I want to alert our whole constituency to a development of major importance. Since 2001, a conversation has been quietly taking place among American church leaders from all of our church families about what it would take to come together in common fellowship, common unity, and common voice on the most important issues of our time. For many years now, the churches of the United States have been divided, with evangelical, pentecostal, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Black, Latino, and Asian Christians all gathered in different organizations and around separate “tables,” often even with multiple tables within each group. While there has been cross-fertilization on projects, campaigns, and issues, there has been no genuinely “ecumenical” or “inter-denominational” organization in the United States that crossed all of our dividing lines – until now.
In Pasadena, California, last week, Christian Churches Together (CCT) was formally launched after almost six years of conversation, fellowship, worship, and prayer together. Thirty-six churches and national organizations from virtually all of the key U.S. church groups formally joined with one another over meetings on February 6-9, culminating in a powerful worship service with the church “families” visibly coming together.
A consensus was been reached on the key importance of evangelism and the biblical imperative to overcome poverty – and those two most basic commitments will shape the new fellowship. In Pasadena, each of the “five families” – Evangelical/Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Racial/Ethnic, Historic Protestant, and Orthodox – each shared their interpretation of Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18, and asked, “Is Jesus’ proclamation our proclamation?” The convergence on the meaning of evangelization today was quite incredible; a strong emphasis on “discipleship” and “the kingdom of God” was central to all the presentations. Bishop Stephen Blaire, from the Catholic Diocese of Stockton, Calif., expressed our common understanding that the root of evangelism is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
And that relationship to Jesus is the foundation of our witness in the world. In a statement on poverty, the leaders said, “Our faith in Christ who is the truth compels us to confront the ignorance of and indifference to the scandal of widespread, persistent poverty in this rich nation. We must call this situation by its real names: moral failure, unacceptable injustice.” The leaders of CCT declared, “We believe that a renewed commitment to overcome poverty is central to the mission of the church and essential to our unity in Christ.” Dr. William Shaw of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., one of the founding “Presidents” of CCT, said that poverty “will not be redressed without intentional and painful effort by the total U.S. community. CCT calls the country’s conscience to that effort and commits itself to being a part of that redressing.”
The next meeting of the church leaders will be in January of 2008, in Washington, D.C., in the heat of a presidential election campaign. In the nation’s capitol, the church leaders from across America’s theological and political spectrum hope to both re-commit themselves to the mission of eliminating the “scandal” of U.S. domestic poverty and to call upon the candidates from both parties to put poverty near the very top of the nation’s political agenda. That, my friends, is a big deal.
“Seeing the leaders of all the participating churches and organizations standing and praying together in their commitment to this vision was a powerful, visible sign of hope,” said Wes Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America, who was the first moderator of CCT. “We have said from the beginning that our purpose is to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world. In Pasadena we all experienced how this is truly happening and this fills us with joy for the future.”
In a service of commitment and celebration to formally launch CCT, Bishop James Leggett of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church urged us to follow the prayer of Jesus, “That all might be one.” Dr. Shaw, Bishop Leggett, Rev. Larry Pickens, Father Leonid Kishkovsky, and Bishop Richard Sklba of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (representing Cardinal William Keeler of the Archdiocese of Baltimore), the first presidents of the five faith families of CCT, joined in lighting candles as a sign of unity.
Quoting a statement from his mother, Methodist Rev. Pickens said that the wisdom that will keep CCT together is to “remember that you belong to God and God does not belong to you.” Rev. Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America said, “CCT is good news for American Christians. Our gathering of the wider spectrum of U.S. Christian churches is succeeding in building mutual trust and overcoming stereotypes. Our common hope and expectation is that CCT will enable our churches to offer a strong and united Christian moral voice and vision in the public square.”
And for the first time in ecumenical gatherings, four national Christian organizations were also invited to a place at the churches’ table: World Vision, Bread for the World, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Sojourners/Call to Renewal. This is all a very hopeful sign and one can only imagine the impact of all these churches’ constituencies joining together in both more common fellowship and voice – especially as the idea of CCT spreads down to the congregational and community level of the churches’ life. That is now the next step. God is good.