Sticky Church

Rick Warren taught us that to grow a church, you need to think about five concentric circles:

  • COMMUNITY Those living around your church who never or occasionally attend.
  • CROWD Those who attend your church regularly but are not members.
  • CONGREGATION Those who are committed to both Christ and membership in your church family.
  • COMMITTED Those members who are serious about growing to spiritual maturity.
  • CORE Those members who actively serve in ministry and mission in your church.

The idea of disciplemaking and church growth is to move people ever closer to the center.

What Larry Osborne adds to the conversation is this: it is a whole lot easier to grow a church by concentrating on the inner rings-- moving the crowd to the congregation and so forth, than it is to concentrate on the outer ring -- moving the community into the crowd.

Much church growth thinking concentrates on the opposite -- how to attract a crowd. I think Larry Osborne is right in saying that the fastest path to growth is to concentrate on the inner rings.

This seems to be the way Jesus operated. He concentrated on the few more than the masses. This was Robert Coleman's theme in the classic work, The Master Plan of Evangelism.  While not ignoring the masses, Jesus seemed to concentrate his energy on the few. As time went along and the cross grew closer, he seemed to concentrate more and more of his energy on the few.

My own research corroborates this approach. I did a survey where I asked four questions to five hundred churches:

  • How many attend?
  • How many attended a year ago?
  • How many visitors do you have?
  • How many join?

I discovered there was very little difference between growing churches and non-growing churches in terms of their how many visitors they had (calculated as a percentage of worship attendance). There was a huge difference in terms of how many stuck around. They big difference was in what I called the "Velcro factor," not the "magnet factor." This is the theme of Larry's Osborne's book, Sticky Church.

How to Make a Church Sticky

Here is my answer: invite every member and every prospect to every fellowship every month. Have a party once a month and make sure every member gets invited. If we can get them to the party you would not be able to keep them from class.

Here is Larry Osborne's answer: sermon-based small groups.

Larry spends five chapters discussing how small groups change everything. People grow in small groups. Small groups need to be right-sized. Small groups dispel the Holy Man myth. Small groups dispel the Holy Place myth. And so forth.

The last half of the book is why sermon-based small groups make a church sticky.

At this point, I am feeling a little stupid. I read the book twice, then skimmed it to find the answer to this question: WHY? Why are sermon-based groups better than other kind of groups at getting visitors to stick around?

Here is my take: sermon-based groups are no better or worse than other types of groups. The key variable is the Senior-pastor cheerleading the groups.

Imagine two churches. One has a Senior pastor who is a real cheerleader of groups. He regularly attends a group and regularly tells stories about his group from the pulpit. These could be home groups or Sunday School style groups, open or closed groups, any type of groups. They key thing is, the pastor is a huge fan of groups.

Down the street we have a church that follows the sticky church model to the tee. They attend the conference. The staff all read the book. They attempt to implement the plan as carefully as they can. But, they can't get the pastor really on board. He does a little push at first, but then he looses interest. His interest is the worship service. Groups are not that important to him.

Which church do you think will have the best groups?

Groups don't work at North Coast because they are sermon-based. They work because the Senior pastor cheerleads them.

That is not to say that sermon based groups are a bad idea. They are not. But, they are not the silver bullet. The senior pastor's love for groups is the single biggest factor in predicting the success of groups at any church--not the details of the model. Pick a model, any model: old fashioned Sunday School, Cho's small groups, Carl George's meta groups, Northpoint's (Andy Stanley) closed group model, neighborhood groups, or any other--and get the pastor thoroughly excited about it and I will show you a model that is working.

The North Coast way of Doubling

I had a guy ask me what I think about Sticky Church, especially as it relates to chapter 15: why dividing groups is a dumb idea. Before I answer, let's talk about the North Coast way of creating new groups.

Rather than dividing, North Coast pulls out leaders from existing groups and starts whole groups made up of new people to the church. So, they get ten or so brand new people to North Coast, combine them with someone who has had an experience in a North Coast group and they can start group after group after group and NEVER have to divide a group.

This solves one of the great problems in group life: how to divide groups. As Larry Osborne rightly points out, people universally HATE the idea. 

A basic fact of math is this: if a small groups grows, it won't stay small forever. Dividing has been the historical way of dealing with this "problem" in growing small groups. Problem is, people hate dividing and are resistant to doing so. North Coast has found a brilliant way around this.

Do you hear a "but" coming?

Only one little problem with this model: it won't work in 95% of the churches in America. Why? They are not big enough. In order for this to work, you have to have enough new members to be starting new groups completely out of new people. Most churches would have to wait quite a while before they could get enough new people to start a new group just out of new people. Larry Osborne points out that you have a certain amount of people-- a critical mass to start new groups.

Still, for churches that are large enough, starting new groups completely made up of new people is a great way to start new groups.

Odds and ends

The book has a number of other detailed ideas about how to makes group work. If you opt for the sermon-based approach there is some good information on how to write discussion questions for the groups. There is some good information about recruiting and training leaders. There is some good information about how to evaluate your group systems. Most churches don't do enough evaluation.

Overall, Sticky Church is a good read. Whether or not you buy into the central premise that sermon-based groups are they way to make church sticky, anyone who loves church and loves small groups will find this a good read.


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