by Charles Revis, Executive Minister

Choosing the right glue to hold disparate pieces together can be challenging. Try gluing plastic to metal. It’s an impossible task. A few years ago my fly rod was coming apart. A friend, who knew exactly what he was doing, mixed up epoxy, reattached the reel seat and voila, my old broken rod became new again. That repair job is still holding today! If he had used the wrong glue, say “white glue”, I know my rod would be useless and in pieces.

If you wander around Home Depot in search of glue you will come across a myriad of choices. There is wood glue, plastic glue, rubber glue, paper glue and various epoxies. Finding the right glue to hold something together is critical.

It’s true for churches, too.

I remember the shock of hearing a colleague explain the reason why an ABC church in Seattle closed their doors in the late 1960s. Essentially it was this: Their social glue was weak and the congregation eventually fell apart because of it.

Every church is held together by a social contract. It’s the “glue” that makes them “sticky” to the people that comprise their ranks. It’s seldom articulated, usually hidden, but a church’s social glue holds the congregation together all the same.

In the case of the defunct Seattle church the social contract, loosely stated, went something like this: “We exist to provide a warm, social environment for moral people in this post-World War 2 environment.” A sub-point of the contract was to give their kids exposure to religious and moral training in a quasi-Christian context.

The fragility of this dubious social contract became all the more apparent as their kids grew up and moved away. Other social options developed, such as Rotary, the knitting club, the local country club, etc, etc. These alternative social venues chipped away at the motivation for convening. Before long, the social glue was so diluted that the congregation could no longer muster a critical mass and they closed the church. The glue that initially held them together was simply too weak for long-term endurance.

When I study churches I’m in the practice of looking between the cracks. I want to know what glue holds the group together. Glue in this context is the unspoken “social contract”. It’s usually not obvious, but you can count on it being there.

The glue can be as basic as “we like one another.” That is, birds of a feather flock together.  

Or, “We all pitched in and worked hard to provide this nice building we presently occupy.” That is, “This meeting place holds us together, so don’t mess with it.”

Still others: “There was that time we needed a new organ and we raised the money to purchase one.” “We’ve been through thick and thin, we intend to hold together no matter what comes against us.” “We are here because of the amazing sermons the pastor preaches.”

Here’s one from history: “There was no Baptist witness in town and so the church was started to provide a place for Baptists to worship as they moved in to the area.”

In healthier contexts a church may be held together by a strong sense of mission. For instance one church I know states overtly that it exists to provide a safe environment for spiritual seekers to explore the Christian faith without pressure. From poking around under the hood I think it’s legit. Their glue is a deep concern for reaching people far from God.

Some of these examples are obviously shallow. One would question their biblical rationale. Others are more compelling. They are rooted deep in the heart of our missional God.

More often than not the social contract is a matrix of unspoken expectations, some biblical and some not, that the group has come to embrace. As long as these assumed expectations are met the congregation holds together. If someone questions the expectations, that is, challenges the social contract, then watch out!

I have a theory that human nature being such as it is, even in congregations, will drift towards a self-centered social contract unless challenged otherwise. A case in point is the seven churches in Revelation 2-3. For example, Jesus says to Sardis: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.”

The force of a self-centered social contract can be powerful, even if it’s misguided. However, over time church glue that is based on human self-interest will eventually decay resulting in decline and death.

Of course this drift towards a human-centered social contract is preventable. Proactive leadership can call for renewed vision and spiritual vitality to head it off. In other words, the church’s social contract must be constantly monitored in light of Christ’s mandates and adjusted accordingly. Otherwise, Jesus’ mandates will be replaced by our mandates. When that is allowed to happen the church is headed in a disastrous direction.

Wise church leaders surface the real social contract that holds a congregation together, even if the reality is disturbing. They raise questions that help the congregation evaluate their reasons for existence. They lead their congregations to revisit the marching orders of Christ and embrace them anew. Wise leaders will help their congregations adjust the social contract to be more biblical and Christ-honoring even if it means losing people who can’t make the adjustment. This is not one-off work. It’s a matter of continuous, patient diligence.

A mission-centered social contract arising from Christ the Head is ultimately more compelling and empowering than a self-serving social contract. It is stronger glue, a spiritually healthier glue. It’s the glue that Paul constantly advocates. Consider his words in Eph 4:15b, 16 “We will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

The best glue is a Christ-centered mission lived out in an “all hands on deck” inclusive community of faith. Nothing is more exciting and compelling than linking arms together with other believers for the purpose of changing the world for Christ.

I encourage your church and its leaders to have an honest conversation about your church’s glue. Through such discernment your church just might avert the disaster that happened to the church in Seattle, the result of weak glue. Better yet, you may end up adjusting your church’s social contract to better align with Christ’s purpose and in so doing you trade weak glue for strong glue. This will please the Head of the Church who blesses and enlivens churches that obey Him. And, that’s always a good thing.