Buzz! Buzz! Of all my experiences being a campus minister at Cornell University, I’ll never forget that moment in March of 2020 when I was in the student cafeteria, and everyone’s phone started vibrating. The email we’d all been dreading had come: the coronavirus had arrived, the campus was closing, and our lives were about to change forever.
As students began calling parents to pick them up, I gathered my student leadership team together to rally and pray, asking, “God, what’s your word for us in this season? How will we live with you as our King rather than fear? What do you want to see happen in our meetings?”
We felt an invitation to step into the unknown and experiment and learn, to be a community committed to each other even when separated. Divided by distance, we would still be united by our Uniter.
But questions remained. Would this vision become a reality? Could an online community be as good as in person? Would people want to come anyway?
The Nuts & Bolts of Online Large Groups
A few weeks later, I sat down for a video call with my large group coordinators. One of the first questions we tackled was how long our meetings would be. Ordinarily, our in-person large groups would go for about two hours. Through experimenting, we found it was better to aim for one hour to avoid Zoom fatigue.
The next thing we focused on was making our large groups interactive. We couldn’t just have people staring at their screens for an hour. So we determined we’d rotate various activities from one large group to the next, bringing variety and a fresh sense of energy each time. We often used breakout rooms, allowing members, both new and returning, to catch up and pray for each other. We even did a speed round of two people per breakout room at the beginning to help members greet each other. This was particularly helpful with icebreakers and for newcomers. After all, who wants to have a bunch of strangers staring at you? We used Google’s Docs and Jamboards as well as Padlet (Miro works well too) to collect thoughts, impressions, and answers to group questions.
Taking a cue from talk shows, we “interviewed” different chapter members from week to week to hear their stories and how they were doing. And from time to time, we invited guest speakers to share. When it came to worship, we not only recorded our members leading but also utilized songs from InterVarsity LIVE!, which fit perfectly for Zoom large groups.
After setting up the large group structure, we focused on what roles were needed to run this smoothly. At first, it seemed like one person could do it. But we quickly learned how cumbersome it was trying to set up breakout rooms as you’re telling people what to do and as you’re typing in the chat. So we set up three roles:
The scribe was in charge of dropping links, like Google Docs, as well as typing the speaker’s/emcee’s questions in the chat (it’s easy to get distracted and forget them). Also, if attendees were about to break into groups, we always tried to drop links and questions in the chat before, so they were on hand for each breakout room.
The technician was responsible for creating and assigning breakout rooms. He or she also shared the screen and sound for slides and videos and pinned the speaker(s) to help everyone focus on the right person.
Although it may seem easy, emceeing had its own share of responsibilities, like communicating the opening welcomes, transitions, and ending. A great emcee needed to look over the schedule of the events to connect one activity to the next as seamlessly as possible. The emcee also brought the energy! The large group coordinators and other students shared how they were tired of boring online meetings. After a long day of classes, why would they want to go to another Zoom meeting when they didn’t have to? So bringing excitement, wonder, and perhaps a few jokes were very important. Additionally, the emcee helped interpret and summarize for the attendees what God may be saying or inviting everyone to consider. This also gave the emcee a chance to lighten up the call when energy levels felt low.
After we planned all these steps, we assigned a person to post the announcements and Zoom links for the fellowship. We were nervous, asking ourselves: How will people respond? How will God show up? How long will we be doing this?
Over the next few weeks, God continued bringing our community together through online large groups. It wasn’t always perfect, but we kept our learning posture to help our chapter follow the Father, not fear, to be together, not torn apart, and to do so in the name of Jesus!
Large Group Prep Checklist
As you think through preparing your online large groups, here’s a checklist to help you get started:
Take time to pray and listen to God about his vision for the chapter.
Start planning out this vision and deciding what you hope to achieve through your time together.
How will you schedule your time? How long will the call last?
What kind of interactions will you have? Breakout rooms, Google Docs or Jamboards, etc.?
How will you keep energy up?
What’s your plan if Zoom bombers disrupt the meeting?
Finding the Right People
Scribe—the person who adds links and questions in the chat
Technician—the person who organizes breakout rooms, shares the screen and sound, and pins speakers
Emcee—the person who knows the activity schedule, brings energy, and interprets what’s happening for attendees
Stephan Teng serves as an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister at Cornell University, where he currently staffs an Asian American chapter and plants a Black and Latino chapter. You can support his ministry at givetoiv.org/stephan_teng.
With sheltering in place and so many world-altering events happening right now, intense, loaded conversations are becoming increasingly common. Yet doing anything else may sound better than talking about something so potentially divisive (any Enneagram 7s or 9s here?). But how will these issues ever be resolved if they aren’t first acknowledged?
Sometimes it feels like we live in the Matrix. These days, what’s real or simulated blurs into confusion. We’re Zoom Zombies submerged in social media, navigating the news as we confront new constrictions.