E-groups are a terrific way to educate people where they are, online, while fostering a deeper sense of connection and Christian community in your church. If you are planning to start one at your own church, check out my top ten tips for leading a successful E-group at your church before getting started. I hope they help!
#1: Use a Variety of Instructional Strategies
Boredom has caused the slow and agonizing death of many church small groups. No matter how Spirit-filled and life changing the material, repeating the same learning activities week after week can quickly become tiresome for small group participants- and their group leaders, too!
Thormann and Zimmermann warn that the danger is even greater in online small groups where “the instructor’s and students’ presence, personalities, and classroom interactions” are unable to counteract repetitiveness. Combat boredom by introducing a variety of instructional strategies into your E-group design. For example, have E- group participants complete activities in pairs or trios, participate in interactive multimedia presentations, or create blogs and blogs. See my post “Creative Instructional Strategies for E-Groups” in order to find more ideas.
#2: Encourage Participation
In online learning communities, participation includes two separate tasks: interaction and interactivity. On the one hand, interaction is the “all important student-to-student and student-to-instructor contact that has become the hallmark of online learning.”  E-learning small group leaders can encourage interactivity by 1) making expectations about participation clear (e.g. number of hours spent online, length of discussion posts, quality of posts, etc), 2) providing ample opportunity for collaborative learning, 3) meeting over a longer term than traditional small groups (perhaps, 10-15 weeks), and 4) encouraging all participants to be actively involved in discussions and activities.
On the other hand, interactivity is “the inclusion of material that helps to create active learning online.” E-learning small groups are not simply distance learning courses that only ask participants to read and discuss course material. Leaders should be careful to include learning activities that allow participants to interact with the course material. Some options for increasing interactivity may include: small-group activities, research activities asking participants to seek-out and present additional resource material, case studies, simulations, role-playing, and asynchronous discussion.
#3: Meet asynchronously AND synchronously
Church members are busy! As we all continue to become more and more busy, asynchronous online small groups will become an important option for education and community building. Unfortunately, meeting asynchronously makes immediate interaction, recognition of visual cues (e.g. gestures and facial expression), and identifying humor difficult. For this reason, e-learning small group leaders should opt for a blended approach that incorporates occasional synchronous meeting of the group into the course design. For example, e-learning small groups may include face-to face meetings (e.g. small group orientation, small group activities, parties, etc.) or meetings via video-conferencing software.
#4: Don’t forget to create space for socialization
E-learning small groups have the dual purpose of education and fellowship. Small group leaders should be careful to include areas on the group webpage, apart from the course material, where participants may fellowship.
In my own e-groups, for example, I include a forum on the e-group webpage called “Paul’s Front Porch.” I include the following description of the area:
In the mountains of Eastern Kentucky where I grew up, the front porch is a favorite place for sharing stories, telling jokes, and catching up on the news. I would like to invite you to my front porch. Use this space to share in casual conversation with your fellow group mates. Talk about anything you wish (e.g. the news, your day, a random question, a joke, etc). This is also an appropriate place to ask questions or share information that is tangential to the course material. Most importantly, this is a safe place for us all to “sit a spell” and get to know each other. Don’t forget, the sweet tea is on me!
#5: Maintain a high level of teaching presence
Small group leaders are responsible for “facilitating the personal and social aspects of an online community in order for the class to have a successful learning experience.” When leaders fail to be present in the small group, participants tend to be less present. Mark A. Maddix suggests that the best leaders will participate daily in the group, respond to students work within twenty-four hours, provide ample feedback to class discussion and course activities, and be intentional about making relational connections with students.
#6: Assist participants in time Management
The convenience of meeting asynchronously often draws people to online small groups. Unfortunately, this convenience also leads to many participants dropping out of online small groups. With no set meeting time and place, participants tend to put off or ignore course activities. Leaders of e-learning small groups may encourage participants by assisting them with time management. Leaders should make the small group schedule available in advance of the small group’s start date in order to allow participants to plan time for participation. Likewise, leaders should schedule several small deadlines throughout each week in order to ensure consistent and timely participation.
#7: Encourage prayer
E-learning small groups are a communal experience in which participants can commune with both God and each other. Theresa Latini states that small groups commune with God in two ways: Bible study and prayer. Prayer does more than enhance the participants’ relationships with God, however. By praying for and with one another, participant-to-participant relationships are deepened. E-learning group leaders can encourage group prayer by including a “prayer room” or “chapel” on the course webpage, posting a weekly prayer for the class, responding to participants’ prayers, and asking participants for prayer requests.
#8: Clearly Define expectations and Guidelines
As with most new experiences, people are not sure what to expect when joining an online small group. Based on their experience in traditional, lecture-driven small groups, many participants will likely assume that little participation is required. Likewise, participants who are new to the world of social media may not be aware of proper “netiquette.” E-learning small group leaders should clearly describe what they expect from participants, including a list of the group’s netiquette, on the home page of the group’s webpage.
#9: Challenge participants intellectually
E-learning small groups have the dual purpose of education and fellowship. In designing e-learning small groups that assist participants in developing a sense of Christian community, group leaders must not forget the purpose of Christian education. Unfortunately, many online teachers, following older models of distance education, make content delivery their primary goal. In order for e-learning small groups to remain intellectually challenging, however, leaders should not focus on content delivery, but rather on facilitating “analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.” E-learning small group leaders should have high expectations for participant learning, which are clearly defined by measurable learning objectives.
#10: Challenge participants spiritually
Made in the Creator’s image, humanity reflects God’s communal nature. “Made as persons we are made for relationship—with our Creator and with one another.” E-learning small groups should seek to enhance both relationships. Spiritual growth (i.e. growth in one’s relationship with God) requires more than intellectual development. Spiritual formation means a change of heart, mind, and soul.
Robert Pazmiño provides a helpful model for small group leaders who wish to challenge their participants spiritually. Pazmiño’s model proposes five educational tasks of the church: community, service, advocacy, proclamation, and worship. Each of the five must be completed for the church to truly be the church. As such, E-learning small group leaders who incorporate the five tasks into their course design will challenge participants to develop spiritually as they practice being the church.
Pazmiño’s Five Educational Tasks of the Church.
Have another tip to share? Feel free to post it in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing from you! -Paul
 Joan Thormann and Isa Kafta Zimmerman, The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Designing and Teaching Online Courses (New York: Teachers College Press, 2012), Kindle 968.
 Palloff and Pratt, Collaborating Online, 4.
 This list is adapted from Palloff and Pratt, Collaborating Online, 10.
 Palloff and Pratt, Building Online Learning Communities, 113.
 Maddix, Estep, and Lowe, 38.
 Latini, 52.
 Gorman, Kindle 314.
 Robert W. Pazmiño, Foundational Issues in Christian Education: An Introduction in Evangelical Perspective, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 46.
 Illustration taken from Pazmiño, 46.