9 Questions Before Starting Online Small Groups

The most asked question I get from pastors is always about online small groups. How does Saddleback Church do online small groups? How do they meet? How do you train leaders? Do you ship materials to group members? These are all great questions you need to be asking! The Online Campus at Saddleback Church has over 1,000 online only small groups, and we’ve learned a great deal about what works and doesn’t work over the years. Take a few minutes to read over these commonly asked questions!

1. WHAT IS AN ONLINE SMALL GROUP? A group of three to fifteen people gathering regularly through a text platform, audio call, or video software, and doing life together facilitated by curriculum and training from our church. 

2. WHAT DOES A TYPICAL ONLINE SMALL GROUP MEETING LOOK LIKE? Most online small groups watch a video teaching prior to their slotted meeting time. During an online small group text conversation, audio call, or video meeting they use the discussion questions provided with the video teaching to guide the conversation. Meetings start with prayer and end with prayer requests. There is usually always time for open conversations prior to the meeting and after the conclusion of the group time. You can see the typical itinerary below. I do want to highlight online small groups are not too different from small groups that meet in homes. The only differences are the medium they are gathering on and instead of watching the video teaching together the lesson is watched prior to gathering.


The majority of our online small groups meet through video platforms like Zoom or Skype. We do have groups that use text-based platforms like Slack, WhatsApp, WeChat, or Facebook Groups. A few online groups use the same platforms to have audio-only meetings or use FaceTime. We desire our online small groups to gather regularly and tend to not restrict how they meet. We’ve learned bandwidth can be an issue as you expand globally causing problems with video meetings. Additionally, showing a face on camera can be a big step to a new follower of Jesus and security can be a concern depending on the country of their origin.

4. WHAT IS THE STRATEGY WITH ONLINE SMALL GROUPS? We have a desire for all online small groups to eventually be part of a face to face home group. Many online small groups consist of group members scattered around the world, therefore, the goal isn’t for the online group to meet face to face, but for each member to start their own home small group in their city. Our pastoral responsibility is to slowly encourage our text-based groups to meet on an audio platform, our audio-only groups to become video-based, and over time start a face to face group in their home. 

We believe in a crawl, walk, run approach instead of only providing a face to face option. It’s amazing how a group member meeting online only for a season realizes their missing out on face to face community, but that realization only was discovered because of their exposure to the community of an online small group. 

5. HOW DO YOU PROVIDE VIDEO TEACHING TO YOUR ONLINE SMALL GROUPS? Saddleback Church built our own platform to get video teaching and study guides to our members, but you don’t have to do that. You can use Ministry Grid, RightNow Media, SmallGroups.comSmallGroup.com, shoot videos yourself and then unlisted the video on YouTube/Vimeo, or send weekly discussion questions based on the weekend message. 

6. HOW CAN I TEST OUT ONLINE SMALL GROUPS WITHOUT PURCHASING A SUBSCRIPTION WITH RIGHTNOW MEDIA OR ANOTHER COMPANY? Create an email list on MailChimp with all hosts and co-hosts of online small groups on it. Send an email every Sunday afternoon after your weekend service has concluded with three to five discussion questions based on the message. Anyone wanting to host an online small group then watches the weekly service as normal and uses the questions during their group time. To see an example of what this could look like more polished go to Saddleback.com/TalkitOver or Life.Church/TalkitOver.

7. HOW DO YOU TRAIN YOUR ONLINE SMALL GROUP HOSTS AND GROUP MEMBERS? You create healthy small groups three ways. First, train the leader of the small group with a video course that you offer online. Second, create small group curriculum that trains the entire group. Third, checkin with the group regularly to answer specific questions. You can setup a small group video course or upload curriculum onto YouTube, Vimeo, or use teachable.com. Having a Facebook Group as well for groups to connect with other groups is super helpful in sharing ideas. Don’t be the bottleneck to growth!

8. HOW DID YOUR ONLINE SMALL GROUP TOTAL REACH 1,000? We rely on a host strategy at Saddleback Church. We provide online access to video teaching which allows us to lower the threshold of requirement to be an online group leader. We’re not looking for Bible teachers or expert counselors. We are looking for a host to play a video and walk through prewritten discussion questions. We want the host to facilitate and not teach. Everyone, including the leader, is part of the transformation process. This host strategy allows us to start many groups at once because the barrier to entry is low and groups grow off the hosts’ own personal sphere of influence. The Online Campus at Saddleback embraced this hosting strategy with online small groups. 

9. ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW ABOUT ONLINE SMALL GROUPS? – Read Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen to explore Saddleback Church’s small group approach. Join the SmallGroupNetwork.com for up to date training on small groups and connect with other small group pastors. Podcast: The What, Why and How of Online Small Groups– Podcast: Are Online Small Groups Possible & What do Online Groups Look Like?

Jay Kranda
Online Campus Pastor
Saddleback Church


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Daniel Thomas

Connections Director



Daniel serves as Executive Pastor at Community Church of Mountain City, TN.  Daniel and his family are on a mission to establish roots within their community, fight for peace and serve well.  He serves as our Connections Director in laying the groundwork for Circles. He loves great coffee and traveling with his wife Tia and two children, Deklan and Aden



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