Larry Osborne’s Sticky Church

“Do I need someone here to scold me or do I need someone who’ll grab and pull me out of this four poster dull torpor pulling downward. For it is such a long time since my better days. I say my prayers nightly this will pass away. The color of the sky is grey as I can see through the blinds. Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again with a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.” – 10,000 Maniacs, Like the Weather

I’ve noted in the past that my day job is technical in nature, offering quite a few opportunities to share and exchange system designs and solutions to various engineering difficulties. Occasionally the discussions include good ideas that are clean and novel – to the point of eluding the progenitor. This may have a flavor of “this guy is on to something, but he doesn’t know what he’s got yet,” or perhaps even “this guy is has a great solution here – but he’s putting it forward to solve the wrong problem.” All told these are good results. The idea is sound and solid and will have positive and definite impact on the future of the systems in question – even if the very designers of the ideas don’t realize why or how just yet.

I recently read Sticky Church by Larry Osborne, the pastor of a mega church in San Diego, CA. It’s a good book, and Osborne is presenting some clean, simple, and very positive ideas about the nature of “church” in America. I LIKE the book, and I like what Osborne has to say. But I also have a hint of that old feeling. This guy really is exposing an excellent idea (though not necessarily a new one – and that’s fine), but he’s putting it forward as a solution to the wrong problem. Or, he’s talking about the goodness of the idea using the wrong metrics (but only slightly wrong).

The basic premise of the book is that churches spend far too much time trying to bring in new people in order to grow, and spend far too little time trying to keep the people they have, which is also a necessary part of growth. Further, he does not take a “keep people at any cost” approach. Rather, he lays out a ministry plan (namely “small groups”) designed to help people foster deep and intimate relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, which leads to a healthier (and thus stickier) church. It’s a good point – a very good point.

Where I think Osborne doesn’t quite pick the point apart to its fullest is in his allowance of the causal inversion. Logical implication is a simple, and yet apparently nuanced concept. We say things like “A implies B” or “A => B” to show that if A is true then B must also be true. But this is a one way implication. One cannot say that if B is true then A is true. All one can say is that if B is not true, then A is also not true. Where am I going?

I think it is fair to say (or at least infer from the new testament and historical Christianity) that a healthy church will grow. This is a one-way implication. One cannot invert the implication to say “a growing church is healthy” – quite the contrary, cults grow all the time. Church growth is a good thing, but it is NOT the metric of choice, precisely because it is a deceptive metric. If one wishes to measure the health of the enterprise by the volume, then one risks being deceived that everything is fine even if it is not.

Osborne says in one chapter that “a stickier church is a healthier church.” Maybe, but I think the implication is much stronger in the opposite direction – a healthy church is a sticky church. A healthy church, that is meeting the needs of its individuals, that is allowing them to grow and flourish in Christ and develop deep and meaningful relationships with one another will indeed be a sticky place. People will stick around, they will want to be a part.

He even goes on to almost make this same point in a later chapter, where he discusses that small group models based on continual splitting and growing (perpetual evangelism) are not good because they put the church ahead of the needs of the people. (Imagine that, putting the church ahead of the Church.) He’s all over it, right on top of the target, and yet doesn’t deliver the coup de grace.

The church that is focused on doing the right things will do quite well. Not the “right things” to promote numerical growth, but the right things consistent with the Biblical model of the church. Preaching the gospel (unflinchingly), encouraging one another, reaching out to the needy, the poor, the helpless, the orphans and widows; living selflessly and preferring one another, living this life firmly in the hope of reaching the end to hear “well done, good an faithful servant” … a church that does these things will never need to worry about numerical growth – it would hardly be able to contain.

So, just to reiterate on the off chance that Larry Osborne does a google search and catches this post – I liked the book. It puts the health of the people ahead of the goals of the ministry (even though it frames the discussion in the goals of the ministry). Rock on.

My church is starting small groups this week based much on the same model as that given by Osborne (that’s why I read the book), and I hope they have exactly the impact they appear to have had in Osborne’s church. Not so we can grow in numbers, but rather so the church can do what it is meant to do.

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