Sermon-based small groups keep people from exiting the back door

By Ronald E. Keener

It’s hard to argue with success. With 20 weekly services on five campuses, North Coast Church in Vista, CA is known for its innovation and its small “back door,” home to 7,000 in weekend attendance after using sermon-based small groups for 25 years. Senior Pastor Larry Osborne describes the approach in a new book, Sticky Church (Zondervan, 2008), a book in the Leadership Network Innovation Series. Osborne says the church has maintained a ratio of 80 percent of their adult weekend attendance in small groups.

What does it mean for a church to be “sticky”?

Sticky churches are highly relational. They don’t stop at assimilation (which primarily focuses on connecting people to the programs of the church). They relationally connect people to one another on a deep level. That slams the back door shut and gives them the long-term retention necessary to grow people to full maturity.

Your focus on sticky churches focuses on sermon-based small groups. Is that the only way to be sticky?

Sermon-based small groups are just one approach. There are lots of ways to make a church “sticky.” That’s why the second half of the book concentrates on the tool we use: sermon-based small groups. The first step to stickiness is always the same: Start measuring retention levels instead of just raw attendance numbers. We don’t count how many sign up for our groups — we count how many actually come. I find lots of churches count signups, not actual attendance.

What’s entailed in a sermon-based small group model?

Sermon-based small groups are basically a lecture/lab approach to the weekend message. People gather during the week to discuss its implications using a pre-assigned set of questions. In some ways it’s youth ministry 101 for adults. It’s simple and organic. It only needs a facilitator rather than a leader skilled in inductive Bible study.

What’s wrong with most church small groups programming?

Most small groups try to do too many things. They start out as a tool to help people build significant Christian relationships, but quickly morph into a catch all. Group members feel pressured to reach the lost, grow the church, serve the community, shepherd the flock and disciple one another. They end up doing none of it very well.

How can small groups become more than social gatherings?

We allow great latitude in our meetings, but we expect every meeting to include personal sharing, prayer and our sermon-based Bible study questions. Frankly, in 25 years of using this model, I can’t think of one group that has fallen into the “social gathering” trap.

Is there something important about basing a small group meeting on the previous weekend’s message that strengthens congregational life and personal discipleship?

It keeps the entire congregation on the same page. It builds a great sense of community and mission. While different groups move through the material at different depths, they all still move in the same direction. It’s much easier to promote personal discipleship when everyone is doing the same thing. It puts positive peer pressure to work. Good intentions about Bible study, prayer and fellowship become reality when they get on the calendar.

What is the evidence from North Coast Church that shows that “stickiness” works?

We’ve grown from 180 to over 7,000 in weekend attendance since we started using sermon-based small groups. We’ve done so without any marketing or special events designed for outreach. The only way to do that is to have an army of word-of-mouth advocates and a tightly shut back door.

How do you staff and manage for small groups?

We have two fulltime Growth Group pastors and other pastors who oversee a segment of small groups and another ministry role. We use the Shelby church management system and an online module for leaders to record weekly attendance and alert us to issues needing attention.

You don’t favor the “dividing to multiply” concept.  What do you do when a group gets too large and everyone likes being in “Harry and Mary’s” group?

We don’t pressure our groups to divide. We prefer to start new groups for new people. On those rare occasions where a group grows “too large” we don’t worry about it. If it becomes unhealthy, people stop coming. In a sense, each group has a natural health and size ceiling that takes care of itself. I don’t think we’ve ever had to tell a group that it was too big and had to break up.

Learn more about the Sticky Church principles at the Oct. 6-7, 2008 Sticky Church Conference in San Diego, CA. For information visit


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