Online Bible study gives access
It's a lament almost every Bible study leader hears: "I'd like to come, but ...."
When the Rev. Cherie Baker served Leslie (Ark.) United Methodist Church, several people "mentioned how much they would like to attend Bible study, but could not make it work," she says. Among them were mostly homebound elderly, caregivers, people working odd shifts or out-of-town and working parents.
Baker "suggested an online group, and we were off and running."
For two years, Baker – who now serves Viola and Salem United Methodist churches in Arkansas – moderated the study. She established a private group on Facebook, "so that people would feel free to be absolutely honest in their sharing," she says. Starting with 12 people who knew each other, she finished with almost 100, including nonmembers from the Leslie area and others from across the United States. It included "a good number of people who are in the infamous ‘none' category," she says. "Nones" identify with no religion.
Weekly, Baker posted the Scripture readings from a lectionary with reflection questions. She often added related articles. Participants generally kept their covenant to respond in some way at least once a week and to practice "confidentiality, courtesy and kindness in disagreements," she says. "I only had to gently remind folks of the covenant two or three times over two years."
The Rev. Bryan Harkness moderated a group of 15 to 20 people from Woodville (Texas) United Methodist Church. They ordered books online and met in a chat room for six to eight weeks four times a year. Most came from the Woodville church, but others responded to a Facebook invitation.
Aimed at young families, sessions started at 8 p.m. Scheduled for an hour, they often lasted 90 minutes. "I found that people are much more forthcoming in an online setting than they would be face-to-face," he says.
Mediating a live online study is challenging, says Harkness, who is now pastor of First United Methodist Church in Chandler, Texas. "Many can type questions and responses at the same time and post them."
With an ongoing group, Baker advises allowing time to check postings "a minimum of two or three times a day. Think about how you would lead a group in person and use similar practices. I often reminded our group that we didn't have the benefit of body language, so I used and encouraged others to use emoticons to express the feeling behind the comment."
The Rev. Kathy Noble is editor of Interpreter.