Why Online Small Groups Work
Any church will tell you that, when it comes to small groups, longevity is tough. It seems like everyone – both in the congregation and on staff – feels like small groups are a good idea in theory, but converting that theory into a long-lasting reality remains an elusive quarry for many churches.
But longevity doesn’t seem to be a problem for one method of small groups, a method that relies on some of the most transient, fickle people around: internet users. Online small groups.
“Some of our small groups have been going strong for a year or two,” says Craig Gross, founder of XXXchurch.com.
“We never expected this level of commitment from people, but these guys in these groups, they love it. It’s become like a family.”
The small group program, dubbed “X3groups,” was the brainchild of Gross and Ryan Russell (the COO of X3watch). XXXchurch.com provides information and resources for those who wish to eliminate pornography from their lives. The pair of them noticed that, while people were clamoring for the ministry offerings, there was a distinct lack of opportunities for those same people to find a small group that could help them in their goal.
“Basically, Craig and I said, ‘Let’s try something and see if anyone’s interested,’” says Russell. So in February of 2012, the website quietly began to offer an online group meeting. The response was far from overwhelming, but enough people signed up to make the program seem viable.
“We started with four groups,” says Russell, “and we did those for just a set time of eight weeks, really to see how they would go over.” And what happened after that eight-week trial? “Three of the groups folded.”
But there was still one group that wanted to continue, and so in June of 2012, the team at XXXchurch.com began to mine the possibilities, passing the responsibilities in on to Carl Thomas, a former porn addict with experience in church small groups who eventually became the X3groups Network Director.
They hit reset with their one group, and re-launched the program with a new website in November.
“Ever since then we’ve been developing and tweaking things,” says Thomas. “Over a short time, we’ve gone from one group with six people to having 50 groups with over 400 people, all meeting every week.” And while the groups originally started with the idea of catering to men, that’s changed, too. “Now we have women’s, men’s, students, pastors, and spouses.”
This level of success with internet longevity is unprecedented in many ways, according to Bill Willits, the Executive Director of Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia, a church that has made small groups a key tenet in their ministry philosophy from the beginning.
“Small groups are not an appendage; they’re a core,” Willits says. “We’ve seen them be transformational throughout our entire church, [and] the only numerical goal we’ve set in our church is around small group participation. We want to drive people to those small groups. We believe you can’t grow spiritually without being connected relationally.”
North Point has even tried its hand at internet-connected groups.
“We tried it online and we failed at it dismally,” Willits says with welcome frankness.
“There was a drive [among the people] to have connection, but there wasn’t enough of a desire.” Nevertheless, Willits sees opportunities for small group connectivity among the kinds of people who thrive in X3groups.
“There is a group of people who are transparent and who want to connect and who see it as the lifeblood of their spiritual experience,” he says.
“X3groups are helping people for the first time knowing that they’re not alone and that someone is walking with them, and that’s what we’re trying to do at the local church as well.”
Thomas agrees that, technology and format aside, the real reason for the breakout acceptance of the program has to do with what happens within them.
“From my experience,” says Thomas, “both being in the traditional small group world and leading these groups and seeing what happens, the biggest difference is in the openness and conversation.
We’re talking about real stuff. Guys are talking about things they’re not going to bring up in their church small group, like how they struggled at the store the other day checking out a woman cashier or about the last time they looked at porn. They’re talking about deep issues and being super-open about their lives.
A lot of small groups have surface-level conversation, where they’re not going to talk about how they haven’t slept with their wife for three weeks or how they masturbated five times yesterday. We’re not hold anything back.”
Russ Cantu, pastor of Catalyst Church in San Diego (and current X3groups Network Director) agrees: “Being a part of a group is easy. Being a part of a group that is living and sharing raw and authentic lives; that’s the hard part. But [if] it’s what you want, and what you need, and X3groups make it simple to do it.”
That level of openness may seem difficult to achieve within the traditional small-group environment. How does Thomas explain the accomplishment of this Herculean task?
According to him, it’s all in how you start.
“[Group success] is all about setting expectations,” he says. “We have a group covenant – a description of the group and how we expect each member to treat it. [The group needs to be] safe: you can talk and if you share, that’s great. If you don’t share, you probably won’t get much out of it.
But they know nothing’s going to get out of the group. No one is going to talk about what happens in there. We set the stage up front.
You’re coming in here, you know it will be secure, but if you want to get anything out of it, you need to come to the table. We don’t mask it. There’s no hiding it. We’re focused on sex/porn addiction, recovery, and help.
This is what we’re talking about, and we’re really intentional as to why we’re getting together. It’s not a social experiment.”
Group members utilize a secure videoconferencing platform that allows them to meet face-to-face from across the country – or the world. “We have guys from Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, all over the place,” says Thomas. “In my group, we have a missionary to central America.”
This ability to join what Thomas calls “a little tribe” is key, according to him.
“You know who you’re talking to. And you’re with the same guys every week. The only difference is if someone leaves the group. You’re building relationships with the same people; you don’t have to worry about a voyeur popping in and checking it out.”
And what would motivate someone to leave the group?
On occasion, some leave the group because it’s not what they expected, or they don’t want to put in the work to live the healthier life they had signed up for in the first place. Usually, though, people leave the group because they graduate out – though many leave a group just to start leading one themselves.
For all the longevity the X3groups manage to maintain, their focus on recovery does mean that people will, hopefully, leave them eventually.
Yet the weekly engagement level remains high, and according to the internal data at XXXchurch.com, their group participants are largely committed for the long haul. For Thomas, this all comes down to what happens during those 60 to 90 minutes that the group is meeting.
“Some people think I hate small groups, but I don’t!” he assures. “I just hate the way a lot of them are executed. If you want to have a great small group, you have to have authentic and open environment. Shallow conversation won’t cut it. It needs to be relational, and really importantly, the leadership needs to buy into it.
If you have a group where it gets really raw, and a guy shares something that offends someone else, and then they go running to the pastors, and the pastors are all, ‘You have to tone it down,’ then they’re not buying into the philosophy.
Being offended is part of life and you have to deal with it; you can’t pull back the reins because someone got offended. Let them talk it out, let them figure it out. That’s how growth happens. We understand there will be people who leave because they don’t like something, but we’re okay with that, so great, open conversations happen. People don’t hold back.”
Thomas can sum up this philosophy with a short pitch for a special X3group that he leads:
“I have a pastors’ group, and when I have a new guy come in, I tell them, ‘When you’re here, forget you’re a pastor. Just be you. We don’t need any pastor-ese talk—just be a dude. You won’t be judged.’”
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