Culture and context should be the deciding factors that determine your group structure. Once you know those, you can look at the strengths and weaknesses of the high structure model to see if it's right for you.
Training is a non-negotiable component to high-structure systems. Critics might call it over-training, but there's no doubt group leaders are immersed in the necessary elements. Usually there are training sessions, apprenticeships, and mentors. Like professional sports, a leader in a high structure system rarely skips the route, but rather rises up through the ranks: beginning as a group participant, then an apprentice leader, and finally a leader. Along the way, the leader gains confidence.
Leadership confidence is two-fold. First, the leader themselves is confident. There's nothing harder for a group to overcome than a leader who exudes an I-don't-know-what-I'm-doing attitude. High-structure systems simply won't put people into leadership positions if they lack such confidence. So leaders emerge with a strong sense of purpose and direction. They know how to do the job because they've observed it, tried it, and finally assumed it.
Secondly, the church leadership is just as confident in the leader. The leader is known. He or she is nominated, trained, and sponsored all along the leadership development pipeline. In many popular group systems used today, the leader is more of a gamble. There is little gambling in a high-structure system.
I led the small-group ministry in a very large church in Louisville for a number of years, and one of my great frustrations was how unpredictable the group experience was. It varied from group to group. Some groups were like Sunday schools in homes and others were like social clubs.
Some of that diversity reflected the culture of the church I served, but some of it was caused by our model. High-structure systems reduce unpredictability. All the groups feel similar. Move from one group to another and you'll find great similarity because the leaders are trained in the same way and have the same high expectations.
Conveyor of New Information
My first experience in a high-structure group was for a 10-week study on finances. We all signed up for the group because we all needed help. We didn't want to pool our collective lack of wisdom. And the structure of the group, the training of the leader, and the control of the curriculum were exactly what we needed. If you're using a group to teach core theological concepts or introducing new information, a variety of opinions can be harmful. High-structure groups can work especially well for skills- and knowledge-based groups.
- The groups in this model reproduce easily.
- They don't require a large recruitment for leaders.
- They're similar to the Early Church's model.
- They thrive even in hostile environments. (This goes for Jesus' group of 12 and for groups meeting in the Middle East.)
- They can work especially well in small- and medium-sized churches.
It Takes Too Long
Nearly every high-control system requires leaders to begin as participants. That leads to an apprenticeship, equipping, and training. It might be years before a person graduates to leadership. While that contributes to confidence, it also means a small-group ministry is stalled until enough leaders graduate. Fast growing churches can't afford to wait. Church leaders (especially senior pastors) don't want to wait for a harvest two to four years down the road. If someone wants to join a group, you can't tell them to come back next year.