(Photo: North Coast Church)
When it comes to growing a healthy church, Pastor Larry Osborne doesn't survey the front door to see how he can attract large crowds and wow them with a special program. For the most part, his eyes are glued to the back door.
That's because so many churches have been losing people, and some, without even noticing.
"As long as the front door is larger than our back door or even equal, we often think things are okay. And if the front door is larger, we’re excited that we’re growing," Osborne said as he explained how many churches lose almost as many people as they reach.
"Rather than reaching 100 people, 20 of which we keep, I'd rather reach 50 people, 40 of which we keep," he told The Christian Post.
Osborne is a senior pastor of North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. A pioneer in the multi-site movement, North Coast is widely recognized as one of the most innovative churches in the country.
And while innovation plays a key role in his ministry to the over 7,000 attendees each weekend, the long-time senior pastor is not concentrated on the newest next big thing.
His heart, instead, lies with making people stick for long-term spiritual growth. It's about keeping people by closing the back door of the church and developing what he calls a "sticky church."
"We've discovered lots of ways to reach people," Osborne writes in his new book, Sticky Church. "But we've often become so focused on reaching people that we've forgotten the importance of keeping people."
Churches have often attracted record crowds during Christmas and Easter when they typically conduct fancier services or put on special shows. Some have taken outreach to new levels by marketing special events, advertising relevant and creative sermon series, or utilizing technology.
But after the fancy lights, music and guest speaker are gone, the newcomer is likely to feel underwhelmed the following weeks and possibly slip through the back door.
And larger churches are most likely to be unaware of the back door because of the many people who come through their wide front door.
A 2006 study by LifeWay Research found that among the "formerly churched," 16 percent left because nobody contacted them and another 16 percent quit because nobody seemed to care that they left.
"When we keep people for only a short time, what we’ve done is more likely inoculate them to Christianity rather than help them get the real disease," Osborne noted. "Once someone’s been to church for a while, kind of connected and then fades out, it is really hard, outside of a major crisis in their life, to reach them again."
After all, Osborne writes in his book, Jesus didn't call churches to draw big crowds or just sign people up. "He told us to make disciples," he says.
For Osborne, it's about fulfilling the second half of the Great Commission, instead of just the first half.
While the familiar first half calls Christians to go into all the world and make disciples, the second half goes further in urging believers to teach others to observe all things Jesus taught them.
"You cannot teach people to observe all things that Jesus taught if you've got them for six months or they come at three special seasons a year," Osborne said. "As I hear in some churches, as much as one-third or more of the churches comes [to services] once a month. It's pretty hard to disciple people and finish the job."
The sticky church concept is about discipleship, Osborne stressed, not church growth.
At North Coast, discipleship is best played out through sermon-based small groups. Osborne has found small groups to currently be the most effective way of being a sticky church and helping people to grow spiritually.
Since 1985, at least 80 percent of North Coast's average weekend attendance has participated in a small group.
"The ultimate goal of a sermon-based small group is simply to velcro people to the two things they will need most when faced with a need-to-know or need-to-grow situation: the Bible and other Christians," Osborne highlights in his book.
For nearly three decades now, North Coast has aimed everything toward helping the Christians it already has grow stronger in Christ, which has helped slam the back door shut. Osborne can testify that historically his church back door has been so small that if someone leaves for reasons other than moving, it will usually be on the agenda in one of their senior staff meetings, he writes.
With a small back door, North Coast has grown to 20 weekend services, all without spending a dime on advertising or marketing. Most of the growth has been through word of mouth.
"The idea of taking care of the people you have so well that they become raving fans causes them to bring their non-Christian friends," Osborne explained.
And when they come, North Coast makes it hard for them to slip out the back.