Five Lessons From Cultivating Spiritual Community Online

In October, over two hundred people started a journey together in The Nearness

Their purpose? To nurture their spiritual life together with others outside of a traditional religious institution.

It was clear right away just how much people were yearning for a space like this. More than 90% of people who signed up completed the journey–an unusually high number for online experiences.

We want to support a wider field of partners and friends as, together, we build the spiritual infrastructure for the future. So, here’s what we learned from the first Nearness journey! 

1. Structure, Structure, Structure

I didn't know how much I wanted to just be heard and listened to, not judgment or advice, until after the first time. HUGE impact. I've been using that script from the guide sheets in conversations and meetings in my daily life as well.” - Cheyanne

More than any other design choice, the rigorous focus on structure made The Nearness work. Each participant was sorted into a small group with 5 or 6 others with whom they would meet each week for a 90-minute conversation. The conversations were carefully structured in advance—we created guide sheets for each gathering with specific discussion topics, reflection questions, and shared practices, together with suggestions on timing for each activity. We opened and closed each gathering with shared rituals, forming a clear rhythm over time.

The structure proved so effective, that numerous groups kept meeting using the same structure even after the journey officially ended! 

The highlight is how quickly my group launched into vulnerability and honesty. We’ve cried together multiple times. It’s not happy or sad crying, but the weeping of pure, deep emotion. The container you’ve created for us is truly magical.” - Emily

2. People Can Do This

Usually, small group programs have a facilitator, coach, or member of staff leading the conversation. We chose a different approach. 

Each weekly gathering was peer-facilitated; meaning that participants themselves guided the gathering, kept track of timing, and responded directly to one another’s sharing–all supported by the rigorous structure of our guide sheet. 

And they did it fantastically well! Of 272 small group gatherings, all but one went off without needing additional support from the organizing team. 

When the structure is strong, and clear expectations are set and roles given, we found that people can spiritually accompany one another in profound ways. 

This doesn’t nix the importance of spiritual leadership, but many communities massively miss out on the generous listening, practical kindness, and hard-earned wisdom people can share with each other. 

The added benefit to this is that peer-facilitation means the price point can stay accessible. We charged only $169 and had a pay-what-you-can option available, too, which nearly a third of participants made use of. 

3. Match For Difference

I loved that I would never have met the people in my group. Like never. It gave me hope for humanity!” - Tiffany

Much of the time, groups flourish when they share an identity, geography, or formative experience. And those groups are vitally important. 

But one of the benefits of traditional congregations that is lost in a world of growing personalization, is that we are brought together with others who we might never sit next to otherwise. The real magic comes, when, over time, we fall in love with those very people we had silently dismissed, or at least never sought out. We even learn that we can love people without having to like them(!)

The Nearness embraced this model, and it worked. Across 15 countries and 37 states, and especially across different spiritual backgrounds and generations, participants built connections of intimacy and friendship with people they’d never have expected to connect with. 

“The Nearness has given me so much awe and wonder for complete strangers!” - Nancy Lili

4. Invite People Into Other Ways Of Being

The covenant positions us to be in real, accountable relationship with one another— allowing veritable strangers to tap into the capacity we always-already have to hold loving space for each other. Reading the covenant was actually what solidified my desire to sign up for the Nearness and interacting with it each week has made the experience so sweet. Also, I freaking love my group.” - Amanda

At each Nearness gathering, a volunteer read aloud the community covenant. 

This covenant was a commitment to a way of being, to a depth of presence. It expresses a collective aspiration to be tender and open, to honor the richness of silence, to open ourselves to the presence of something larger than us through our ritual gatherings. Just like practicing mindfulness can help us become more aware of our present experience, practicing covenant helps us to be intentional about how we show up in relationship with others.

We found that the groups that took seriously the invitation to reflect on how they embodied the covenant–and where they were falling short–were groups that had particular flourishing relationships. 

We designed a simple candle-lighting ritual to accompany the covenant reading, so that the candle’s flame would become a loving and present reminder of the mutual commitment that each group made to each other.

And, held together by our community covenant, connections went beyond the relational and spiritual. Nearly 20% participated in the mutual aid fund, with over $3,000 changing hands within the community to support everything from paying rent to attending an anti-racism training.

Every day we are treated as consumers or navigate systems where we are numbers in a funnel. What a relief to treat one another–and ourselves–with higher aspirations. 

5. Online Connections Work; Community Is Harder

Nearly 60% of people who joined this first Nearness journey signed up for a follow-up 8-week journey; a fantastic sign of continued desire for connection! People bonded deeply with the groups–some are even planning to travel to meet up in person. But moving from small group connections to wider community experience is trickier. 

There are real benefits of gathering online, not least that this form of connection has made The Nearness accessible for immuno-compromised people; people who travel a lot for work; and for people living in areas where they are less likely to meet people with shared interests. We also noticed a lot of people signing up who had just moved to a new town and were looking to build community.

We know how to build intimacy online–but limitations remain. You can’t sing together easily. Or share a meal. Or give and receive hugs. So, there are real trade-offs. 

We’re experimenting with ideas for how to integrate in-person elements to future Nearness journeys, so watch this space! We’re eager to hear what’s worked for you, if you have ideas to share : )

Write to us at or sign up for the next journey, starting this spring.

Thanks for reading,

Casper, Alec, Alex, and the whole Nearness team