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For years I’ve prayed to see the online small group category take off in the groups ministries that I lead but I only ever experienced minimal results. I was able to see 1 or 2 online groups launch but there wasn’t much growth beyond that. At the time I am writing this, we now have over 15 online groups meeting consistently. The journey to get there was historic but we’ve learned a few things along the way.
Like many churches, COVID-19 shut down all of our in-person small group meetings for a season. 100% of our groups from all of our campuses shifted to the online platform. While I always wanted to see online groups take off, I wasn’t hoping for a pandemic to be a key contributing factor.
The unintended benefit was that it forced our group hosts and church to experiment with the online environment for community and spiritual growth. Many people (not all) found it was easier than they expected. Others realized the tech tools and skills they were using at work would also work for small groups. The majority of participants found they could experience connection and strength through the video conferences.
At the time I am writing this, the majority of our groups have gone back to in-person meetings now which has been great to see. As I mentioned above though, we now have over 15 online groups continuing to meet with several that include people from out of state. Praise God!
Again, it has been a journey and there are many things we are learning and will continue to learn. Here are 8 Online Group Learnings that stand out to me at this point…
- Zoom is one of the best online platforms. We tried several different video conferencing services. We also researched different paid services. Many of them are great and each have their own pros and cons, including Zoom. We just found Zoom to provide most of the features we were looking for in regards to the group experience we wanted to create. Particularly, the ease in which you can run meetings, the quality, the text chat, the screen sharing, the recording abilities and the breakout features. Note: Zoom is not paying me to say this.
- Schedule Online Rooms for Hosts. This was another reason we went with Zoom. We wanted to find any way we could to remove technology hurdles from our group hosts. We decided to shoulder the responsibility of creating and scheduling the online meeting spaces so the group hosts could have one less thing to worry about. With Zoom, we purchased several licenses from them at a very affordable rate. What we learned is that we don’t need one license per small group, rather, we treat a Zoom license like a classroom in our church facility. We can have up to 30 small groups per week meeting on a single license as long as we don’t schedule two groups to meet at the same time on that one license.
- Prepping Your Online Group Environment. Thinking through the digital space of your online group will yield the same benefits as preparing your house for a home small group. I wrote an entire article on this at the following link: 15 Tips for Prepping Your Online Small Group Environment
- Condensed Meeting Format. A typical in-person small group should last 90 minutes to two hours (I write more about this in A Simple Small Group Agenda). For an online small group meeting though, it is difficult to sit in front of a computer screen for that long. This is why we developed an online small group agenda for a 45-60 minute window of time. I wrote an entire article on this called “Online Small Group Agenda.”
- Watch Videos Together Online. With Zoom we were still able to watch videos together as a group online. I made a short video for our Group Hosts detailing for them how to do this which you can see by CLICKING HERE. For the online format I would recommend the videos be no longer than 3-5 minutes. If the video is longer than that you may send it out for the group to watch ahead of time in order to keep the meeting length at 45-60 minutes.
- Sermon Discussion Clips. Unless we’re in a church wide campaign, we send out a Sermon Discussion Guide each Sunday as an option for groups. This has typically been a simple PDF for study, discussion and prayer. In an effort to make the online group experience more dynamic we added a Sermon Discussion Clip to the Sermon Discussion Guide. This is a short 3-5 minute clip that we cut from our Pastor’s Sermon. It’s not a fancy video editing job either, we are just trimming out a short video from the larger Quicktime file and uploading it to YouTube. We also used the Bit.ly service to shorten the YouTube URL and avoid the long and messy YouTube URL’s. You can see a sample of a Sermon Discussion Guide that includes a Sermon Discussion Clip by CLICKING HERE.
- Tech Coordinator Role. I wrote an article on 7 Small Group Coordinator Roles which outlines how Group Hosts can involve group members in the life and service of the small group. Now I believe there is an 8th role: A Tech Coordinator. The purpose of this role is to guide the group in the process of meeting together online. Their possible functions could be…
- Picking the Platform (Zoom, Google Hangout, Facetime, Facebook, etc)
- Communicating all tech info for the online video conference to the group
- Setting up/launching the conference call.
- Managing the audio by muting and unmuting participants
- Sharing videos
- Facebook Watch Parties for Online Services. Our church broadcasts our weekend services live over Facebook. If your church doesn’t do this currently this idea won’t be an option. I wrote an entire article on Hosting Small Groups on Facebook and one of the opportunities outlined in there was how to watch services together in a Facebook Watch Party. See the article for all the details. I did this with my group for months and found it to be such a richer experience compared to just watching the service online by myself. People would comment back and forth to each other throughout the service and I could track who was staying connected to our service online as well.
I am certain we will continue to learn more tips and tricks as we continue our journey into the online groups space. I hope one or more of these helps you. What learnings have you gained with online groups? I would love to hear them. Share them below…