The shape of Christian small groups

Do small groups simply happen? Of course not, but how many people in small groups actually consider the way their small group functions? Church leaders and group leaders at least need to understand how the groups in their church are shaped, because every shape or group structure has benefits and limitations.

Let’s consider three broad ways that small groups operate – their basic structures.

Leadership Driven

The first is LEADERSHIP DRIVEN. That may sound rather strong but let’s paint the picture a little more. The direction, objectives and form of groups like this may be shaped by the church leadership. In some situations this will mean that all groups must follow the same programme, without regard to the age, spiritual maturity or the needs of the individual members. One shape fits all. Another form is when the group direction is set by the group leader(s).

There are many advantages of a leadership-driven group. The goals and vision for the group come from the leaders and should be filtered down to the group members. The leaders are responsible to facilitate the life and health of the group. Leaders become a focal point that make sure things get done, that objectives are pursued and that information flows within the group. Leadership-driven groups are useful for teaching skills and knowledge such as Bible knowledge, first-aid, photography, and so on. These groups do not demand a strong relationship bond among the group members.

On the downside, small groups who have highly controlling leaders may find it difficult to disagree or to offer alternative views or suggestions of their own. Dominating, inflexible leadership may produce groups that become rigid, predicable, even irrelevant or boring. Not being involved in decision making about group life suits some people, but there are others who will drift away from these groups or perhaps they may continue to attend out of politeness even though they would prefer to be somewhere else.


Another basic group structure is what has been called DEMOCRATIC. Participation by members in making decisions is a dominant value of democratic groups. Everyone is encouraged to have a say (at least in theory) about goals, planning and content. If you have ever been part of a group that has a high value on democracy you will have noticed that coming to an agreement and making decisions can be a long process. It is hard to please everyone. You may have observed also that some group members still tend to dominate and manipulate, even in a democratic group.


The policy of leaving things to take their own course, without interfering (Oxford dictionary)

A group with this way of functioning is the opposite of a leadership driven style. A good example of an extreme laissez-faire style group would be: ‘Let’s simply meet on Fridays at 7:00pm and see what happens. We’ll work out what we will do when arrive.’ There is often a high value on flexibility, spontaneity and simply being together, but possibly a low value is placed on planning, objectives and direction. Laissez-faire style groups are particularly suited for casual events. ‘Let’s meet for coffee next week … or go on a bush walk … or meet for breakfast at the café on Saturday mornings once a month.’These groups have a high relationship-building potential and can be very inclusive of a wide range of people.

On the down side, normally a laissez-faire approach does not work well for church groups that meet regularly. Organisation can be, at best, a little chaotic and people may be left wondering why they are meeting, where the group is heading and who is going to make sure important things are done. Group cohesion is likely to be a challenge. A fundamental problem for long-term groups can be that, unless a sense of purpose and direction arises, people will lose interest and attendance will dwindle.

Food for thought

The three examples above are, of course, the extremes of each of these types of group. In fact, most Christian small groups will use each approach from time to time, yet there is usually one predominant style.

Ultimately, the style of group should fit the objectives for the group to function well.

  • Would you add another style of group functioning to the three above?
  • How would you describe the dominant style of your small group?
  • Is there some flexibility in the way the group functions?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the way your group operates?
  • What would you like to see improved in the format and functioning of your group?
  • Which group style or combination of styles is most likely to build relationships and assist members to grow to be more whole and more like Jesus?


About Ron Kallmier

Ron, an experienced teacher, counsellor and pastor who served as CWR’s Director of Training, explores how our small groups are shaped.