Larry Osborne is lead pastor of North Coast Church in California. His thesis in Sticky Church is simple: churches often spent a lot of effort trying to attract people to attend, but not enough trying to retain them. As he puts it: ‘If the back door of a church is left wider open, it doesn’t matter how many people are coaxed to come in the front door … Yet most churches give the back door scant attention.’ (13) Osborne’s central idea therefore is that churches need to be ‘stickier’ – i.e. better at retaining people who visit.
It’s not just about numbers (though he has some models to show how the numbers might stack up. ‘Stickier churches are healthier churches. They not only draw in spiritual window-shoppers and lead them to Christ; they also grow them up to maturity.’ (13) He is not against marketing, but believes word-of-mouth evangelism leads to stronger growth.
The first part of the book is more relevant to the US context than the UK churches. Most UK churches do little by way of marketing beyond the odd local advert because most Brits are so unchurched that they need far more than advert to persuade to attend a church meeting.
Osborne’s prescription for creating sticky church is small groups and specifically sermon-based small groups which are ‘[built] around a discussion of the previous weekend’s sermon’ (60). It was this that attracted me to the book as we are moving towards this approach, albeit with a different model of church.
Osborne suggests that when your small groups reach somewhere between 40-60 percent weekly attendance they reach a critical mass. Before that they can have a profound impact on the individuals who attend, but once you reach the critical mass they have a profound affect on the whole church. (47) One key is the involved of senior leaders and staff. ‘If they’re full and visibly involved, the congregation usually follows.’
Osborne found sermon-based small groups increased people’s attentiveness to the teaching of the word. It also meant the church was focused on one topic at a time which helped create a sense of moving together in response to the word. A sermon-based approach helped new Christians because they could interact with what they had heard in the sermon rather than having to contribute to a general discussion from a smaller knowledge–base. It also means people come to the meeting having already thought about what’s going to be discussed.
Osborne suggests forming new groups with new people (as they have the capacity and desire to make new connections. Indeed, he’s also against dividing existing study groups. Osborne’s church runs ten-week study programs after which people can opt to try another group (he doesn’t worry about aligning these ten-week blocks with the Sunday sermons series). This makes it easy to enter and leave a group. He argues: ‘An easy-out philosophy doesn’t mean a lower commitment level. It actually creates more opportunities for greater commitment.’ (111)
Osborne advises us to start with an open-ended question such as, ‘What did you find most challenging, helpful or troubling?’ (85) He also suggesting including questions on the passage that go beyond what was said in the sermon (so it is more than a process of recalling the sermon). Finally, he says to include questions on application to drive the truth home in a personal way.
I have some criticisms. At times I feel Osborne accommodates to the culture too much. I would also dispute his refusal to see small groups as missional. I was hoping for more guidance on running a sermon-based group. The guidance on question-writing was fairly predictable – but perhaps the point is there is no magic formula. The book assumes a large-church model, certainly by UK standards. But there are some good point. Here are some favourite quotes:
High-powered front-door programs can have the intended consequence of sending a message that some weekends and programs are for bringing guests – and the rest aren’t. (33)
Most of our discipleship programs are very linear. Unfortunately, most spiritual growth is not. (41)
Most spiritual growth doesn’t come as a result of a training program or a set curriculum. It comes as a result of life putting us in what I like to call need-to-know or need-to-grow situation. (42)
I began to wonder if the best gift we could give our children and youth might not be the great programs we were offering but instead be something different – the simply but profound gift of a growing mom and dad. (57)