How to Launch Online Small Groups

Has the Covid-19 crisis got you feeling lonely or isolated, having lost touch with those you used to see every week? Are you looking for a way out of this hole, but don’t know where to get a hand-up? Just because the church is separated, doesn’t mean it has to be distant. The lack of meaningful connection creates isolation within community, but we can combat this isolation by creating effective ongoing online small groups. These groups will meet weekly, bridge the community gap between weekend services, and offer a new opportunity for your church to leverage moving forward, as a critical component of your discipleship process and not just a stop-gap response to the Coronavirus.

But you need a simple process with step by step instructions on how to get people in your online small group and engaged, details on what audio, video, and lighting equipment you need, knowledge about what software works best for most users in your church, a guide on how to conduct your group meeting time effectively, and ways to keep the momentum going strong. I have helped launch thousands of new online small groups and trained hundreds of leaders for small group ministry, and I can assure you that if you follow these four processes of launching online small groups, you will give your church and its community the highest opportunity for success.

Google search results of the query "how to lead an online small group".

Churches are searching for an online small group solution on Google.

Article Outline

  1. Let’s get people in your group and engaged before your first meeting.
  2. What audio, video, and lighting equipment will you need?
  3. How to lead your meeting.
  4. Now that the meeting is over, what will you do?

How to get people in your group and engaged.

How you market online small groups at your church greatly affects the adoption rate. How do you promote your online small group and make it easy for your audience to in your group and engaged?

While Zoom has a webinar sign-up process, the most effective solution is an all-encompassing solution. That means that communication to your audience is handled via a subscription form with automation triggers to an email system or your database. If your church has an ecosystem like Planning Center or Tithely, then it’s appropriate to keep your people in the funnels that your administrators have already created.

Once the user is in the queue, church administrators or small group directors who are notified of the form submission can filter contacts, appoint group assignments, and send a “Welcome to the Group” email (on behalf of the church and group leader). This welcome email will include all the pertinent details for the group meeting, such as group day and time, what they can expect from the group and what the group expects from them, and direct links to access their online group. After the letter has been sent to the new group member, the group leader should send a welcome text the day before the meeting, welcoming them to the group and express their interest in meeting them online.

Here's how the process should play out:

  • User expresses interest in an online small group.
  • User registers for a specific group online through a web form.
  • User's response is submitted to the church management system.
  • Church management system automatically places the user in a queue.
  • The queue triggers an alert and sends out an automated email confirmation to the user.
  • Email confirmation will double as a welcome letter (sample letter below).
  • Online small group leader will personally call and welcome the new member.

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.

PS: If you are new to video conferencing, click on the video and learn how our group will be using Zoom every week.

What audio, video, and lighting will I need?

The best audio and video setup is the one that you are comfortable using every week. While there are ways to go into full production mode, it’s best to keep things simple and excellent. The simplest way to lead your online small group will be by using an app on your phone that is paired with headphones. Yes; it really can be that simple. Any phone that is less than two years old has a high-quality front-facing camera and can pair nicely with bluetooth headphones. You can use wired headphones if you would like, but wireless gives you the flexibility to move around.

My preferred headphone or audio products: Apple AirPods (what I use) or Taotronics Sound Liberty 79, and the Blue Yeticaster (I also use this for my professional recordings)

If you do not want to lead your group through your phone, you can easily lead it on your laptop or desktop computer. You can download the app ahead of time, install and test it, and know what will work best for you. You can use the built in camera if you are using a laptop, or take it up a notch and use a high-definition webcam while using a desktop. Most webcams come with microphones as well, though you may still want the freedom of movement and ease of use by using a pair or bluetooth headphones as your mic and speaker.

My preferred webcams: Logitech BRIO (what I use) or StreamCam

Most webcams will work for simplicity purposes, though you will want to make sure you have the proper kind of light in order to maximize your camera.

Use low light above if needed. Too much light from above can wash out the entire image. In videography, we talk about using hair light. Hair light can help frame the face without the over-abundance of overhead light. For our purposes, a subtle overhead light will work to fill in the frame.

Use soft front-facing light. You can buy a simple ring-light from Amazon or step it up a notch and use two Elgato Key Light Air units (I use these) to create the perfect picture and balance of light. When you use these types of light, you are helping your camera focus on the immediate subject: you.

Want to go pro? While I do not recommend this kind of a set-up for the every day online group member or leader, it can make a massive difference if you are recording at-home messages on a daily or weekly basis for your congregation. Here is my recommended set-up for creating at-home videos that blow everyone out of the water.

Instead of your webcam, step up to the Sony a6100 (I use this). You can save a few hundred dollars by shopping the Best Buy Outlet or choosing a 1080p version only in the Sony a5100. But the a6100 is our favorite. It’s lightweight, 4k, great in low-light (like most mirrorless cameras), and is easy to use with whatever set-up you’re using (laptop or desktop). In addition to that, you will need the Elgato HD60s+ (I use this) or Cam Link 4k to take the video from the camera to your computer. Once you hook these two things up with the proper mini HDMI cable and dummy battery, you will have video quality that is second to none.

How to Lead Your Meeting

Having an online small group is a critical component for a successful digital presence. Just the fact that you have ongoing groups is a massive win for your church and community, so please do not read this and think you are not good enough; cause you’re crushing it!

What I want to do is help you crush it even more by helping you lead your meeting effectively. Most online small groups fail when they are not set up for success ahead of time. A lack of structure, poor audio and video quality, and out of control group members can all doom a group to fail. But what if I were to share with you from my experience of leading dozens of successful long-term groups, how I have made them flourish from start to finish (successful hand-off to new group leader)?

Here are my four keys to online small group meeting success:

  1. Prepare your group members in advance by making sure they know how to show up and engage. That means they understand the platform you are using, have the right audio and video equipment (even making sure they are using headphones who their speakers do no echo in people’s ears), and know the week’s outline (link to your resource ahead of time, so they can complete their “homework”).
  2. As the leader, you have the added weight of making sure your excellence level is one notch above everyone else. That means your room needs to be clean, extra noises are removed from the environment, your audio, video, and lighting are on point, you are presentable, and you can focus only on your group for the next hour without distractions (your phone is on vibrate, door to the room is closed, your home knows you are meeting and cannot be disturbed). We’re not looking for perfection, but we are looking at setting the standard high.
  3. One of the easiest ways for your online group to go off the rails is if one of your group members gets out of control. While one person can alter the night for he group, most of the time it is because they do not know the group standards. You can get ahead of this by applying a covenant to your group and making sure every member adheres to it. People can often be brought back into alignment by being shown the standards they are missing the mark on, like a group covenant (Shown Below).
  4. Stick to a 60 minute framework. While in-person small groups can go for 90 minutes without too much complaint, most cannot function well while sitting for anything longer than an hour (I start fidgeting after 15 minutes, so get to know each group member and help fight video conferencing fatigue). If you provide a 60 minute framework, you can make sure the meeting runs on time, you pay attention to the questions that matter for your specific group, and everyone has an opportunity to engage. You can create a waiting room of sorts for people to show up ahead of time for small talk, but when the meeting starts, you stick to a plan and you respect their time.

My old mentor Les Christie used to hammer this principle into me, that no matter what time you started, you always end on time. And oddly enough: concrete structures allow for greater flexibility. If the topical discussion component ends early, you have stuck to a schedule and have time allotted for conversation within the framework. If group members want to continue the conversation, let them do this on their own time. Sure, some groups will continue to meet after the 60 minutes, but some individuals may feel pressured into staying. Make the hard call and ask people to share numbers and take things on their cell. We’re all grown adults and can handle that, right?

Online Small Group Covenant Sample Statements

  1. Our goal is to freely and openly pursue unconditional love, above all else in Jesus Christ.
  2. This is a safe group. We are all here to support, love, and nurture without judgment. Your group leader has the right to redirect conversation at any time he feels this rule is being broken.
  3. Each member has the right to respond to the week's sermon-based homework or not. They also have the right to speak without interruption during their allotted time to share.
  4. What is discussed within the group remains within the group.
  5. Each member may offer words of affirmation but no solutions to problems (For example: “Do this and you’ll be fixed.”)

Life Group Covenant, North Coast Church, Page 1

Life Group Covenant, North Coast Church, Page 2

Sample covenant provided by North Coast Church.

Now that the meeting is over, what will you do?

Immediately after your online small group, take your notes and attendance into your church’s database. That will help your small groups leadership properly track members, prayers, etc … Your group is not an island, but a part of a larger collection of groups following Jesus. It’s important to pulse in and make sure everyone is on the same page and tracking together.

Find a place for your group to communicate online. While some groups choose text messages, platforms like Facebook Messenger, Slack, and GroupMe offer better tools and threads than text. While the average person only downloads one app per month, it makes a lot more sense to ask your group to see how they would prefer to communicate as a group between meetings, and make sure your group conversations stay central to that app. In addition to these third-party tools, your church app may have the potential to group people together into a private group. This enables your group members to have a central point for all church information and makes the “come back” much easier on the user. Apps like Tithely, Planning Center, and Subsplash are all quality apps that allow this function.

In addition to a centralized app for group communication, as the leader you will want to figure out how to use email to your advantage. Email allows you to send and track opens and downloads, and is still the most important communication tool decades after its inception. Because every person has an email, you should leverage this to send out group homework ahead of time and to communicate all pertinent information in advance. Your church may also allow you as a group leader to communicate with your group members via church database, so look into this function before you start sending things out from your personal email account.

This is a difficult time for you. As an extrovert, I am seriously missing my friends, going out to coffee shops and brainstorming ministry with my friends, sitting on the beach with my wife dreaming; I miss all of this. It doesn’t mean just us extroverts feel this, because we are all feeling this, deeply.

But I also know that this time will be over soon and we will be faced with a new reality where even if everything is perfect on your end, some of your people may not be ready or willing to join an in-person group. Again, this is not a crisis solution, but rather a new opportunity for ministry. I have led online small groups for over a decade, training hundreds of group leaders, reproduced this system across the country effectively, and I know that you can get a win with this approach.

Online small groups are your new normal.

These groups respect people’s time, fit in your ministry model, and are easily reproducible. They’re your church’s answers to a disconnected world in and out of crisis.

I know you’ve got a lot of questions and you just want the right answers as fast as possible. That's why you need to check out the new course that I developed just for you (see below ?).

Together, we will give your community the answers they are actively looking for. We will provide a place to for people to connect and group to below too. We will grow your church through crisis and prepare it for a new reality where people have moved online and are looking for a mobile-friendly way to be discipled.

Want to launch online small groups the right way? Join online small group ministry expert Russ Cantu in this brand new online course, as he takes you through the four steps you need to successfully launch online small groups at your church.

Your course includes four lessons and a total of nine learning modules. Lessons include video-driven content, downloadable assets, and keys to help you launch online small groups at your church.