Larry Osborne: Discipleship Through Community

“We believe that all the ‘one anothers’ of Scripture and the things we’re supposed to obey are going to show up in community.”

Interview by Lindy Lowry

Five years into his leadership of North Coast Church, Larry Osborne, one of the church’s senior pastors, realized the programmed discipleship classes the Vista, Calif., church was teaching weren’t making disciples. In 1985, he implemented the church’s small group system, now one of the largest small group ministries in the nation, with a 91 percent participation rate in the 8,000-attendee church. The sermon-based Growth Groups meet weekly.. In this interview, Osborne shares about North Coast Church’s shift from a discipleship approach based on imparting information to an approach centered on cultivating relationships.

Larry, I read a post from you on Twitter about discipleship, in which you wrote: “Discipleship is a rather simple concept: Obedience. Why do we make it so esoteric and complex?” How have we made discipleship complex in the church?

The Greek word for disciple, mathetes, means follower. Using that definition, Scripture indicates that “disciple” includes people at the front of the line, in the middle, and at the back of the line. And that there are good followers and not so good followers. But we have tended to confuse leadership with discipleship. I hear people over and over say, “I define a disciple as …,” and I have this sense that we probably ought to let Jesus define a disciple. He used the word mathetes. And in His definition, He included some people who weren’t exactly stellar in all the things we think a disciple should do and be.

Obedience isn’t perfection; it’s obeying the light we have—[to paraphrase Proverbs 4:18] “The light gets brighter the more we follow the light we have.” But the ones we in the church tend to love are the lost, the baby Christian and the on-fire, charge-the-hill Christian. Anybody struggling—the smoldering wick or bruised reed—we want to snuff it out or break it off.

So that has been a bur in my saddle as I’m watching the pendulum swing from an easy believism to raising the bar and thinning the herd. Essentially, we’re going back to the 1930s and ’40s when my mom became a Christian. She grew up afraid of full commitment because she was always told, “If you do that, you’ll end up in Africa because the Christians take the hard path.” 

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What impact does or will this have on church leaders and their churches?

It ends up in a lot of gift projection—trying to make people into us instead of what God’s called them to be. It leads to an absolute lack of patience and bearing with one another. Basically, we become what I call an accidental Pharisee. That’s pretty much what the Pharisees did—you were either this or you weren’t. It was a very clear, black and white line. We tend to take Jesus’ commands to an individual in the Bible and make them into a command everybody must follow.

North Coast Church’s mission statement is, “Making Disciples in a Healthy Environment.” How have you simplified this concept for people and made the Great Commission accessible for every believer?

We’ve always avoided classes and a set of hoops to jump through or even disciplines to practice. For 27 years, we’ve tried to get people into weekly community groups because we believe that all the “one anothers” of Scripture and the things we’re supposed to obey are going to show up in community, whereas in a class, all you’re doing is taking notes. There’s not a lab to live this stuff out.

We believe everyone should be in a weekly community gathering of some sort. In our internal meetings, everything is about creating community. We’re very clear on what our core is—worship, teaching, community and mission. Everything else is just an ancillary offering.