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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Community Churches

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

A religious center which welcomes Protestants of all denominations in a specific community is known as a community church. Mainly a United States development, the community church offers religious services designed to satisfy the felt religious needs of all without contradicting the beliefs of any. Individual community churches may belong to one or more denominations (such as Methodist, Baptist, or Presbyterian) or have no denominational affiliation, operating entirely on their own. For this reason it is said that the true community church can be recognized by the spirit in which it conducts its life and work, rather than by its relationship to any Protestant denomination.

Fellowship in Religious Liberalism. One of the cardinal principles of the community churches is that an individual speaks only for himself. In their view, to move beyond that point would be to encroach on the right of the individual to make his own religious judgments. However, this personalist element is balanced by the sense of fellowship. The community churches, as a result, cater mainly to people who wish to hold on to certain personal beliefs while at the same time sharing in the benefits of communal worship and cooperative religious effort. As one community church puts it: “Knowing not sect, class, nation, or race, we welcome each to the service of all.”

Freedom of belief and the absence of any mandatory creed are the individualist side of community churches; mutual respect and friendly cooperation are the social balance to individuality. Together they form what some have called “the grass roots level of the ecumenical movement,” where the desire for Christian reunion is put into immediate practice. The basic principle here is that “Christians may and ought to worship and serve the Lord together despite differences of theological opinion and Biblical interpretation.” See ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT.

International Council Formed. The National Council of Community Churches, with approximately 300 congregations, was organized in 1950 under the leadership of Roy Burkhart of the Community Church, Columbus, Ohio. The Biennial Council, composed of over 100 Negro congregations, merged with the National Council in August, 1950, forming a new body known as the International Council of Community Churches. Their aim was to broaden their respective fellowships to include community-centered churches of every race and nation throughout the world. Besides the several hundred congregations of voting membership, the council is connected with many other community, federated, and denominational churches. Together they seek to develop a community-centered philosophy of religion and further the cause of a united church on a national and world scale.

The council is not an authoritative body prescribing to the member churches any matter of policy, doctrine, or program. It is a free and democratic society in which each church seeks to share the best that has come to it with others in a religious democracy. It proposes to make available to all the spiritual possessions of each, over every barrier of race, creed, and color. This is expressed in the preamble of its constitution:

Confessing that we are members of ecumenically minded churches, finding that it is possible, here and now, to have united churches at the local level, and longing for a comprehensive united church that will answer Jesus’ prayer “that they all may be one,” we herewith provide an instrument through which community-minded and freedom-loving churches can cooperate in making a united contribution toward a united church.

Council’s Objectives. In terms of its purpose, therefore, the council approaches the task of the church in the community on the basis of the community’s needs. One of its numerous objectives is to help communities without any church to form one all-inclusive church that is free to provide all Christian forms of religious expression; another is to assist a community with more churches than it needs to federate and unite into one community-centered church.

The council will furnish upon request community-minded ministers to encourage young people in community churches and foster ecumenical and missionary projects in neglected or depressed areas in America and in foreign countries.

Membership in the Council of Community Churches requires only a declaration of sympathy with the principles set forth in the constitution. Affiliated congregations form a fellowship of and for the churches which participate. They do not constitute a denomination nor a new church, nor in any manner an ecclesiastical body with power to control members or churches. Auxiliary organizations may be joined to the council and share in its facilities. Their function is to bring the laity into coordinated work with the clergy and give scope to the strongly social ideals of the council.

Clerical Status. Without claiming to be a denomination, however, the council exercises a certain amount of authority by its official policy toward ministers. It recognizes the ordination of both men and women by all recognized Christian bodies. Termination of standing with their respective churches is neither required nor implied by affiliation with the council. Moreover, if a denomination revokes or withdraws either standing or ordination because of a minister’s employment with a community church, the council does not recognize the revocation. A previous ordination remains in force in the council’s view.

In light of the traditionally liberal theology of community churches, this grant of clerical status in spite of repudiation by an established religious body is the most significant feature of community church policy. It gives denominational clergy scope for exercising their ministry on a theological level that meets the desires of a local community.

Community churches are affiliated with the National Council of Churches and participate in its broad program of missionary and welfare programs. Financial support of agencies related to the National Council is the most familiar method of participation. While the normal channels for social activity are Protestant organizations, the beneficiaries cut across denominational lines and include many non-Christians in Asia and Africa.

There are many positive elements in the community church’s principles, especially its emphasis on community, which is the original Christian meaning of the Greek word ekklesia or “church.” However, by accepting all creeds, even conflicting ones, the community church places itself in the difficult position of seeming to foster religious indifference.


Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. 1, 1965, pp. 89-90

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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