Online courses: are they here to stay?
Despite reading about the approaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the newspaper, like most I was caught off guard by the speed of it all. Churches closed overnight and news of Zoom and new opportunities emerged.
Over the year our international work took a new direction as we contacted past students and they joined us online, direct from their home countries. New people emerged as they saw invites on Facebook and Instagram and others made contact after being invited by friends. Our regular evangelistic courses for local enquirers, went online too as did Christianity Explored with some mums from our parent and toddler group. By God’s grace, relationships built through one course meant people joined other online activities too.
As the year progressed we ran the international version of Christianity Explored, Discipleship Explored, Life Explored and the standard Christianity Explored and we discovered the benefit of the Word 121 PDF version as a range of people joined us online.
But now things are heading, God willing, to a new norm, are there any points to be remembered from our year online? And now that we can meet in person as the local church, will we bother meeting on Zoom?
3 lessons learned
Some people joined on Zoom but decided not to put their camera on and others joined only to listen so never unmuted. It can be hard as a leader to talk to a name in a box on a screen but if you are prepared to persevere and put to death your own wants for the sake of the gospel, it does mean that all kinds of people hear about Jesus. After all, if some will not show their face on camera from their home, I doubt very much that they would attend a course in person.
There was a need to train a good team to help. Zoom takes a bit of getting used to. It helped to have someone to host from a technical standpoint and someone to welcome as people joined the call. On Zoom only one person can speak at a time and so we found the breakout room function invaluable. Each breakout room acted as a discussion table as people were divided up and put into smaller groups. But this only works if you have someone briefed to lead the discussion. Whether meeting on Zoom or in person, time spent getting to know, praying with, training, and briefing your team is vital.
Zoom-run courses are not for everyone and it is not dependent on age. For instance, my parents in their mid-eighties are now avid Zoom users. Some of our courses lost team members because they simply do not ‘do Zoom’. But just as we lost some team members, others joined and surprised us in doing so. A retired Navy Officer, trained not to talk about women, politics, or religion, and who was careful to self-isolate, has now found a place in our International Outreach Team, all because he can join on Zoom. And a Russian woman working as an English teacher, but living in Moscow, also joined to help on our Christianity Explored team, something unheard of before using Zoom.
Will we use Zoom for our courses in the future?
I hope so; it opens possibilities for more people to benefit from courses like Christianity Explored. It will mean team members being available and invested to do this work, maybe running alongside our in-person work. Although some churches are stretched already, I do believe the benefits to the Kingdom make it too important for us to ignore. So many in the world are lost without Christ. So many live with a Bible famine, in places opposed to the Bible or failing to teach it faithfully. Running Christianity Explored and other courses on Zoom allows us to give them what they so desperately need. But Zoom led courses also give others a chance to serve in ways that they may struggle to in person.
In the past, we would have to go as a missionary to train others, but now we can train others in this life-giving work from our living rooms, so surely we must continue to invest in it.
Written by Andy Nash, Community Minister at Christ Church, Westbourne
Andy is responsible for building links with all who live and work in the local area, in order to help everyone understand the Christian faith. He is married to Abi and became a Christian while a geology student at Aberystwyth University. He worked in the construction industry for several years before training for ministry at the Cornhill Training Course in London.