If you put a group of people together in a room, do you have real community? What if none of them know each other? What if some of them do know each other, but don’t like each other? How do you create real community?
Usually, one of the first things leaders will do when they get a group of people together who don’t interact with each other very often is the activity known as the “ice breaker”. It’s not just a fun activity. It serves the psychological purpose of breaking down barriers and forming connections and it serves the sociological purpose of forming a group identity and team mentality.
Without things like ice-breakers you have a group of people, not a community and it will take much longer for real, personal interactions to take place, if they happen at all. Beyond ice-breakers, there are other things that are necessary for real community that not only allow a community to form, but keep it going.
So, how do you build a real community online?
1. Encourage everyone to setup a profile with a picture.
In the online world one of the biggest adversaries to real community is anonymity. So, the first thing you need to do is get people to at least reveal who they are. They can give their name and brief bio of themselves. They should also post a real picture. When people can put a face to a name, that makes a huge difference in their perception of that online personality as a real person with feelings, needs, family, etc. Finally, ask everyone who joins to post a short introduction about themselves.
2. Set Rules.
A lot of us hear the word rules and we think, “Don’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me.” But the truth is that we all actually like it better when there are reasonable and fair rules. Rules establish the boundaries of a community and create a sense of order. Rules and norms allow new-comers to more quickly assimilate. Some rules, like no spamming or defining certain topics of discussion keep the interest of the participants. Few things kill an online community faster than a bunch of irrelevant or offensive posts.
3. Safety first.
You can’t expect people to let their guard down if they don’t feel safe. So, you must provide an online environment where people can feel safe. This can be done by requiring everyone to register before joining, establishing rules, and providing some form of moderation. You may think that just because this is a church community that everyone will behave in a loving and caring manner, but let me break you of that false illusion right now. I’ve been a member of several online communities and moderated a few. The communities with the most issues were the Christian communities. It’s one thing to have a mean person in your community. It’s another thing to have a mean person who thinks they are on a mission from God. Yikes!
So, establish rules and enforce them. Moderate the conversations to make sure people aren’t belittling others or treating each other poorly. Moderating doesn’t even have to be done by the church staff. Active and trusted members of the online community can moderate and all the members can participate by reporting inappropriate activity.
Safety is important in all online communities, but even more important in communities with children. There are a lot of sick people out there who will pretend to be a kid for nefarious reasons. So, if you do decide to start a community with kids, be especially vigilant and have trusted adults moderating. You may also want to have a rule that new members are only approved after they have been met in person by an adult.
4. Facilitate conversation.
Don’t assume that just because people have the opportunity to start a conversation that they will. Most people prefer to join a conversation than start one, especially if they are new to the community. So, start conversations for people to join. Ask open ended questions. After a while, some communities may continue on their own, starting their own conversations without any gentle prodding needed, but others may continue to require occasional conversation starters.
5. Host Online Events.
Just like the ice-breaker at a conference or meeting or the pot-luck dinner at church, people tend to open up more when there are events and activities specifically designed for people to meet each other and get to know each other. These event should happen regularly to keep community connections strong.
These events are also a great time for outreach for the community. So, encourage your members to invite people to the events. To make this easier, be sure to provide Facebook share and Twitter retweet buttons on the announcement pages. For some ideas of some online events, check out “5 Online Events Your Church Can Do This Month”
By taking the time to establish a real community in your online ventures, you will get a much greater and deeper involvement from the members. A vibrant and safe online community can be a great doorway for people who are not church members to comfortably begin to engage the church and when the finally do visit the church in person, they will already have connections. They will recognize people and be recognized (ah, those profile pics). They may be first time church visitors, but they are already active members of the church community.
Photos by Igal Koshevoy
Are there other aspects to online community that you have found important?
Do you think that online church communities can be an effect way of reaching the people of your town?