Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.

Sticky teams

I’ve been a pastor in an independent church for some time now. We don’t own any property, but we’ve been meeting regularly in community centres, clubs, schools, and universities. Our church is free of many of the trappings and restrictions of traditional churches. We’re not big on ceremony. We’re not into dressing up to go to church. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of a particular denomination to get involved. In fact, a lot of what we do is being worked out ‘on the run’ and could probably described as pretty amateur.

Our church culture and community doesn’t have a lot of history. We’ve had to invent a few wheels and learn a fair bit from trial and error. It’s not that we’re making up new doctrines or teaching. We’re not abandoning the traditional understanding of the Christian faith. In fact, we’re very keen to be shaped and directed by the Bible in all we believe. It’s more to do with how things are done around here. 

Many of my friends in ministry don’t have to think too much about leadership structures in their churches – they simply are what they are. They’re Presbyterian, so they have elders, sessions, presbyteries and committees of management. Or they’re Baptist, so they have deacons and congregational meetings and pastors and water! But how do things work when you’re independent?

Last year, I made a particular focus of reading widely on issues of leadership and church life. I read, so as to better diagnose our own condition and to digest ideas and input for moving our church forward. One book that was very stimulating and resonated with many of our issues and concerns was, Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne.

The basic idea of Sticky Teams is to achieve unity in alignment. Getting people on the same page, with the same goals, and headed in the same direction. In particular, it focuses on getting the church, the staff, and the governing body of the church united in vision and purpose. A number of our leaders read this book and they had various reactions to it. Some were sold on the ideas, while others were more reflective and circumspect. The value lies in working through these things together.

Unity is fundamental to the church. At heart, it’s not something we can create for ourselves, but something achieved by God himself. As it says in Ephesians 4:4-6:

4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

God unites Christians together spiritually, but then he calls us to live this out practically. It’s not enough to pay lip service to unity. It raises real challenges for how we treat one another, and how churches are to function. See the previous verses in Ephesians 4:1-3:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Osborne values three types of unity in the church – doctrinal unity (what we believe), respect and friendship (how we treat each other), and philosophical unity (how we do things around here). The importance of philosophical unity is often overlooked, but it is critical to getting people headed in the same direction. It is often harder to achieve than the first two.

There’s nothing academic about this book. It’s been worked out in practice and we’re invited to learn from the experience of the author. It offers many practical tips and great ideas that we might easily take for granted. For example, as we seek to build unity in our church leadership teams and meetings, consider if these issues might be making it hard:

Does our venue help or hinder our meetings?
Are we ignoring the relationships of the people on the team?
Are we meeting often enough or too often?
Is there a constant turnover of people or is it a closed group?
Are there too many members on the team to be productive?

If you want to avoid politics shaping the agenda of your church’s governing body, then there are lessons to be learned here. One gem, is the importance of looking for leaders, not representatives. Representatives are more likely to see themselves as lobbyists for their particular area. This can reinforce the silo mentality, polarise areas of the church, and hinder progress through controversial issues. Leaders should be people of spiritual maturity, who fit well into the team relationally and organisationally, and who are aligned with the vision of the church. And remember that CVs always look better than people, and that character matters more than ability.

Osborne offers helpful insight to how an organisation changes its shape and function as it grows. He illustrates this with a sporting analogy:

The changes we had to work through at each stage of growth resembled the changes an athlete must make every time he or she switches from playing one sport to another.

Growth produces predictable changes in the way leaders and leadership teams relate and carry out their functions, changes that are remarkably parallel to the changes an athlete must go through to transition from running track, to playing golf, basketball or football.

How does this translate? He sees a solo leader or pastor as being like a track athlete, who works with others, but basically performs alone. As things grow they become more relational, like a game of golf, where buddies work together doing much the same thing. As we grow further, we resemble more a basketball team, where complementary roles and positions are vital to making things work. With significant growth, multiple staff, congregations, departments and so on, the organisation resembles more the complexity of an American Football team. The important thing is that we must change as we grow, and we must help people navigate these changes.

There is so much detail in Sticky Teams worth digesting. But it’s also worth highlighting its overall shape and structure. There are three parts. The first highlights the problems, the second seeks to get people on the same page, and the third aims to keep people aligned. We mustn’t stop with the first bit. Diagnosing a problem is not enough – we need to prescribe a way forward. This book works to help us stay united through clarity about where we’re going, equipping people to get there, and communicating what is expected.

Sticky Teams can be treated as a workbook or a manual. It’s worth picking up again and again, reading and re-reading, with a highlight pen or a pencil. I suggest it’s best read in community with others – there are discussion questions at the back of the book. Remember, it’s not the Bible. It’s not fool-proof. And it’s not the only way to think about or do things. But it’s aim is to get us thinking and doing, and not to leave us stuck in the vortex that simply repeats the same old failures year after year.