Interview: Larry Osborne on Making Churches Sticky

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

At a time when many people are leaving the Church and Christians are found to be ill-equipped against challenges to their faith, more pastors are standing up to the call for discipleship. Among them, Pastor Larry Osborne of North Coast Church in Vista, Calif., is lending his voice to bring the church focus back to the spiritual growth of its flock.

Osborne has put forward the "sticky church" concept in his new book, Sticky Church, to highlight the fact that many churches pay scant attention to their back door, where many people slip out, and instead place most of their emphasis on the front door of reaching large crowds. He calls churches to slam the back door shut and to be stickier, and ultimately healthier, by not just drawing people, but growing them to spiritual maturity.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Osborne explains why some churches aren't aware of their back door being open, how to keep people in church, and why a "Mayberry USA" culture can help Christians grow.

CP: In your book, you said that churches are so focused on reaching people that they've forgotten the importance of keeping people. There have been studies about how so many people are quitting churches, or even switching churches. You rightly point out that the problem doesn't seem to be drawing people in, but keeping them. Do you feel most churches in America are oblivious to the back-door concept?

Osborne: 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 all excited that we're growing. But in reality 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. 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. Rather than reaching 100 people, 20 of which we keep, I'd rather reach 50 people, 40 of which we keep. The way I like to put it is fulfill the second half of the Great Commission, instead of just the first half. The Great Commission says to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them, but the second half says teaching them to observe all things that I have taught you. 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. As I hear in some churches, as much as one-third or more of the church comes once a month. It's pretty hard to disciple people and finish the job. One thing I want to clarify, to me, the sticky church concept it's not about church growth. It's about discipleship. The church growth that comes is a secondary component. But the whole goal is to fulfill the second half of the Great Commission and not just inoculate people. And the side benefit is, the church gets bigger.

CP: Do you feel most churches don't have their focus on discipleship and just focus on the front door?

Osborne: I think I would say more that most churches seem to focus on either informational discipleship or front door evangelism and the missing component is long-term sticky relationships. Because you can focus on discipleship through programs that you run and material that you want them to experience, almost a discipleship curriculum, if you will, but it is the significant relationships that keep people. We've all met people who have stayed in a really terrible church. You finally ask them "why are you staying there?" There's all kinds of maybe disunity, disfunction going on. And they always say "my friends are there." That's why I call it a little Mayberry USA in a highly mobile culture. Mayberry is the old town from a sitcom long ago, it was just this cute little rural town where everybody knew everybody. We just don't have that in our culture anymore and yet people do need that long-term stability in their life.

CP: Do you feel problem of the back door being open is more applicable to bigger churches since they wouldn't notice as much if people were leaving like a small church would?

Osborne: A larger church is unaware of the back door. And a smaller church has the problem of stickiness in the front end – they can't keep any of the people who visit and that's because they're friendly but they don't really connect with those people. What I find is small wonder why they can't keep people who come two or three times. And I go, it's because you don't offer genuine connection which is why we're so big on small groups that can last for a long period of time. And bigger churches just have no clue anyone went out the back. So both of them need it, but they need to field the problem at different levels, or different points.

CP: For you church, you said once your back door became shut, more people started coming through the front door. Do you feel if churches focused more on becoming sticky that the outreach part or drawing more people in part resolves itself?

Osborne: Absolutely, because what happens is when you take care of the people you have, they become raving fans. Just like with a restaurant, they come and say this place was great. You don't have to tell them to bring friends. We never told anybody to bring friends and this started this when we had 180 people. We weren't that big when we started. But 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. They know their non-Christians friends will get the same understandable meal they got or the same care they got. Actually, all of our growth has been word of mouth. We have never marketed or advertised.

CP: You mentioned in the book that your back door has been so small that you even have meetings when people do end up slipping out the back door. Is that right?

Osborne: Our church is over 7,000 on a weekend attendance and with 20 services on the campuses, people can slip through the cracks. If there's somebody that's been around a few years and they suddenly aren't around, that will usually make it up to discussion with the senior pastor or a more senior staff level discussion. We certainly have people who come 2-3 months and say you know, this Jesus thing's not for me. But we have way less of that than the churches I have been in before.

CP: You probably heard about Willow Creek's Reveal study where they found a lot of people were stalled in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied, with some even thinking of leaving the church. Now they're making a lot of changes, and it looks like they're taking steps toward becoming more of a sticky church. What's your response to the study?

Osborne: I think the Reveal study is fascinating and helpful. But a survey like that is going to produce answers based on the questions asked. You ask "how happy are you," you ask "are you growing" and that sort of stuff. I think one thing it didn't ask about is what I call long-term significant relationships. Because it didn't ask questions in that area, I think it did not reveal something I would expect and that is among those who weren't real happy, who felt their spiritual growth were stalled out, they also felt that they did not have long-term close relationships within church. The church is so missional and it's a great church, I'm a fan of Willow Creek. But it's been so missional that long-term relationships are almost assumed to be selfish. And that's why in the book I keep talking about it's not about relationships, it's about a few long-term, very sticky relationships. I talk about if I can velcro you to a group of Christian friends and the Bible, you will grow. So the Reveal study was essentially more about programming … and didn't talk about the missing piece of relationship which is so big in my book. I would just add that to it.

CP: Sermon-based small groups have been the "velcro" of your church. There was a recent study by Warren Bird and Scott Thumma where they found that small groups have become more central in megachurches. In 2000, 50 percent of the megachurches said small groups were central to their strategy for Christian nurture and spiritual formation. In 2008, that number rose to 84 percent. Is that something you would have expected?

Osborne: Absolutely. We started when we were 180 people so I think even with a couple hundred, small groups are the velcro for spiritual growth and significant relationships. And the bigger a church gets, the more important it is.

CP: Are small groups the only or best way to be a sticky church?

Osborne: I think they are currently the most effective because the way to become a sticky church is not small groups or even sermon-based small groups. Those are current highly effective models. The way to become a sticky church is sticky long-term relationships, Christian relationships. And so to me, small groups are the best way to do it and sermon-based small groups are an even easier way to do it because everybody's prepared by hearing the sermon already. The key to stickiness is not small groups. That's a tool to get to long-term Christian relationships. And frankly, that's why I think a lot of people mishear it. They think it's about small groups. No, small groups are the best tool, well for me, it's the best tool I've known since 1985.