Sunday, 19 November 2017  
 
 
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  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: Larry Osborne
   
 

Leaders: Build a Church You Would Want to Go To!

North Coast Church in Vista, California, began as a home Bible study in 1977 and moved to its present location in 1991.

Today, about 5,400 people worship at North Coast Church every weekend, attending one of 12 worship options. They all share the same teaching, either live or via video feed. However, the worship styles and ambiance vary from venue to venue. North Coast Live meets in the main auditorium. The Video Café is designed to be a more casual atmosphere where you can enjoy Starbucks coffee and pastries, live worship and then view the message via video. Traditions also offers coffee and pastries, but with live worship of a more traditional flavor and the message via video. The Edge offers Mountain Dew along with coffee and a live Edgy Band. North Coast @ Roosevelt is an off-site video venue located only minutes from the main campus at Roosevelt Middle School.

Providing direction and vision for this exciting and creative approach to ministry is Larry Osborne, who has been the pastor since 1980. A popular contributor to LEADERSHIP journal, he writes and speaks extensively on the subject of leadership and developing healthy ministry teams. He holds the D.Min degree from Talbot Theological Seminary, and is the author of The Unity Factor: Developing a Healthy Church Leadership Team. He now serves at North Coast with four other senior pastors who oversee a staff of approximately 140 full- and part-time pastors, ministry staff and employees. You can find more about NCC by visiting their Web site at www.NorthCoastChurch.org.

North Coast Church meets in an industrial business park, and after touring the many venues of this unorthodox church setting, we asked Larry, clad in shorts, sandals, Hawaiian shirt, and a big smile, what it was like to meet in a non-churchy setting.

HOMILETICS: This doesn’t look like a church, Larry. How can you do church in an industrial park?

OSBORNE: Actually it has been to our advantage that we don’t look like a church. We now have a 40-acre site we’re moving to, and we’re going to carry over many of the things we’ve learned here at the warehouse at the new site. For instance, it will have much more of a mall feel than a church feel. In a mall there is tremendous flexibility. On one day, for example, you’ve got a Chinese takeout restaurant there, but later on it’s a shoe repair shop, later on it’s a different store. The marketplace has the ability to say what is needed and what isn’t needed.

Too often, churches build a “youth building” whether the youth program is large or small, or a “choir room.” We’ve found it’s a great advantage to be here in a warehouse environment where we’re able to move people around, punch out walls, make rooms larger or smaller as the ministry changes over time.

HOMILETICS: Are there five churches here? Seven? One?

OSBORNE: With all of our venues, people here at North Coast would still see us as one church — just with different worship settings. For instance, when we went from one service to two on Sundays, people still saw that as one. When we had two Saturday night services and two Sunday services, they still saw it as one. And when we began to add these simultaneous worship venues, they still considered North Coast as one church. Part of the key is that they all shared the same teaching.

HOMILETICS: Let’s get this concept clear. You began with a single service, or perhaps multiple services in the same space. Out of that grew what you now call the Video Café. How did that happen, and what is the Video Café?

OSBORNE: It began with us having two Saturday night services. And I frankly hated life from one Saturday to the next, because it just cut into any family time with my children, and I began to have some health issues that concerned us, so we realized that we can’t go to five or six different services on all kinds of different nights.

We also knew that the overflow room is usually a punishment for those who arrive late or don’t know where the parking is, or whatever. So we wanted an overflow room that was a reward. I gave that idea to one of our staff members, and the more he thought about it, he thought we could make the reward element so strong, that it could become a siphon. On our services on Sunday, because of the size and traffic jam we had, we wanted people to come and get out so that others could come in. So we never had refreshments or coffee in between services.

So our first idea was to serve Starbuck’s coffee in this new venue we called the Video Café. The service was more of an unplugged experience. Frankly, what I expected the first time we did it was that it would be full of Gen X or Gen Y type people. I was shocked. It was a total cross section of our church. I’d see older people and ask, “Why are you here?” “Well, the music’s not so loud.” I’d see middle-aged people, and say, “Why are you here?” “I can see better.” I’d see young people, “Well, I love the coffee.” There was so much enthusiasm that, while we had planned to do it only during the largest service on Sunday, we soon realized we had to do it for both Sunday services and the Saturday service as well.

HOMILETICS: Then you added The Edge.

OSBORNE: Originally, the Video Café was a way to temporarily solve growth problems. We could siphon off people with the reward element. But after the Video Café filled up, we thought, “Let’s start another one to siphon off another 200 people or so”. So we started Traditions. And that worked so well, that it suddenly dawned on us that this was more than a temporary fix to buy space, but a powerful tool to reach people with a laserlike focus. The same message, but a worship environment that was more dialed in on the various mindsets. We have such a mosaic culture today.

HOMILETICS: And Traditions is?

OSBORNE: Traditions is really for church people. It is not our senior citizen ministry by any stretch of the imagination. More older people in our church go to the other venues than go to Traditions itself. Traditions will have young families, but the common denominator is that these people are people who grew up in church, and therefore they like some of the worship service to involve a style of worship that is more “churchy.”

HOMILETICS: And the iconic stuff like crosses and stained-glass windows or whatever. I didn’t see any stained-glass windows in there, but I did see a cross, and I don’t think I saw one anywhere else.

OSBORNE: Right. And then The Edge came with the idea that although we weren’t having any trouble reaching younger generations, we realized that we might in 10 years, or 5 years if we weren’t careful. So we said, “Why don’t we give the same message with an environment and worship set that is really their comfort set?”

HOMILETICS: If you were not the teaching pastor of this church, which service would you attend?

OSBORNE: I would attend The Edge first, and North Coast Live second.

HOMILETICS: And North Coast Live is what you used to call the sanctuary, and it was your first worship space. Why did you stop calling it the sanctuary?
OSBORNE: The more we developed these targeted venues, our people who were risk-takers would go out and try these different venues, and what you ended up with unintentionally was that the people left in the sanctuary were those who wanted a safe place. And that was not the history of the church at all. We were willing to try all kinds of things.

We asked, “Why don’t we allow coffee in here?” And people would say, “If people want coffee, let them go to Video Café.” Or, “Why is the music that loud?” And people would say, “If they want music louder and the big sub-woofer, they can go to The Edge.”

We never had those kinds of comments when the “sanctuary” was our only place of worship. People moved very comfortably with our changes. What dawned on me is that we had created a room, a so-called sanctuary (which is a word that says, “This is a place of solitude and quiet”), and in doing so, we had cut off our ability to make any changes there because people thought all the changes would be somewhere else.

Since that is where we preach live, and in order not to undercut our other venues, we called this space North Coast Live.

HOMILETICS: What are sermon-based small groups?

OSBORNE: For 18 years, we’ve seen the hub of our ministry being small groups. In fact, we judge the health of our church not by how many people are coming to church on weekends, but how many people are tied into these small groups.

The best analogy I use is a “lecture lab.” There’s a message on the weekend, and then during the week, people meet in homes to apply that message, to look at some parallel passages and to get to know each other. Inside every bulletin there is a note sheet for that weekend’s message, and it’s a folded letter-sized sheet and one side is a note sheet — you open it up like a book — and the next three sides have the growth group questions on them. The leaders get a training tape they pick up each week at church that has some insights and advice for their meeting.

HOMILETICS: How does a person get plugged into one of these groups?

OSBORNE: We’re constantly starting new groups because that’s the core of our ministry. We start them in the fall, and take a short break at Christmas, we start them again, take a short break, start again after Easter and go till summer. They’re short and people will stay, if they choose, in the same group for years. But there are always these easy points of entry and easy points of exit. Because if people can’t get out of groups easily, they will weasel out anyway. And weaseling out of a group is a very uncomfortable experience, and people will never try another one. And by making it easy to get out of — every 10 weeks if you want, you can opt out or try another group — we find people will try three or four groups in a search for the ideal sense of community for them. That’s what we’re trying to do. These groups are really the Velcro that velcroes people to our ministry.

HOMILETICS: You have it easier than most pastors because you have a board and staff that agrees with everything you say! [laughter]

OSBORNE: I wish!

HOMILETICS: How do you build a team that’s unified and that can catch a shared vision?

OSBORNE: The book, The Unity Factor that I wrote, came out of the first three years at North Coast, which I call the dark years. We were at 128 when I first came, and quickly grew to 150 and in three years were at 151! We grew at a rate of a third of a person a year!

During this time we actually had a mass exit. What I didn’t realize is that God was laying the foundation for what was to come. I came to this church with the idea that we were going to take over the community for Jesus, just really make a mark. I didn’t really see that the sheep that were here were sheep that were hurting and needed to be taken care of and that if I didn’t have a healthy leadership team, sooner or later the whole thing would collapse. So for me, the starting point is always to go back to the leadership team, and in most churches that’s actually a lay board of some sort. Make sure that we’re all on the same page, not clones, but on the same page.

I wrote that book out of the experience I had, and one of the most powerful lessons I learned is the realization that much of the conflict we have is structural: good people, but bad structures. At least in my church tradition, there were many things we did that created conflicts. So we got rid of those roadblocks to unity and began to have some shared experiences and talked about ministry and how it works.

I changed my training. Early on, I trained my lay leaders in the spiritual life, which I think is an important thing, but Ephesians says we’re to train people for the work of ministry, and their ministry was leadership. And I was doing nothing to train them about how to lead the church. I would never tell them any of the practical theological stuff until we were facing an issue, and then I would pull an answer out of my pocket about what we should do according to so and so, and that, of course, felt like lobbying and got resistance.

So I switched to a once-a-month format where we have a training/shepherding meeting where we just talk about ideas and ministry. No business, no votes. Most people do their best thinking on their way home. And when we come to our board meetings, we share experiences even if we don’t all have the same conclusions. Our communication became pretty powerful.

HOMILETICS: What does a pastor do when his vision exceeds his congregation’s grasp?

OSBORNE: There’s a humility issue. Sometimes, perhaps God is calling you to go somewhere else. But in my case, the humility thing is exactly where I found myself. God had to remind me that I wasn’t called to maximize my potential or to reach all my dreams. I was called to serve him and shepherd the flock he gave me.

Probably the most profound thing that over the years changed North Coast is that I tore up all my dream and vision sheets — I had them written out — and literally threw them in the trash. I decided I was going to take care of the people I had in a visitor-friendly environment and just see what happens. Prior to that, I was trying to drive the people I had to create a visitor-friendly environment; everything was really focused on the people we wanted to reach, instead of serving the people we already had. The way I looked at it, it was no wonder the Lord didn’t trust me with any more people. I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking care of the people he gave me.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a time where you need some divine subtraction. But I think many of us as pastors have bought into the idea that “being all that we can be” is God’s calling, and yet we’re called to be servants, and sometimes a servant’s job — you might be a great musician — is to mow the lawn or clean the toilets. If you’re a servant, that’s what you do.

HOMILETICS: Was there ever a time you wanted to quit? How did you avoid burnout?

OSBORNE: Those, for me, are two very different questions. Wanting to quit? Very definitely. During those first three years, I kept waiting to be fired. Many nights I’d wake up wondering why I hadn’t been fired.

HOMILETICS: But after the growth came, has burnout been an issue, and if not, how did you do an end run around it?

OSBORNE: Burnout has never been an issue except for one point in my life about six years ago, and that was caused by the two Saturday night services and two Sunday services. We were at about 3,500 then, and I was trying to use a leadership style that I was still using at 150. That whole system broke; as a larger church we were not just a larger version of what we were —

HOMILETICS: Sounds like the Moses Syndrome.

OSBORNE: It wasn’t that so much, because I’ve never been a hands-on-everything kind of person. I’ve been very relational with the key team, and as the team got larger and larger, I was just no longer able to incorporate all of them in the process like we used to.

But outside of that one short burnout time that was more structural than anything else, I think my key to avoiding burnout was when I tore up my dream sheet. I really don’t live to please my seminary professors, or the people I knew when I was growing up. I just want to be good, go home and sleep, go to my kid’s game. I have some very clear boundaries, and a very high trust of our staff.

HOMILETICS: What does a Larry Osborne sermon look like?

OSBORNE: In one sense, they’re all the same. There’s a pattern. In another sense, they’re always different. The pattern will be that there will also be an explanation of the passage, even if I’m doing a topical series, that will look at what that passage meant at the time the readers read it. And then there will always be a “So what?” I always spend about half the time on “How do we live this out?”
That came from a change of perspective about 18 years ago. I used to see my primary job as teaching the Bible. Then it dawned on me that when I was discipling someone, we never went through a Bible passage verse by verse, but we would talk about how to live the Christian life, and our authority was the Bible. So I made a shift then, and if you listen to my message or those of our staff, our primary focus is not to teach the Bible but to instruct people in Christian living with the Bible as our only authority. But that subtle shift has worked very well, at least with our culture, because it constantly forces me to live in the “so what” world, instead of just the world of theology and ideas.

HOMILETICS: So you don’t open the Bible at Ephesians 4 and start with verse 1?

OSBORNE: I do at times. Right now I am doing a series on 1 Peter called “Standing Through the Storms.” My golden thread is that these were a scattered people, and they’re getting encouragement and instruction all the way through on how to make it. So we’ll do that. I’ll skip a few verses. [laughter] You know what? This verse? I don’t want to explain, and it’s just academic.

HOMILETICS: It’s clear that at North Coast Church you’re the preacher here, but are you the pastor here?

OSBORNE: I don’t think you can be both the warm and fuzzy pastor anyone can call at anytime and the preacher/teacher in any larger church. The video venues didn’t change anything except that we’ve grown a couple thousand more and accommodate them since we did that. But I was already no longer the person who was marrying and burying.

But to put that into context, one of my highest values in ministry is empowerment. Back when we were at 180 people, the first staff member I brought in, I began to have him teach also. To help people understand that he wasn’t just the staff member who taught when I was out of town, I never announced my vacations. I would come back one day early, make announcements and sit in the front row while he taught. So everyone came to see him as the other teacher, rather than just a substitute for the big kahuna.

It’s a partnership model. Most churches are like a sole proprietorship with valued employees. We’re more like a partnership, and I am the managing partner if you will. As we empower people and give them those kinds of platforms, the congregation is no longer looking to me to do their wedding, or funeral. My home phone number is still in our directory, and until about three years ago it was on the back of the bulletin, and I would get less than two calls a week. It’s all about platform. When you platform other people in what the congregation sees are very significant tasks, then they see them as significant people, and they no longer feel like they have to get to the top person.

HOMILETICS: With video, a congregation could have a preacherless church.

OSBORNE: I don’t think all this would’ve worked 10-15 years ago. The cost was different for the equipment, and people’s experiences were different. Now you go to any rock concert, you go to any major show, convention, conference, and they will have screens everywhere. Now the cost factor is in line, and the experience factor is in line. Once there is a little familiarity with this, they really engage with it. And really, this is quite old. Wesley would write sermons that others would read. Go back in church history, bishops would write sermons that would be passed around. So we’re just using a different technology to take the stronger communicators and give them more opportunities to reach more people.

HOMILETICS: So some churches are experimenting with a structure in which there is a pastor—

OSBORNE: A pastor, worship leader, but the preacher is someone else. We have a group in Illinois that is asking us to work with them, where they would hire a worship person and pastor and create a church plant that way. When you think about it, in most church plants it is very hard for one person to wear the leader, the pastor and the teacher hat. It takes a rare individual who can wear all hats really well. Which is one reason most church plants can’t move on to the next level. We believe this has great potential. And the church can move away from this model, too. We just want to expand the kingdom.

HOMILETICS: What’s the downside? Or, what’s the strongest argument you’ve heard your critics use against your situation?

OSBORNE: I’ve been very surprised that both Christian and secular sources have come here with negative ideas, but once they see it, they really haven’t been too critical. The large paper in San Diego did an article on us, and they had the usual sort of obligatory negative comments, but it was very vanilla by someone who had never seen it. The writer, when he came, had this idea that “Well, this is just going to be a church franchise.” But once he experienced it, he saw the community going on. Frankly, this has been way more powerful than we thought it would be. I would love to take credit for the fact that we had any idea of what a powerful tool this is. Let me give you an example.

You come to North Coast Church, outside of parking, no venue is going to have more than 400-500 people in it. You walk in and you’re going to be able to find someone. It actually has that mid-size, large-size, but not mega-size feel to it.

It creates a million more ministry opportunities. Most churches our size would have an all-star band. Anybody wanting to do anything, “I’m sorry, you can usher, teach children, that’s it.” But we’re able to have 18 adult worship bands. All these people learning how to lead worship, instead of all-star pros leading people. With the 13 venues, each one has people who lead with helps and mercy type of gifts, behind-the-scenes help. So we have greatly multiplied the opportunity for significant ministry that I think decreases in the mega-church.

HOMILETICS: Did you take lessons in creativity, or something? Where does this stuff come from?

OSBORNE: [laughs] No, like most innovative people, I have an ability to mentally model an idea and see its consequences and unintended consequences. I think that’s a mark of people who have some success with innovation. But we’ve had our fair share of failures as well.

HOMILETICS: What stimulates your imagination?

OSBORNE: I do a lot of reading in the secular business world, non-religious, non-church stuff. I get outside of my life environment where my education is, where my passion is, I see things there that I would never see in my religious environment. So I actually grow more by spending time out in the business world than I probably do by a quiet internal retreat.

HOMILETICS: You said that one of the defining moments in your ministry was when you tossed your dream and vision statements in the trash. But don’t you have any dreams you are holding on to?

OSBORNE: This is going to sound strange. Most people don’t believe me except for those who know me really well, but no, I really don’t. I have told our board forever that our goal for this church is that we want empty parking spaces and empty seats and we’ll see when God stops filling them. The church is a living thing. And every thing grows to a size at which it takes all of its energy to sustain itself. It might be a mouse or an elephant. But there comes this point where you grow beyond that, and something’s wrong. I worry about a church that’s always driven by huge dreams and goals because usually those dreams and goals are beyond us. I can take steroids—there’s all sorts of things people can do to pump themselves up larger than they are. But they’re going to die for it and make themselves sick.

My dream is that my children will love Jesus. My wife will think I’m a great guy. And that I’ve been faithful here [at North Coast Church].

HOMILETICS: So how about those three? Your kids love Jesus, and you’ve been faithful here. Does your wife think you’re a great guy? [laughter all around]

OSBORNE: One of the great things is that my family would hate the idea of me leaving ministry. They just love this church. We don’t feel like we’ve been stuck in a glass house. To go back to a question you asked earlier, part of avoiding burnout is that once I got rid of those dreams, I understood that God made me and our leadership team for a purpose, and perhaps the best way to do ministry is to create a church that we would want to go to. That’s almost my organizing principle. I don’t take surveys of the non-churched world. I just have this vision of this church I would love to go, and that’s what we’ve done. And when you do this, there is tremendous authenticity.

HOMILETICS: What’s the task of the church in world?

OSBORNE: I go back to the Great Commission. We’re to help people who don’t know Jesus to know him, to train and equip them for the Christian life which is different from the natural life and then help them find their niche, their calling.

HOMILETICS: So North Coast Church is equipping Christians to change, and evangelize the world?

OSBORNE: If that’s their call. I think some people are called to work behind the scenes, and just be a good, godly school teacher, or raise godly children whose children, perhaps, three generations down, will be people God really uses in a dramatic way. I don’t have this idea that every Christian is supposed to make a big mark, every Christian is supposed to make it to the finish line, holding on to Jesus.

I think that leaders sometimes project their calling on their people. When Paul came to Corinth, there were a few people who became a part of his entourage, but many of them were just like the cobbler in Corinth. God’s work in his life would be that from the point he came to Christ to the point he died, he hung there in his marriage, he quit visiting the temple prostitute, he no longer got drunk at the church potlucks. He finished the race.

The American church doesn’t do a very good job with just regular people. We need to know how to follow Christ. We try to turn them all into secret agents, high-powered evangelists.

HOMILETICS: You’re talking to the pastor of a small church. A hundred members. Biggest do. Biggest don’t.

OSBORNE: The biggest do is to love the people you have. Take care of them. Biggest don’t. Don’t look past the people you have to reach the people you don’t have.

To order Larry's book, The Unity Factor, go to: http://www.northcoastchurch.com/owlsnest/unity.htm.


 

 

Larry Osborne

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