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National Council of Churches
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
A federation of Protestant, Orthodox, and National Catholic churches in the United States, the National Council of Churches was organized in 1950. The Federal Council of Churches and a number of specialized agencies had resulted from almost a century of effort toward the unification of the Christian churches in America. All these were combined into one federation, which is known as the National Council of Churches. See Ecumenical Movement.
Historical Origins. Early in the nineteenth century Protestant Sunday schools began to organize and unite, and by 1824 the American Sunday School Union was organized. Nationwide cooperative projects and uniform Sunday school lessons came into being by 1872. In 1905 the International Sunday School Association was established to coordinate religious instruction among the youth. See Protestant Education
Formal church cooperation among Protestants on the state and local level had begun in the1890s. Foreign mission work emphasized the need for some common ground of policy, and in 1893 the Foreign Missions Conference of North America was founded. It gave great impetus to the series of ecumenical conferences held in Europe and elsewhere since 1910. A parallel body, the Missionary Education Movement, was formed in 1902 for the purpose of consolidating the home and foreign mission boards of American Protestantism. See Missions, Protestant.
In 1908 the denominations themselves merged into a loose organization called the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. Duplicating the federal union in the United States, 28 churches were organized along structural lines. It was difficult at first for the member bodies to believe that their autonomy would not be jeopardized, and this suspicion kept many churches from joining the union.
Finally in 1950 the Federal Council enlarged its scope of activities and changed its name to the National Council of the Churches of Christ. It became the largest federated union of Protestants (along with the Eastern Orthodox and National Catholics) in American history. Membership has grown steadily, and the National Council has already reached beyond 40 million people belonging to more than 30 church bodies.
Organizational Structure. Structurally the National Council of Churches is the same as its predecessor, but with a notable difference. The Federal Council was mainly a denominational cooperative, but the National Council has six major areas which it directs from a General Board that is finally responsible to the General Assembly.
At the broadest level are the service and general units. The service units are responsible to the state and city councils of churches. They handle the whole field of publications, public relations, research, survey, broadcasting, and films. The general units coordinate such areas as the Church World Service, which cares for the homeless, the hungry, and the disabled in the United States and abroad. The United Church Men (and Women) are departments of the general units. These help to develop a national consciousness among the local councils and to provide them with advisory and financial services. The services extend to such areas as civil liberties, alcoholism, gambling, and national legislation.
The main divisions of the National Council are: Christian Education, Life and Work, Home and Foreign Missions.
Christian Education. Through the Division of Christian Education the churches develop basic goals and prepare materials for childrens work. They give executive leadership to the United Christian Youth Movement, a cooperating agency of youth groups representing over 10 million young people. Through syndicated Sunday school lessons in newspapers and magazines, they guide religious education. On the adult level they assist the 500 church-related colleges and they promote the welfare of Christian students on secular campuses.
Life and Work. The Division of Christian Life and Work is intended to arouse responsible concern in Christian people for international affairs, economic life, and racial and cultural relations. A recent development has been the accumulation and analysis of information on religious liberty and the offer of consultative service to local councils. With the development of a liturgical consciousness, Life and Work specialists offer services and materials in worship and the arts.
Home Missions. Since American Protestantism is heavily concentrated in rural areas, the Division of Home Missions seeks to develop a common church strategy by initiating new work, studying new approaches, and coordinating present resources. Perhaps the most significant feature of the Home Missions is its migrant ministry for more than half a million seasonal farm workers in 30 states. The program of adult education and recreational activities is designed to provide migrants with tile benefits of community life. Work among the Spanish-American youth in the United States has become one of the main preoccupations of the Home Missions Department.
Foreign Missions. Through the Division of Foreign Missions the member churches coordinate their overseas evangelism. Missionaries are recruited, selected, and trained. Medical and nursing personnel are developed and a multilingual publications program is directed to reach millions of people in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Affiliated Groups. Related to the National Council of Churches are numerous other organizations besides the constituent bodies. Thus, the American Association of Theological Schools, the Young Mens Christian Association, the Commission on Christian Higher Education, and the Boy Scouts of America are integrated with one or more departments of the National Council and benefit from its cooperative services.
In addition to these affiliated agencies there are more than a score of lesser denominations who are not formal members of the council. They are either voting or nonvoting associates of its units or area committees. The Assemblies of God, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Missouri Synod Lutherans are part of the organization of the National Council without being technically within the framework of its structure.
Spirit and Achievement. In the preamble to the constitution of the National Council, the founders declared the purpose which they envisioned in establishing the organization:
In the Providence of God, the time has come when it seems fitting more fully to manifest oneness in Jesus Christ as Divine Lord and Savior, by the creation of an inclusive cooperating agency of the Christian churches of the United States to continue and extend the general agencies of the churches and to combine all their interests and functionsblockquote.
In the years since its foundation, the council has firmly adhered to these principles.
In 1955 the National Council of Churches completed a five-year study of Religion and Public Education. This was the first time in American history that the Protestant (and Orthodox) bodies took corporate action to check the growing secularization of the public schools. Five years later the council completed a second series of studies on the same subject.
Out of the mass of reports and resolutions passed by the council, certain principles emerged that have already become operative for integrating more religious values in public education. The Indianapolis Plan for the social sciences is one example of how the cooperative effort of member churches within the council has succeeded. The plan provides directives to teachers who believe that public schools should further the religious education of their students.
A dominant feature of the National Council has been the encouragement it gives the members to pray in union with fellow Christians throughout the country.
Beginning the first Sunday in January, the council sponsors a Universal Week of Prayer to emphasize that prayer is a vital force for developing a closer relationship with God. The third Sunday of February is a universal day of prayer for students: to unify in prayer Christian students throughout the world. The first Sunday in Lent is a World Day of Prayer, and all during Lent an advertising campaign urges people to a more faithful observance of the pre-Easter season as a period of prayerful sacrifice. The first Sunday in May begins National Family Week to provide motivation for home and church cooperation, the rededication of home and family to God. Worldwide Communion Sunday in October promotes attendance of all Christians at the Communion table of their own church.
During Advent a campaign of advertising urges communities to put Christ into the center of Christmas, and to make the celebration of the birth of Christ more spiritual less commercial. A regular retreat program has been organized for Protestant chaplains in the armed forces. A recent development is Bible study clubs.
Across the whole spectrum of cooperative activity, in education and social welfare, in labor and the mass communications media, the National Council has made advances that are beneficial to the whole nation. As denominationalism recedes, the churches offer a united front that reveals the benefits of Christian unity worked out not only in theory but in practice.
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