Coronavirus and the Church: How to Lead Online Groups

Most churches are streaming services or asking their congregations to host watch parties in their homes over the weekend, but what are they doing for small groups?

After leading online small groups for over a decade, I have a little insight into how to coordinate and lead groups effectively. Not only can this meet a need during the Coronavirus crisis, it can open up new ministry opportunities for your church in a highly mobile and digitally-focused world.

Want to jump to a specific section?

Communicate with Your Church

During a crisis, the best thing you can do is communicate with your church. Communication has the power to bring people together in an informed context, while a lack of communication can leave people feeling disconnected and on their own.

  • Send out a weekly email to your entire database.
  • Explain what will happen for services, groups, and children.
  • Give updates on all your gatherings, including service projects.
  • Create clear CTAs (call to action) for every activity.
  • Record an explanation video that covers everything.

If you can communicate (or over-communicate) with your church, then you will have better engagement rates during the down time and help people feel like they are still a part of the whole.

If you are moving all your groups online during the downtime, then you need to explain the why, what, and how behind the decision. While most people will understand the why behind the decision, they may not understand the what and how. In this, you will need to create more explanation videos (I use CloudApp for this purpose) and walk them through every step below. 

Decide on a Platform

After using every group platform available for over a decade, I fully stand behind Zoom. Their free plan is limited to 40 minutes, and their $15 a month plan per host will cover unlimited users and time in meeting. If you are stressing about costs, I have that covered for you too. If you are a non-profit, the best way to find the best pricing option would be to submit a sales ticket and someone will reach out to them to discuss pricing options. They understand the situation, I have spoken with one of their commercial account executives about this, and they want to help you out. If Zoom is not your jam, Skype works well in a pinch.

Welcome Your Group Members

Once you communicate your groups strategy to your church, you need to prepare your pre-existing leaders for success. This goes beyond the basic Leader Tools you provide to your group leaders every week (Want to see what North Coast Church does for leaders?). One of the ways you can help accomplish this is by providing them a Welcome Email format to use when welcoming their group members into the online format. While your leaders are prepared to lead in a home or on campus in a room, the likelihood of them being ready for this is small. Help put them at ease and calm their group members by welcoming them in with all the pertinent information they will need to be prepared for their online meeting (homework), how to connect remotely (Zoom training video), and details about the meeting's format. Here is a sample welcome email that has been used by thousands of group leaders when welcoming members into their group, customized for context.

Hello [ group member name ],

Welcome to the [ day and time ] group. It is my hope and prayer that this group will be a big part in your development as a healthy Christian. There is no doubt that [ series title and or sermon title ] is essential to understand, as we wrap our heads around the Covid-19 crisis and move forward as faithful followers of Jesus. As a parent, husband, man and community leader, I know that this is a big deal, and one we can work through effectively as a small group.

Here is our small group homework [ attach pdf or link to visit the homework online ]. Please work through the content on your own time before we meet together. Be sure to watch the sermon from the weekend, as that is the best way you can prepare for our meeting. If you have any questions about the homework or the sermon, write them down on your phones and bring those question to our group when we meet this week.

While some of you have used online meetings rooms before, this may be a new experience for a lot of you. Because of this, I want to provide the meeting's format for you. That way when you log in, you will know what is going on and understand that this meeting will be intentional and respect your time. Here is what will happen during a typical online group meeting.

  • We will start promptly at [ time ]. I will arrive in the room ten minutes early.
  • I will open us up in a short word of prayer.
  • We will take our time discussing the week's small group questions.
  • Everyone will have an opportunity to engage the subject if they would like.
  • Once we have discussed the questions, I will open it up for free talk for ten minutes.
  • After the free talk, I will close us down in prayer, acknowledging your requests.

The entire meeting will be sixty minutes from beginning to end. The first few minutes of every meeting may be a bit awkward, but that's only because people are still getting used to this. It may not be a home, but it can be a lot of fun once we get going.

I look forward to seeing you this week online. Stay safe. Keep your distance. And remain vigilant. There are a lot of at-risk people out there, and those who are healthy need to do their best not to get them sick. Online groups is one more way we can help.

- Russ Cantu

PS: I will be sending out weekly emails with our group homework and prayer requests.

Group Specifics You Need to Know

  1. Every [ day ] from [ time to time ].
  2. Download Zoom before our first meeting.
  3. Click here [ specific meeting URL ] every time we meet, and it will take you directly to our meeting.
  4. If you need to call in, please call this number: 555-555-5555.
  5. Our meeting ID for this group is: xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Stay Connected During the Week

If we can engage our church on the weekends with streaming or watch parties, and if we can engage them on a weekday through online small groups, then the next biggest potential will be how to stay connected as a group on a daily basis. Guess what: most do not have the time or space to engage with others on a daily basis (I bet you were not expecting that). While I can fully get behind a text message group chat, Facebook messenger groups, and WhatsApp, the real truth is that most people are not connecting daily with their small groups. Between learning how to remote work, having their kids at home every day for a month, and the added pressure of learning a new thing, set your expectations in reality. People will only give so much before they break, so consider it a massive win if people can give you time and space for a weekend service and weekday online group.

Tips for an Effective Online Group Using Video

  • Encourage your members to do their homework and come prepared with questions.
  • Make sure your group knows that the group covenant still applies to online groups.
  • Keep your meeting on track, focused on the format of the night and always ending on time.
  • Make sure your chosen tool has been downloaded, installed, tested, and ready to go before your meeting.
  • Use a high quality camera and pair it with bluetooth headphones (I use AirPods).
  • Use a clean and well lit room to conduct your meeting.
  • The less background noise the better, so close all your doors.
  • When you are not talking, make sure you mute yourself.
  • Never sit or stand in front of an open window or bright light, as it washes your video out and lays a shadow over you.

Still have questions or need help? Just click my photo on the screen and we can talk about it. 

It will take a while for all church groups to get online. But if we understand the implications of the Coronavirus, the importance of keeping community during isolation, and are prepared to provide a healthy solution, then we can see the needs of our people online in an effective way.

Want to thrive with your team, remotely? 

Join Larry Osborne, Albert Tate, Carey Nieuwhof, Josh Gagnon, Mark Clark, and Chris Brown for some for content that matters from North Coast Training.