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Sticky Church - Critical Review

Sticky Church By Larry Osborne.  Reviewed by Charles McCallum.




            One challenge to church membership and attendance in the twenty-first century is keeping people once they have attended a church.  There have been many books and theories written on how to close the back door and help retain the members of a church.  Larry Osborne offered his experience and formula for closing the back door in his book, Sticky Church.  Osborne is the lead pastor at North Coast Church in northern San Diego County.  He obtained a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Talbot Theological Seminary.

            Osborne’s philosophy on retaining membership is driven by a strong small group ministry.  He believes that in order to be effective at keeping people, “our churches need to be stickier” (2008, p. 13).  This stickiness will lead to healthier churches by having members that will “not only draw in spiritual window-shoppers and lead them to Christ; they also grow them up to maturity” (2008, p. 13).  This method originated for Osborne through examining the Great Commission passage, which calls Christians to make disciples.  Osborne reminds his readers that this task includes “baptizing people and teaching them to obey everything he commanded” (2008, p. 13).

            Having examined the Great Commission, Osborne felt led to put more focus on keeping the people already put in front of him, than trying to put a lot of effort in to being attractional.  He acknowledges that a back door will never close itself if left alone.   Osborne also mentions “no matter what the 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.’” (2008, p. 18).  The model of small groups selected by Osborne and highlighted in Sticky Church is the sermon-based small group model, which is “a lecture-lab model for studying the weekend sermon in-depth during the week” (2008, p. 15).  His goal in writing this book is to “provide you with a working model that you can adopt and change until it’s ready to be put into play in your unique ministry setting” (2008, p. 15).

            Osborne writes the book in a conversational style with hopes that the more laid back writing approach will make the reader feel like the author is just hanging out discussing the ins and outs of ministry.  Sticky Church is separated into three parts: the Sticky Church advantage; how small groups change everything; and sermon-based small groups.    The first section on the Sticky Church advantage helps Osborne to tell his story to his reader and allow the reader an opportunity to hear different learning experiences that have arisen throughout Osborne’s ministry.  This helps Osborne walk the reader through how he began to determine the significance of small groups and a sticky approach to doing ministry.  The second section discusses further how small group ministry transformed North Coast Church.  Osborne identified small groups as the vehicle for doing ministry and then simplified the purpose for small group ministry and saw spectacular results.  In the final section, he explains how focusing on the sermon can help a small group ministry thrive.


Summary of Contents


            In part one of Sticky Church, Osborne discusses the sticky church advantage.  Osborne identifies that the church needs to be stickier because the purpose of the church is not just to “draw in spiritual window-shoppers and lead them to Christ,” but to also “grow them up to maturity” (Osborne, 2008, p. 13).  A burden identified by Osborne was that “no matter what the 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’” (Osborne, 2008, p. 18).  Part one addresses the problem of people leaving the church rather than staying to be discipled and identifies that his church’s emphasis on making small groups the hub of the church as a main reason North Coast Church has been successful at retaining members and allowing them to grow into maturing Christians.  Utilizing small groups as the hub of ministry allows for natural evangelism, natural follow-ups, and natural assimilation largely due in part to the fact that anyone that is arriving new to the church will have been engaged prior to their first time attending a worship service.  The small group model introduced in Sticky Church creates more of a word-of-mouth front door rather than a smoke and lights attractional front door.

            In part two of Sticky Church, Osborne discusses how small groups change everything.  The ultimate goal of sermon-based small groups is “simply to velcro people to the two things they will need most when faced with a need-to-know or need-to-grown situation: the Bible and other Christians” (Osborne, 2008, p. 43).  Osborne assures the reader that through sermon-based small groups, the Bible stays close at hand and participants will feel close enough with other Christians to “benefit from their knowledge and support” (Osborne, 2008, p. 44).  Another benefit to the sermon-based model is that sermon-based small groups “made it much easier for our teaching team to keep the entire church focused and headed in the same direction” (Osborne, 2008, p. 62).

            In part three of Sticky Church, Osborne discusses sermon-based small groups.  In this section of the book, Osborne discusses group sizes, the right type of people, and what happens when small groups meet.  Through Osborne’s years of assessing small groups, he discovered that “the sermon-based small groups that have the greatest life-on-life impact and stay together the longest are always those in which the friendships are deepest.  That’s why we tell people to choose a group primarily according to who else is in it rather than where or when it meets” (Osborne, 2008, p. 78).  Typically a sermon-based small group consists of refreshments, sharing, study and discussion.  Osborne tries to vary the discussion questions by using three types of questions: getting to know me questions; into the Bible questions; and application questions.  The sermon-based model places an emphasis on prayer, encouraging the groups to use 15-30 minutes near the end of the gathering. Osborne also encourages the groups to have freedom to digress, options to worship with the group, and engage in service and social projects.  Every group is to take on at least one service project a year, and at least one social gathering per quarter.  These decisions are made during the first group meeting each quarter.

            This section of the book also addresses the time crunch, battling with other ministries of the church, and when are the best times to start and stop small group activities.  Osborne again stresses the importance of identifying your church and your small group’s primary purpose and getting everyone on track with walking in one direction with an aligned mission.

            The last portion of section three discusses identifying leaders for new small groups and encourages leaders to be developed from other groups, maintaining close relationships and long-term groups rather than splitting groups and forcing them to create new identities with new people.  This final section on identifying, training, and sending off new leaders proves quite valuable and makes the book worth the read just for this section alone.

            Finally, a huge value to Sticky Church is found in the resources provided in the appendix.  In the appendix, Osborne provides resources relaying how to write great questions for sermon-based small groups, a sample sermon note sheet and study questions, a sample growth group covenant, an end of the quarter evaluation form, a section on leader training topics, a section on leader responsibilities, and a addressing the New Testament usage of the phrase “one anothers.”  Also, the book also provides a study guide, which allows the book to be utilized in a group setting with follow-up questions for each chapter.  Osborne leads by example by providing all the essential resources for a person to read through Sticky Church and then go execute his model effectively.


Critique and Evaluation


            At the core of Sticky Church, Osborne believes that churches need to be stickier.  He has defined stickier as paying more attention to the relational elements of church and focusing more on the back door of ministry rather than marketing the front door.  Osborne developed his message quite well by beginning with an introduction of addressing the problem, introducing himself and his church, and then explaining how his church has been able to effectively address the problem with high turnover.

            The second portion of the book discusses the importance of relationship and small group connections to helping to develop a healthy church.  He also learned and discussed the advantages to focusing the small group on a sermon will help make the sermon stronger and more of a focal point in the development of the congregation.

            The remaining section of the book addresses the sermon-based small group model and the advantages and disadvantages to using this model.  Osborne did a great job of relaying his model and giving the reader insight into his particular style of ministry.  One critique would be that Osborne only addressed one other model of small group ministry that he deemed could not work in America.  Though he was clear in addressing his purpose was to merely inform the reader of his particular method, it would have been interesting and potentially beneficial to see how his method compared or meshed with other small group models.  Sticky Church does remain faithful to giving an insight into one particular church and their very successful model of engaging their congregation with small groups.  This information is considered quite valuable to any reader that might be in a position to make decisions about small group ministry.  Osborne clearly articulated a particular small group model that the reader can consider and manipulate if necessary.  Having seen the book reference the success rate of sermon-based small groups at North Coast Church, one must at least consider the effectiveness of this particular program for any church with lower than an 80% success rate in small group ministry.




As mentioned previously, Osborne writes in a very conversational style.  His approach is refreshing compared to a typical academic writing, though some may find his personality a bit obnoxious.  The book focuses on detailing how North Coast Church found success by giving their model and showing areas of concern and weakness that were modified, and Osborne writes in a style that exemplifies a confidence and a comfort in his personality as someone that has found long-term success.

            This book is certainly not a survey of small group models, but does not try to be.  Osborne has found a model that works well for his particular congregation and is faithful in letting the reader access the inside knowledge of how North Coast Church has been able to find success over the years.  For pastors researching and studying the benefits of small groups to the spiritual growth and development of their congregation, this book provides a coffee shop meeting with a veteran of the field. 


            Any pastor looking to learn from those that have walked before him should read this book and learn from a man who has found a way to successfully lead his congregation in small group ministry.  In the final chapter, Osborne advises the reader when developing the right small group model for the church to “carefully align both vision and methods” (Osborne, 2008, p. 149).  This final chapter provides great insight into the mindset of carefully preparing an effective small group ministry and the importance of understanding the philosophical implications.  A potential reader of this book should comfortable know that time reading Sticky Church will be well spent.  For someone looking to implement a sermon-based small group model or just learn more about church small groups, this is a must read.

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