COVID-19 has dramatically changed social norms
7 MINUTE READ
COVID-19 has changed the social norms of our society dramatically in the last two years. Some of those changes are here to stay – for better… or for worse.
There is one domain where change has significantly enriched our Christian outreach, and that is the availability, accessibility, and acceptance of the “online conference” format. In no other domain has the pandemic made a change that has had both the potential to edify and equip current Christians, and uniquely reach a larger audience of non-Christians, expanding the influence and impact of the church in this modern era.
With the advent of the pandemic, over the past two years many conferences have been (naturally) held online. We saw this transition to online delivery with academic courses, organisations, churches, and even our CMDFA events. It looks like many of these changes are here to stay, even with the removal of lockdown restrictions and the re-opening of communities. Why is this the case? What are the unique strengths of the online conferences that have led to this adaptation? And how can we circumvent the glaring weaknesses of this format as well?
These are some of the questions I hope to address in this brief reflective article. My experience comes as a learner, both as an attendee and an organiser for various Christian conferences over these past years. These reflections are mostly coloured by the CMDFA Intern Bootcamp held in January 2022, which I was able to help organise with a wonderful team of godly men and women from CMDFA: Dr. Phyllis Tay, Dr. Mellisa Soesanto, Dr. Theophila Hayes, Dr. David Chanmugam, and Dr. Kristen Piper.
Reaching and gathering
The first obvious benefit of online conferences is the ability to reach those who might have been hindered from attending face-to-face conferences due to geographic or physical barriers.
At our most recent Intern Bootcamp, we had initially planned to meet face-to-face. When the COVID-19 situation began to escalate (again), we decided to transition to an online medium. At this point, we had 8 registrations. A few days later, after transitioning to an online conference, we received 34 registrations. Many of these new registrations came from members who were living rurally or interstate. By transitioning online, it became a wonderful opportunity for Christians in Sydney to connect with brothers and sisters who might not have otherwise engaged in the face-to-face conference and training due to geographical restraints. Thus, larger communities of people who would not naturally find themselves able to fellowship together, were gathered to be encouraged and connected – a special picture of the wider church uniting via Zoom.
Beyond this, online conferences also allow for seamless recording features that can potentiate the distribution of these resources even further, permeating not only physical barriers of space but also time, to bless even future generations.
The second benefit is that online conferences are cheaper to run! Not only financially, but also, in terms of time and commitment. Most people within our fellowship are healthcare professionals that are already overworked in their occupational settings, committed to ministry needs within their local and parachurch settings, and burdened with other ‘life commitments’! For the modern overworked, over-committed, and overburdened healthcare professional, online conferences help bridge this gap by reducing time, financial, and commitment costs.
“For the modern overworked, over-committed, and overburdened healthcare professional, online conferences help bridge this gap by reducing time, financial, and commitment costs.”
Online attendees might save a minimum of one or two hours spent in commute by eliminating physical travel to the venue. Financial costs can be next to none for most online conferences, with the major costs of venue hire and food stripped back. Finally, commitment cost is also greatly reduced. For attendees who are only free for a few hours of the day, there is much greater flexibility and accessibility in being able to commit to only the part of the conference that suits their availability.
The not so good
Online conferences do, however, have their fair share of drawbacks that need to be acknowledged and mitigated.
A very real and significant difficulty with online conferences is the phenomenon colloquially referred to as “ZOOM fatigue.” It is a familiar experience for almost all who have had to join online meetings over the past two years – whether it be one or eight hours in length. Online meetings are more mentally and emotionally taxing than standard face-to-face meetings.
As such, one of the great difficulties with navigating online meetings is facilitating them in such a way that acknowledges this reality for participants and helps alleviate it by regular breaks and time away from the screen.
Another significant challenge with online conferences is the chasm between virtual and face-to-face connections. We all know that online meetings, despite breakthroughs in audio-visual technologies, are no substitute for face-to-face connection amongst humans. Physical, real-life interaction is important and can be facilitated by online conferences and meetings, but never replaced.
Conference organisers do well to pay attention to this reality, especially where fellowship or networking is prioritized, by following up online conferences with face-to-face events.
5 tips for better online conferences
Our experiences facilitating online conferences during the last few years have taught our team a few simple tips that can have a big impact on improving the experience for attendees. Here is a brief list to reference for your next online conference:
- Schedule regular breakout rooms of smaller groups to encourage attendees to engage in more meaningful fellowship with others. Try to be conscious of how you organise these groups and make sure the Zoom organiser has proficiency with this feature before the meeting starts.
- Schedule regular breaks to help circumvent Zoom fatigue. As a general guide, a five-minute break every hour is a good place to start. During this time, encourage participants to turn off their camera/microphone for a few minutes, go for a walk, get a cup of tea, and then come back refreshed to continue!
- Think through the pros and cons of PowerPoint and other screen-sharing tools in advance. These tools can be effective but can also distract in the online conference setting.
– Conventional wisdom suggests that when using PowerPoint slides, less text tends to be more suitable for retention of attention. Whilst this may be true in person, in my own experience, when slides are used online, using more text can be effective to help users get back on track when they lose concentration.
– Conversely, in many other cases, not using slides can make for a better presenting experience online.
– Where handouts are used, encourage participants to print these out in advance – you can only fit so many windows side-by-side on a screen.
- Have a dedicated Zoom host to look after the “back-end” of the online meeting. This will often involve, at the very least: admitting participants from the waiting room, recording sections of the conference, spotlighting presenters, launching polls, organising breakout rooms, and monitoring the group chat. It’s a lot of work!
- Avoid hybrid approaches to conferences. Stick to either completely online or completely face-to-face conferences. Consider providing an equivalent alternative on a separate date or with separate organisers to cover both groups of individuals. Face-to-face conferences with an online “Zoom-in” feature can be quite isolating for the online participants, therefore often a recording that can be later shared with attendees is the better approach.
A hidden blessing
All in all, online conferences have been one of the hidden blessings that God has sent His church during this pandemic. Indeed, they have their limits and their weaknesses, but we pray that some of the tips above may help you plan your next online conference more effectively.
“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.” (Psalms 127:1)
That being said, these tips alone are not enough to produce an effective Christian online conference. Rather, what any organising team must prioritise is the time taken to bring our plans and ideas before the God we serve, who upholds all things. Only by His hand alone will what is built, last.
Dr Shaddy Hanna Dr Shaddy Hanna is a resident medical officer at Hornsby Ku-ring-gai Hospital. He has been involved with CMDFA since his time as a student - serving as the NSW student representative for a few years, and then remaining on the NSW Committee at times to assist with social media, promotion, and facilitating online conferences. Shaddy has a keen interest in technology, but a deeper interest in knowing Christ and seeing others know him more truly and clearly.
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