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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Community Churches

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

Common name for independent local congregations with no formal denominational affiliation. Their growing number and influence are a typical phenomenon of American democracy in the field of religion. While the term community church goes back to the 19th century, Systematic grouping of such bodies is a recent development. The guiding principles of the Council of Community Churches (1950) faithfully reflect the spirit of its member churches and may be taken as representative of the individual congregations.

History and Program. The Council of Community Churches was organized at Lake Forest, Ill., on Aug. 17, 1950, by the merging of the National and Biennial Councils of Community Churches. Through the merger, the scope of membership was extended to likeminded religious bodies throughout the world. Its voting membership of several hundred congregations is only the nucleus of many times the number of churches that share its ideals and with which the council is in associated fellowship. At its national headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, the council maintains offices with the necessary equipment and secretarial assistance from which the national program of services is directed by a full-time minister-at-large along such lines as are determined by the churches through their council. Among other services, the council publishes a monthly periodical, the Christian Community, which shares the news, views, and methods of community-minded churchmen in all areas of the religious endeavor. A file of ministers and churches is kept so that assistance can be given to churches seeking community-minded ministers and to ministers looking for such churches. Recognized status for ministers in relation to various chaplaincies is also provided. Mission projects are screened by a committee as to trustworthiness and ecumenical spirit and recommended to the churches.

Since a main function of the council is to encourage a nondenominational form of Christianity, most of its services are directed to helping the busy pastor maintain this status in the community. To this end, suitable hymnals and ministers’ manuals, Sunday school lessons, and Biblical commentaries are recommended and made easily available. Generally, the publications and church-related material of the Unitarians and the United Church of Christ are specially favored by the Council of Community Churches because of their interdenominational view and their avoidance of preference for any single religious tradition. One test of suitability of published material is that it fit with the philosophy and theology of either a liberal or conservative church, and any deviation from this norm is noted by the council administration.

Objectives and Principles. As outlined in its constitution, the Council of Community Churches is a fellowship that seeks to realize Christian unity in local, national, and world relations. Believing that communities require united churches, the council is committed to Christian unity, and works toward a united church “as comprehensive as the spirit and teachings of Christ and as inclusive as the love of God.” It welcomes all congregations that seek to make the church an instrument for discovering and putting into practice the will of God in community life.

On invitation, the council helps communities without any church to form one all-inclusive church that is free to provide all Christian forms of religious expression. In the same way the council assists over churched communities to federate and combine into one community-centered congregation. Accordingly, community churches arise in different ways, and the council is ready to promote their establishment. When a disaffected minister in one of the traditional churches severs relations with the parent body, or a congregation is unsympathetic with the teaching of its pastor, or the residents of some locality find themselves too varied in religious outlook to organize a denominational parish, the council takes action and supports the community venture along strictly nonsectarian lines.

The cardinal principle of community-church policy is that an individual speaks only for himself. To move beyond that point is to make him liable to the charge of encroachment on religious liberty. Community churches are regularly described as “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” Churchmen in these congregations believe themselves commissioned to fulfill a particular task, that of reinterpreting the Gospels for Christians who no longer find denominational Protestantism satisfying to their needs. Liberty of thought and expression are encouraged, yet generally within a framework that is remarkably close to the Inner Light theories of George Fox and the Quakers (see FRIENDS, RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF). Unlike the Unitarians, community churches place considerable emphasis on faith in Christ and acceptance of His teaching; but, like the Unitarians, they favor a personal approach to Christianity with no semblance of authoritarian creeds or prescribed forms of worship.

New Catholic Encylopedia
Vol. 4, 1967, pp. 83-84

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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