c. 2006 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Leaders of 34 U.S. church bodies have officially launched the broadest-ever Christian unity organization in American history, and said fighting poverty will be its first priority.
Christian Churches Together in the USA was formally inaugurated on Friday (March 31) after a three-day meeting outside Atlanta. A public kickoff is scheduled at the group’s scheduled meeting next February.
The looseknit group brings together five Christian “families” who have long been divided by historical and theological differences, including Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals and Pentecostals, historically black churches and Orthodox churches.
Together, the five “families” represent more than 100 million American Christians. The nation’s largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, has said it will not participate.
The effort to form a more “credible Christian witness” was started almost five years ago, and organizers have met annually to try to dismantle decades of political, doctrinal and historical animosity amoung U.S. churches.
“We finally found the courage to confront our obvious and longstanding divisions and to build a new expression of unity … that will strengthen our mission in the world,” said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the general secretary of the Reformed Church of America and an early architect of the new group.
Organizers had hoped to launch last year but put off any official action until the group could attract more interest and participation from historically black churches.
Two of the nation’s largest black denominations _ the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. and the National Baptist Convention of America _ officially joined as members during the Atlanta meeting.
Granberg-Michaelson said “the sense of excitement in the room was really real” and organizers felt ready to “flip the switch” and incorporate as an official organization.
“The group felt that we’ve made enough progress that the vision of all five families could now be closer to being realized and was strong enough in each of the five that we were ready to organize,” he said in an interview.
A search committee will begin looking for an executive director. Granberg-Michaelson said the group will have only minimal staff and will function with a “virtual” headquarters.
The group will be led by a five-member committee of leaders from each family, including The Rev. William Shaw of the National Baptist Convention USA,Inc.; the Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America; the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Church; and Bishop James Leggett of the Pentecostal World Fellowship. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore is expected to represent Catholics on the leadership panel.
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Granberg-Michaelson said eight additional churches and organizations attended the Atlanta meeting as first-time observers and could eventually join as members.
Potential members include smaller conservative churches such as the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Vineyard Fellowship group of charismatic churches.
Organizers said it quickly became apparent that tackling poverty would be the group’s first priority. “People were clear this is the first issue we’re addressing, but not the only one,” Granberg-Michaelson said.
A three-member committee _ Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action; Roman Catholic Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif.; and Shaw of the National Baptists _ will look for ways “to answer the question of how we move forward, and what can we do to address” poverty, Granberg-Michaelson said.
CCT also includes organizations such as Bread for the World, an anti-hunger group, and Call to Renewal, a progressive anti-poverty group, and churches such as the Salvation Army.
“We’ve got all the major groups and all the best thinking represented (in CCT), and this is a place where they can all be together,” he said. “We’re finding around an issue like poverty an awful amount of common ground.”
MO/JL END ECKSTROM