this time and space and offer ourselves,
Our time, these moments of stillness to God.
we leave aside, for this while,
our cares and concerns
our fears and frustrations.
Or, if we cannot lay them aside,
we bring them with us into this space
And offer them to God.


God, who in Jesus
could hold stillness at the centre of the crowd’s adulation,
            calm in the face of a friend’s betrayal
                        and silence before the questioning of power,
Be with us in our involuntary stillness this holy week.
Help us, we pray, to embrace it,
to allow ourselves to be challenged by it,
And to encounter you afresh in it.

An alternative gathering:

We gather today as one body
from the many places where God gives us shelter for this season.

In the light of Christ’s resurrection
We commit ourselves afresh to one another and to God.
We humble ourselves to serving the world through our stillness.
We content ourselves with the inner freedom of the Spirit.

The Peace

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples,
in a locked room,
where they sheltered from the crowds that they feared.
Meeting them there, where they were,
He said, ‘peace be with you’.

The peace of the risen Christ be always with you.
And also with you.

Preparation of the Table
We gather as God’s people, in our different places,
around this table of our communion.
We bring bread, knowing our need to be fed,
And aware that many are hungry.
We bring wine, knowing our need for joy,
And aware that many are lonely.
We bring ourselves, trusting that you will take and share
Our time, our talents, and our treasures,
And make them enough.       

Post communion prayer
May we who have shared in the reality of our communion
Without being physically present to one another
Know the reality of your presence with us always.

May we who are living in this time of brokenness and separation
Know your wholeness in our hearts and in our communities.

May we who hunger for a time when we may be together again
Feed a world hungry for love and justice.     

Closing Affirmation (by Steven Shakespeare)
In the circle of God’s love, we are one:
The circle is never broken.
In the light of God’s welcome, we are one:
the light never goes out.
Let the child teach us the wisdom of play.
Let the adult teach us the gentleness of care.
May the circle surround us when we are apart.
May the light draw us together again.