The Art of gathering online

How we gather matters. How we gather online matters even more. You may not have noticed the importance of venues, but each venue comes with a script. Think about these venues: the lawcourt, a beach and a night club. What words come to your mind? What do these venues make you think about? The law court gives a sense of respect, everyone has their place, there is a hierarchy even in the room itself. The nightclub, everyone is welcome, this is a place to dance and party. The beach signifies a time to relax, swim and read a book.

So a venue is a nudge, but its not just a nudge. A venue can enhance your values or take away from them too. When planning a gathering purely for logistical reasons you can end up with a venue that doesn’t serve your values.

Many organisations, faith groups and businesses have gone online during lockdown and many are considering online conferences and events. In planning these events many people have opted for something simple, something they’re familiar with. I’d like to suggest its time to rethink these gatherings. Where will you hold your event? Will it be Zoom, Facebook Live, Youtube or something else? I recommend you consider the community that you’re trying to build. Consider your key values and then choose a platform that supports and enhances those.

Priya Parker has written an excellent book called “The Art of Gathering. In this she says “I have come to believe that it is the way a group is gathered that determines what happens in it and how successful it is”. Here are 5 things I learnt from this book and how it applies into the gatherings I see in our faith communities.

1. Why do you gather? What is your purpose in gathering?

More than ever lockdown has caused us to stop and pause and consider why we actually gather, just take a few minutes and jot down your answers to that question. If you’re struggling maybe reverse engineer an outcome, think of what you want to be different because you gathered and work backwards from that. Your purpose is like a bouncer. The purpose of your gathering is more than an inspiring concept, it is a tool, a filter that helps you determine all the details, grand and trivial. So to gather is to make choice after choice. Virtually every choice will be easier to make when you know why you’re gathering.

2. Who will you invite?

Who is your meeting for? Be specific with your invites. The potential of online gathering means you could open it up to anyone and everyone, but working out clearly who it is and who you won’t invite will make a huge difference. The optimal size for conversation in online is groups of 4-5, so, consider the numbers. Gatherings of up to 6 create a high level of sharing, gatherings of 12-15 are small enough to build trust and intimacy, but they’re large enough to offer diversity and opinion. Groups of 30 begins to feel like a party, its has its own distinctive quality, but a single conversation is difficult within a group this size, anything over 150 becomes an audience.

3. Where will you meet?

There are so many platforms that you can use. I’d suggest you look at which platform your guests already inhabit. How you could use that platform, in combination with others to create and build community? In lockdown I’ve been part of many events and conferences. I’ve used: Zoom, Facebook Rooms, Facebook watch parties, Stream Yard and Facebook live. I’ve also attended events and meetings on Instagram live and YouTube Live. There are many options for where you’ll meet. Don’t choose a platform because you’re familiar with it or because its easy. Choose a platform that best supports and grows your values.

Priya explains this here “seek a setting that embodies the reason for your convening. When a place embodies an idea, it brings a person’s body and whole being into the experience, not only their minds”. So its not just which platform we choose to meet on, but the environment we create. A great example of this is “Saturday night collaboration Live from the Railway carriage” run by Andy Mayo and Dewi Jones. Andy hosted this in his railway carriage and invited musicians from across Europe to play live music together. The atmosphere created by the location made a huge difference in the event itself.

Dewi Jones, Tech engineer for Welsh National Theatre adds another helpful insight. “One thing that will help is having online events that aren’t just people on webcams. The shows with live interaction have had a better reception because you give people a sense of an event they’re watching. I recently live streamed a festival from Cardiff castle. They had bands playing on a stage, two presenters hosting and 20,000 people watch throughout the day”. So where you can gather together as hosts and speakers to present your event.

4. Don’t be a chill host

The best online hosts are completely prepared, in control but almost invisible. Its easy to think that you just need to set up a meeting and the rest will happen. But like any event or party before lockdown you’ll know the amount of planning needed to prepare well. Its not just preparation, but connection too, a good host works hard to network and connect friends at a party. Priya describes a chill host as “you caring about you masquerading as you caring about them”. To be kind to your guests, you need to be completely in charge. Hosting well means that you protect, connect and equalize all your guests. I’m sure you’ve been to events where one person can dominate and others remain completely silent. Be prepared to step in during an online meeting, speak to a guest afterwards or gently encourage others to contribute.

5. Build community between events

As we continue being online we need to remember not just to plan events, but to consider how to build genuine community. Here is a worked example of how my thinking has changed. Through lockdown I’ve been running events online. We were initially using Zoom and our events would usually attract 50 people. Once we started to record, edit them and put them on YouTube, these events would still attract 50 people but another 150-300+ would watch them on catch-up.

This fits with a statistic I heard from Patrick Dixon, he said “for every 1 person that registers for an event 5-10 more will watch it on catchup”. However the engagement and interaction on Facebook, which is the platform for our community was low. See the picture below, for this event we had very few comments and engagements.

I was aware of the potential of livestreaming but we hadn’t done live events before. I hadn’t realised the potential that livestreaming gives for building community. There are many options for this, the one we opted for was Stream Yard.

Since using this, our events have been better attended, the last one had 80 on the evening and the number of views grew significantly afterwards. But its not just the reach that grew, the engagement and interaction of our members on our Facebook page and group grew too. Doing live events has helped build engagement, interaction and community, you’ll see this with the number of comments, shares and reach.

Why is it that building community on Facebook seems intuitive? In 2017 Facebook hit 2 billion users that’s 2/5 of the worlds population. At that point CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the milestone “As of this morning, the Facebook community is now officially 2 billion people!”. Zuckerberg said in his post “we’re making progress connecting the world, and now let’s bring the world closer together.” Following this he then head hunted and appointed Nona Jones as the Head of faith for Facebook.

Facebook is looking at both the value of community and a commitment to tech. Nona Jones does a great interview here on the way she is helping Facebook develop to help faith groups grow.

Here are some other ways that we have used Facebook to help group our community. I run a network of female evangelists called Passion for Evangelism (PFE). We’re a network of women seeking to encourage each other in creative public communication of the gospel.

  • PFE page and PFE Instagram is like a shop window
  • PFE closed group is for encouragement, engagement, sharing and commenting.
  • FB mentoring groups are used to help mentor a small group of female evangelists called The Greenhouse.
  • FB rooms help us gather together to pray ahead of events.
  • FB Live for seminars/events
  • FB watch parties inviting their friends as speakers to live events.

A huge felt need in COVID19 is for relationship and gathering. We’ve experienced isolation, a lack of community and physical contact with people. It would be a shame if in our attempt to offer hope, we miss out on the best that communication technology can give us. Our events, friendships and conversations could be even better.

As Christians we have the most incredible reason to believe in and offer community and relationship at this time. We believe in a God that is relational to the core, from the very beginning of time he was Father, Son and Spirit.

Published by Nay Dawson

I'm Nay, I live in Southampton married to the wonderful Jon, we have two girls, a cat and two Guinea pigs

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