By David Faust
In a 1910 lecture at Yale, Charles E. Jefferson described the difference between a church and an audience,
It is to be regretted that we have come to . . . judge preachers by the number of persons who listen to their sermons. A superficial man is consequently tempted to work, not for a church, but for an audience.
An audience, however, is not worth working for. An audience is a group of unrelated people drawn together by a short-lived attraction. . . . It is a fortuitous concourse of human atoms, scattering as soon as a certain performance has ended. It is a pile of leaves to be blown away by the wind, a handful of sand lacking consistency and cohesion, a number of human filings drawn into position by a pulpit magnet, which will drop away as soon as the magnet is removed.
An audience is a crowd, a church is a family. An audience is a gathering, a church is a fellowship. An audience is a collection, a church is an organism. An audience is a heap of stones, a church is a temple. Preachers are ordained, not to attract an audience, but to build a church. Coarse and ambitious and worldly men, if richly gifted, can draw audiences. Only a disciple of the Lord can build a church.1
If strong personalities don’t hold God’s people together, what does? To ask the question more narrowly, what holds the Christian churches and churches of Christ together?
Not a denominational headquarters—our central office is in Heaven. Not a written doctrinal statement—we have no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible. Not a pope or an archbishop—the Lord himself is the head of our church.
Is the glue to be found in our gatherings? The North American Christian Convention serves as a connecting place for many. So do the National Missionary Convention, family camps, and a variety of state and regional conferences. But in recent years some of our gatherings appear to be coming unglued.
What about our publishing houses? Standard Publishing, College Press, and other publishers continue to print helpful Sunday school materials, magazines, and Bible study guides for children, youth, and adults, but editors don’t wield the same level of influence they once did among the churches connected with our movement.
Are our schools the glue? During the last century Christian colleges have provided biblically grounded leadership and their campuses have served as regional connection points. They have recruited, equipped, and graduated thousands of leaders to serve the church and shape the world. Professors have influenced many through their teaching and writing, and by the force of their personal example. Many would observe, however, that in recent years the influence of our colleges has waned, replaced by megachurches and their leaders.
But despite the undeniable impact of our megachurches, are they really the glue? Actually one could argue the opposite—that the independence and self-sufficiency of our larger churches have contributed to the loss of collaboration in our larger fellowship. Why should a megachurch promote a state convention, the argument goes, when more people will attend one of its own Sunday morning services than will attend the entire convention? Why go to a Christian service camp 60 miles away when the congregation sponsors its own retreats and special events?
Is there no longer any glue that holds us all together? Have our divided loyalties stolen any hope for unity and cooperation? Will our fierce independence prevent us from experiencing the kind of healthy interdependence we read about in the Bible? In years to come, will the Christian churches and churches of Christ continue to move further apart instead of closer together?
Maybe we have been looking for glue in the wrong places. I love our colleges and conventions, our camps and conferences, and I hold our publishing houses in high esteem. I admire the founders of these ministries, and I’m thankful for the faithful believers who have led and supported them, often at considerable personal sacrifice. I don’t want any of them to go away.
Years ago I worked for Christ In Youth. Today I serve as president of a Christian university and write a weekly column as executive editor of The Lookout, published by Standard Publishing. My life has been powerfully impacted by these and other parachurch groups. I want these ministries and others like them to thrive and grow—as long as they clearly fulfill God’s will.
None of these worthwhile endeavors, though, can hold all of God’s people together. As important as our favorite parachurch organizations seem to us, they aren’t essential to the body of Christ. The church is God’s forever family, not our colleges and conventions.
Can we find within ourselves the humility to admit that, good as they are, these institutions we hold dear are human expediencies, not biblical necessities? Even more, are we willing to boldly declare that if God so willed, and all of our favorite manmade organizations suddenly disappeared, we would still possess everything that matters most as long as we have the Lord? Can we see through the fog of the familiar and recognize that God’s kingdom and his reign, his gospel and his grace, will remain intact and unmoved no matter what happens to our favorite ministries?
Despite all the good they have done and no matter how much we value them, manmade institutions can never hold us all together. We need to look to a higher place to find the glue.
What really pulls us together? It’s simple, really. So simple that we tend to miss it altogether.
The Savior sticks us together. We are one in Christ—stuck to him like branches on a vine, like skin on a body, like flames on a candlewick. Unity finds its focus in him.
The Spirit sticks us together. We aren’t united because we share the same political views or personality types, the same opinions and preferences, the same nationality or language or skin color. We’re one because “we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Holy Spirit’s “bond of peace” is strong glue indeed (Ephesians 4:3).
Scripture sticks us together. Not that we all understand every verse exactly the same way. But Scripture gives us a common starting point, a common language, a common compass. The Bible pulls us together when we read it personally, preach it powerfully, teach it faithfully, interpret it carefully, and apply it practically. Sound doctrine is manna for the hungry heart. It makes the church healthy and strong.
Service sticks us together. Mission trips and new church plants prove it. Benevolence projects demonstrate it. It’s hard to fight when you’re working side by side to serve someone in need. It’s hard to put your brother down when you’re already down there with him, praying together on your knees. Unity becomes visible, even tangible, when we “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).
Do you want your favorite college, convention, camp, or other cause to thrive and grow? Then make sure it’s subservient to the mission of the church! Make sure it’s helping people connect with the Savior, the Spirit, and the Scriptures, and engaging them in meaningful service. A parachurch ministry that does those things will thrive. If it doesn’t do those things, we’re probably better off without it anyway.
What is the glue? Savior, Spirit, Scripture, Service—not a flashy formula, but somehow it kept us glued together in the past.
I suggest we stick with it.
1Charles E. Jefferson, The Building of the Church (New York: Macmillan, 1910), 66, 67.
David Faust serves as the seventh president of Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University. He has served in church leadership for more than 30 years, including senior ministries with South Nassau Christian Church in Baldwin, New York, University Christian Church in Cincinnati, and the 4,000-member East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In addition to his other responsibilities, Dave is a writer. Since 1996 he has served as executive editor of The Lookout. He has also written or coauthored 12 books.
Dave has been married since 1975 to Candy, a registered nurse. They have three grown children, a son-in-law, and two granddaughters.
Most of all Dave is just a Christian who aspires to honor the Lord by loving his wife and family and carrying out his leadership role with integrity and faithfulness. He continues to preach regularly because he believes in the power of God’s Word to change lives. He enjoys hiking in the mountains, rooting for the Reds and Bengals, reading biographies of great leaders, and playing with his grandchildren.