9 Questions Before Starting Online Small Groups

How do you do Online Small Groups? 

This is the most asked question I get from other pastors. I oversee over 700 online groups and to my knowledge Saddleback Church’s Online Campus has the most of any church. I have learned a great deal over the last five years. So… before you launch any form of groups online take a couple minutes and look over these nine questions and answers. I want to make sure you can learn from our failures and successes.

If you launch online groups and you notice that you have several people in a particular region, do you attempt to launch an in-person Life Group?

First thing, to understand how Saddleback Church does groups you need to buy my boss’s book “Small Groups with Purpose” by Steve Gladen. This will give you an in-depth look into our process. Buy it, read it, read it again, and do it! What was your question again? Oh Yes, we actually have more small groups in homes verses online with the Online Campus. I even push online groups once a year to go offline to do a home group. We don’t connect online groups to other online groups but encourage it through email and story for them to do it with their friends and family. We are just now planning meetups around the country to have both weekend attendees of the Online Campus and small group attenders to connect, but it is through a meetup we facilitate. We might use meetup.com in the future to do something outside of our direct system, but need to think through it more.

If so, what are the principles and practices that guide how and when you connect online participants to one another in person?

We use the low threshold of a host and not leader. They get their own people into the group. Gather 2-3 friends or family. They have to fill the group. We provide resources for the group. The teaching part is done through video and a PDF of the study guide is provided. We rarely ship materials, but that is an option in some occasions. 

How do you determine a leader for the group?

Mostly anyone can host. You can’t attend another church and have to agree to take our membership class online.  All new groups are not listed online. We don’t open them online to others until the host is contacted, responds, and we know they are a solid host. The idea is they can get going right away with the people they know and influence, but can’t connect with others non-locally until we verify them. This allows for a healthy group to act right away with their friends. On the flip side if they are a bad host they have only hurt those they already know. 

How do you do training for that leader?

We have online training for hosts to take but it’s not required at launch. You could use Right Now Media for training if you already have it in video form, or upload it to YouTube, or use Prezi

How do you ensure that the group aligns with the mission, vision and values of your church?

Healthy groups last. We allow anyone to get going, but if we find out from monthly contacts they don’t align we remove the group. We use our small group material for training of mission/vision etc. We also have online training. We track all hosts that have taken material, taken classes, and push all hosts through monthly contacts and email communication of easy next steps of getting healthy. If the hosts ignore that over a time period they are removed and/or the group is closed to others. For example, if a host doesn’t respond to us for 3 months it is closed to the public and it’s moved to a non-responsive list where it is either deleted or moved back to being “healthy” again.  

For your online groups, how do you recruit leaders specifically for the online community?

Push from online church services and my weekly email list. We grow mostly in our one time of a year campaign push as talked about in Steve’s book

What unique challenges have you encountered with online groups vs. in-person groups?

Tech and getting material to groups. We do everything online for material, but most other churches use Right Now Media or email weekly questions to hosts based off weekly sermons. You have to also have online training in some form, which can be done on Right Now Media or another way listed prior. I encourage you to have a large Facebook Group and model the behavior you want in your small groups. Have weekly Facebook Live events and direct people to engage with each other. If you do this with your whole online community it's really easy to start online small groups. You just tell those wanting to host an online small group to do exactly what they have been doing in the large group, but with 5 to 10 people only. You have taught them by example. 

How do you manage the jokers who “participate” in online groups seemingly to just create trouble and be a distraction?

Rare. A handful. I have over 700 online groups and I have only had to remove a couple jokers. I mostly have to remove people who are members of other churches,  but our sign up host form is pretty direct and eliminates people.  

Anything else I should know?

I would highly suggest having online Community Leaders (talked about in Steve’s book). I have a team of 40 CL’s that contact groups monthly and allow all 1,700 groups to have the best chance of being healthy. I can’t do it all and the volunteer role of a CL is my core team of my Online Campus. I meet monthly and they each care for 15 to 50 small group each. If you run the math I’m always looking and recruiting more CL’s. I’m excited for the day I have 1 CL caring for only 10 groups. Lastly, I would suggest buying “Leading Small Groups with Purpose” by Steve and shipping it to every host. It’s written for hosts.