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Ask These 9 Questions Before Starting Online Small Groups

The most frequently asked question I get from pastors is always about online small groups, and it’s a question that has become dramatically relevant for churches in recent weeks. 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! 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 our answers to commonly asked questions!

1. What is an online small group? It’s a group of three to fifteen people who gather regularly through a text platform, audio call, or video software, 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 time for open conversations prior to the meeting and after the conclusion of the group time.

Here’s the itinerary:

Pre-Meeting Log on & open conversation
Start Opening prayer
Middle Talk through guided discussion questions from video
End Highlight video to watch for next week & prayer requests
Post-Meeting Log off & open conversation

I do want to highlight that online small groups are not too different from small groups that meet in homes. The only differences are (1) the various channels they use to facilitate their meetings and (2) the individual viewing of the video lesson prior to gathering as a group.

3. How do online small groups typically meet?

Most of our online small groups meet through video platforms like Zoom or Skype. Some groups 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 want our online small groups to gather regularly, so we rarely restrict how they meet. We’ve learned bandwidth can be an issue as you expand globally, causing problems with video meetings. Additionally, showing their face on camera can be a big step for 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 each online small group to eventually become 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 and our audio-only groups to become video-based, eventually leading to a face-to-face group in their homes.

We believe in a “crawl, walk, run” approach instead of only providing a face-to-face option. It’s amazing when a group member, meeting online only for a season, suddenly realizes they’re missing out on a face-to-face community. This discovery is likely made possible because of their exposure to the community of an online small group.

5. How do you provide video teaching to your online small groups? Our team at 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,, or even shoot videos yourself, and then upload the video on YouTube or Vimeo. Or you can simply send weekly discussion questions based on the weekend message.

6. How can I test online small groups without purchasing a subscription with RightNow Media or another company? Create an email list on MailChimp and include all hosts and co-hosts of online small groups. After the conclusion of your weekend service, send an email with three to five discussion questions based on the message. Anyone wanting to host an online small group can then watch the weekend service as normal and use the discussion questions during their group time. To see an example of what this could look like in a more polished format, click here to view Saddleback’s Talk It Over or go to 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, check in with the group regularly to answer specific questions. You can set up a small group video course or upload curriculum onto YouTube or Vimeo, or use Also having a Facebook group 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 for up-to-date training on small groups and connect with other small group pastors. Watch Online Pastor Jay Kranda’s video course on How Online Small Groups Work. You also can check out Podcast: The What, Why and How of Online Small Groups and Podcast: Are Online Small Groups Possible & What do Online Groups Look Like?

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