The Union Of Christian Forces In Country And Village
AMONG the signs of the times none is more encouraging than the awakening of a new sense of the importance of, and a new interest in the success of, the rural church. Through the report of the Commission on Country Life, appointed by President Roosevelt, the attention of the entire country was called to a fresh consideration of the problems and possibilities of rural life. A new literature has suddenly sprung into existence dealing with its social, economic, and religious aspects, the effects of which may already be seen in the rise of a more intelligent social consciousness in many a village and hamlet, and in an increase of self-respect on the part of many a community. The facts are rapidly being gathered that will form the basis of plans and programs for the fuller development of the rich resources of country life. Surveys and intensive studies of particular communities reveal that the conditions which prevail are not peculiar to any single section, but that the problem is largely the same throughout the length and breadth of the land.
Among the facts which have been brought to light, however, is that of the gradual decline of the country church. A wide-spread indifference to the Church is prevalent everywhere in rural communities. The percentage of the community attendant upon the services of the Church is less, in general, than ten or twenty years ago, and is still decreasing; nor is the membership holding its own in proportion to the population. The average salary of the country minister, always lamentably inadequate, while it has somewhat increased in the gross during the last score of years, is, as we have already seen, actually less in proportion to the increase in the cost of living than at the beginning of the period. Among the ministers who serve country parishes are to be found many of the most intelligent, the noblest, and most unselfish within the profession; but the proportion of those who possess the measure of training adequate to meet the exacting conditions under which the modern minister must do his work, when the level of general enlightenment has so greatly risen, has not increased. Discouragement and apathy are reported from many quarters. The spectacle of churches deserted, closed, and sold at auction is not uncommon. The church, once the center of community life, the one institution around which the varied interests of the neighborhood were organized, has become too often the occasion of discord and division. With, happily, multitudes of churches exceptional enough to prove a rule, the church of the village and rural districts does not hold to-day the place in the affections and. loyalty of the group to which it seeks to minister that it has held in the past.
To the problems that such facts as these suggest there has been brought in recent years the intelligent consideration of a multitude of earnest men. The field has been surveyed and the results of study have been widely published. A growing literature is being created. Conferences of leaders in country life are becoming frequent. Great universities that minister to a country constituency have established departments under skilled leadership which are devoting themselves to the study of conditions, and to the dissemination of information and practical suggestions that are leading to the development of the latent resources of rural life. The period of analysis is drawing to a close and the adoption of certain positive and constructive principles is be-coming apparent.
In so far as these concern the Church it is becoming evident that the rural church possesses the key to the situation, occupying a place of vantage from which it can do more than any other institution to enrich and deepen the life of the community, and that, if it is to fulfil its mission and rise to its opportunity, the outlook, and spirit, and method of the church must be changed to accord with the needs of the new order. The rural church must get closer to the soil, must serve the community at more points than heretofore, recognizing with a greater sympathetic discernment the actual interests of those whom it would reach, and minister to these with a wider intelligence and a more unselfish devotion. Once more the country church must become the community center, organizing about itself as many as possible of the interests of the social group in which it is set, now so much more diverse and complex than formerly. This is even more incumbent upon the church of the open country than upon that of the town or city where social and intellectual opportunities are so much more abundant. Unrest and discontent in village and hamlet spring from hungers unsatisfied and legitimate impulses denied expression, and the impoverishment of life that such deprivations involve; and never was there a time when larger possibilities and a more inspiring mission summoned the rural church to a life of service.
The unanimous testimony of those who are bringing their experience and intelligence to bear upon the solution of the problem that confronts the church in the country is that the chief obstacle to the achievement of its noblest possibilities is the overlapping and competition consequent upon the unnecessary multiplication of separate organizations. "Examples like that of the town in Pennsylvania in which, within a four-mile drive of a given point in the open country," writes Warren H. Wilson, "are twenty-four country churches, are numerous in all . parts of the country. . . . In a Michigan group of villages, the whole population of which is seventeen hundred, there are fifteen country churches in which thirteen resident ministers are at work." In many a village, whose population is barely sufficient for the support of a single church, there may be seen around the village green a group of churches, three or four in number, standing as silent witnesses to the folly of denominational rivalry. Years ago, perhaps, they were established by denominational agencies eager to multiply adherents at a time when the community gave promise of a growth not subsequently realized. Now, with buildings erected, and constituencies gathered, and local loyalties created, and sectarian convictions carefully cultivated, it is difficult either to advance or to retreat. A sense of denominational responsibility to the group of worshipers that has been gathered under the tacit promise of missionary aid sometimes appears to forbid withdrawal. Occasionally a denomination in the field feels so strongly the vital importance of the peculiar truths for which it stands as conscientiously to believe that its witness should be continued at any cost of men and money. Sometimes it is denominational pride alone that holds the fort. Progress is forbidden by the very nature of the circumstances. In a constituency so limited no church can advance except at the expense of another. The division of the religious forces of the community is so minute that every church is poor, engaged in a perpetual struggle to keep the wolf from the ecclesiastical door. Thus they stand, three or four churches where one would suffice, a waste of ministerial service, a reduplication of equipments involving unnecessary expense of many kinds, dividing the available total of religious energy; and the results are what might be expected: poverty drives the churches to resort to unworthy methods of money-raising; salaries are so small that only the less effective sort of ministers can be secured; competition between churches breeds prejudice and division; denominational peculiarities are exaggerated in the very effort of particular churches to provide an excuse for their existence; and gradually the Church as an institution loses the respect and the support of a large proportion of the people and is deposed from leadership in the life of the community.
That a church chances to be the only church in a community is no guarantee of its success: that will depend upon efficient leadership. There is, more-over, an emulation in good works between churches in the same neighborhood that is wholesome and stimulating under many circumstances. However, it cannot be gainsaid that wherever the number of churches in proportion to the population is such that they struggle with one another for existence, the gain of one being dependent upon the loss of another, the spirit of Christian love, which is the essence of Christianity, is sure to suffer strain and rupture. While they do not compete with the same degree of acrimony, the fate of such churches is likely to be similar to that of the Kilkenny cats, of whom it will be remembered that at the end of the struggle "instead of two cats there weren't any."
The consensus of opinion is rapidly coming to be that the religious needs of communities of less than one thousand population are most efficiently served by a single township church, unless the people are scattered over a very large area. Even the needs of thinly settled outlying districts may often best be met by establishing preaching stations around a single church center. The cost in both money and members of the maintenance of several churches, where one church is sufficient to minister to the needs of the entire population, is convincingly shown in the following statistics gathered by the Massachusetts Federation of Churches in 1907 from a study of the one hundred most sparsely populated towns of the state, ten towns being included in each of the groups considered.
These figures indicate, as the Rev. E. Tallmadge Root, Secretary of the Federation, points out, that where churches are multiplied in such communities as these, not only is the efficiency of the individual churches lessened, but the total cost of church maintenance increases at a rate more rapid than that of the increase of churches. The salaries of ministers, small at the best, decrease, on the other hand, with each increase in the number of churches, from an average of $874 in the one-church town to $687 in the two-church town and to 1,473 in the three-church town. While the percentage of the population within the membership of the churches in-creases from 15.17 per cent. in the first class to 19.75 per cent. in the second and 21.24 per cent. in the third, the increase is sadly disproportionate to the number of churches at work and to the cost per town. For, as Mr. Root says, "It is apparent that while the membership is increased 30 per cent. by duplicating, and 40 per cent. by tripling the churches, the cost per town, including Home Missionary aid, increases 44 per cent. and 47 per cent. respectively, while the amount of aid called for per town is 3 1/2 and 10 times as much!" The decrease in the average number of members to each church as the number of churches in the towns increases, from 110 in one-church to 71.4 in two-church and 51 in three-church towns, may fairly be taken as an indication of the degree of competition between the churches which results from their multiplication. If the churches, in other words, drew from the unchurched population, and not from one another, the average membership would be the same whether there were one, two, or three churches in the town. "To place a second church by the side of the first," comments Mr. Root, "increases the total member-ship by only 33; i. e., of the 143 members,110 would have been secured by a single church. Does not this mean that nearly 77 per cent. of the energy of both churches is spent in competition? To add a third church wins 11 more, and the same calculation indicates that almost 93 per cent. of effort must be competitive. What if a fourth be added? In the three smallest four-church towns, with an average population of 786 instead of 725, the average church membership is but 33, and the total for the town is only 141; which would seem to show, as we might expect, that the competition becomes so intense and costly that four churches actually win a smaller proportion than two would do."
This aspect of the situation suggests another unfortunate result of the unwise reduplication of churches in small communities. More significant even than the unnecessary cost in money is the waste and loss of moral influence. "Ideally," it has been said, "the Church is the social unifier; practically, in many places, the churches, just because there are several, are themselves the cause of faction and discord." Whatever normal competition may be to the life of trade, we know what "cut-throat" competition, that disregards the rules of the game, may do for business. And however good may be the purposes of the churches, the competition, resulting when several are forced to attempt to maintain their existence in a field only large enough for one, is almost certain to provoke jealousy and a narrowly sectarian and party spirit that is fatal to Christian comity, as well as to alienate from all the churches some of the finest elements in the community. The spirit of rivalry repels the indifferent observer and rubs the bloom from the spirituality of those who indulge in it. Moral leadership is incompatible with a schismatic spirit, and where the energies of the churches are consumed by the necessity of building up the institution for its own sake, there is no strength left for that free service of the community which is the price of influence. Thus the competition among the churches shuts them out in many a community from fields of social service where lie their largest opportunities.
The splitting up of the available religious forces in small communities, where they are weak at best, is suicidal. The report of the survey of Ohio, made in 1912 by the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church (North), reveals some significant facts which throw light upon the relation of size to efficiency. "The size of the membership of a church," it declares, "has a bearing upon its working efficiency too direct and important to permit us to neglect it here. There has been a great tendency in the country to multiply churches and denominations far beyond the number needed. This tendency is seen in the towns and villages, but its effects are not so clearly marked there. There are more churches in the country in proportion to the population than there are in the towns and villages, and especially are there more small and weak churches. Of the 'town' churches only 8.7 percent. have less than 25 members each, while 59.1 per cent. have over 100 members each. The 'town-country' churches average a little smaller; but 43.1 percent. have over 100 members. Eighty-three per cent. of all country churches, however, have less than 100 members each, while 21.2 per cent. have each 25 members or less. Here we see in its clearest form the effects of strong denominational feeling upon church work. In the towns the multiplication of denominations, while often highly criminal from the point of view of church efficiency, is not so easily carried to an extreme. This, of course, is for the very obvious reason that there is a large number of people within an easy church-going radius upon whom these churches may draw. In the country the people are more scattered, and multiplication of churches and denominations means the dividing up of a clientele with very definite limits. Many churches were found which had a mere handful of members, sometimes but two or three, who were holding on to the old church long after some other church had come to fill the largest place in the religious life of the neighborhood, a policy which has very serious results. The impact of a small church upon society is necessarily slight. There is a momentum to large numbers. 'He that hath, to him shall be given.
"We may indicate this by dividing the churches up into six groups according to the size of their membership, and giving the statistics of growth for each. These groups will be as follows: churches with a membership of 25 or less, 26 to 50, 51 to 100, 101 to 150, 151 to 200, and 201 and over. In each of these groups there are included from 100 to 400 churches, enough to show clearly the tendencies. The percentage of growing churches within each of these groups in the order given is as follows: 2.2 per cent., 16.6 per cent., 33.5 per cent., 48.2 per cent., 58.5 per cent., and 79 per cent. The regularity with which the increase of efficiency and ability to survive parallels the increase in membership is very striking. Obviously, the great over-multiplication of small churches is one of the root causes of the failure of the country churches to meet the conditions which we have previously mentioned as affecting church efficiency. They are unable to provide themselves with resident pastors who shall give them full service. They are unable to hold weekly public meetings. They are unable adequately to equip themselves for the work they must do. The conclusion is unavoidable that the small church is a dying proposition. ... Not until a church has at least 100 members does it have an even chance to survive."
Not all churches that are spared the disadvantages of the competition of rival organizations in small communities thrive spiritually, as has been said, or fully meet the needs of their constituency. But where there is an average degree of consecration and intelligence in the membership and leadership, it is fair to say that they render a far more effective service than could be rendered if their strength were divided. In the recent study of two typical counties in New York and Vermont, already referred to, the authors say, "Among the smaller communities those with a single church are the only ones with a spirit of good cheer in church matters. The only township in Windsor county that has made a relative gain in church attendance and has also gained in benevolence and in total expenditures is a one-church township, while another one-church town-ship (the only other in the county) stands second in these respects. . . . The figures for attendance, membership, and expenditures gathered in Tompkins county indicate how very various the evils of over-churching have become. Only four churches in the smaller communities in a twenty-year period have increased their activities in two or more of the three lines of activity considered above. Three of these are in one-church communities. The fourth is a weak church. Its expenditures were small in both periods, and its apparent gain in membership is due to padded rolls. Attendance figures furnish the best indication of the effect of over-churching. In small communities with only one church there was a loss of 29 per cent. in attendance in twenty years. In small communities where there were two churches there was a loss of 50 per cent., while in the small communities of more than two churches there was a loss of nearly 55 percent."
The cause of organized Christianity in communities where churches have been multiplied beyond the needs of the neighborhood and its ability to sustain them will never prosper until such churches combine in some form of co-operative union. It is imperatively necessary that the forces be united if they are to win and hold the country districts for Christ. Three forms of such combination have been tested in various parts of the country until they have passed the stage of experiment, two of them applications of the federal principle, the third a form of union still more complete. They are: first, the church federation, such as has been al-ready described, in which churches, worshiping apart, unite for common tasks; second, the federated church, composed of two or more churches of different denominations, each retaining its identity and organization, but uniting for work and worship under a single pastor; and third, the union denominational church, where two or more churches of different denominations are merged to form a new organization allied with the denomination of its choice. The results of such experiments have at least demonstrated that, however serious may be the differences of opinion as to the most practicable forms in which Christian forces in over-churched rural communities may combine, combination in some form is the most hopeful means of meeting the conditions that confront them.
The church federation, the federated church, and the union church are related much as are friendship, partnership, and marriage; they stand for degrees of affiliation and identification of interest and activity. In communities where the problems arising from the multiplication of churches are not pressing, such a form of "church federation" as is described in the previous chapter is as effective in the country as in the city. Such organized co-operation is more than comity. Comity is negative in its implications: while it involves the cordial recognition on the part of one denomination of the Christian character of another, it is for the most part expressed in a policy of non-interference. Comity is inter-denominational courtesy: it is based upon mutual respect and esteem. It is fundamental, of course, to every form of co-operative effort, but it stops short of such co-operation. It involves regard for the rights of others, the avoidance of causes of offense and of encroachment upon another's field, respect for the rules of order and discipline that prevail in other communions, in brief, all mutual consideration owed to one another by those who are engaged in a common cause. Where this is lacking, further cooperation is impossible.
While comity involves friendship, a church federation involves friendship cemented in a formal offensive and defensive alliance for the furthering of common ends. In such organized co-operation the churches concerned maintain their separate organizations, meetings for worship and ordinary activities, and unite only for such common tasks as cannot so well be done apart. Co-operative effort of this character ought to be more easily brought about and made effective in the smaller community than in the larger. Although it is not a form of combination adapted to the cure of the evils that spring from a plethora of churches, it will add dignity to the church in any community and immensely enhance its influence. When the churches thus speak and act together, voicing the conviction of the entire Christian fellowship and directing the full weight of its influence toward desirable ends, the whole community cannot but. heed. The natural field for such a co-operative federation, as has been said already, lies in those broad avenues of social service that lead to the purification of politics, the unification of charities, the protection of childhood and youth, the enforcement of law, the promotion of community studies, and the passing of good legislation. Churches of a like spirit and method may also profitably unite in evangelistic effort and stir and mold a whole population as a single church cannot hope to do. Such federation reveals the wealth of ideals in which all the churches share and draws the people of God together by the revelation of the degree of unity that exists below divisive differences, and prepares the ground for those more intimate forms of fellowship and cooperation which, in communities that are over-churched; make for economy and increased efficiency.
Another form of fellowship is known as "federated church," used here to describe those combinations of churches under the leadership of a single minister that are common in various parts of the country. From their prevalence in the Green Mountain State, this has been called "the Vermont plan." I do not speak here of the combinations of several churches of the same denomination under one itinerant minister, such as have always been common, but to the federation of two or more churches of different communions within the same section served by a single minister and worshiping in the same building. Where churches are separated more or less widely and are located in different communities, whether they are of the same or of different denominations, little is gained by their uniting in the support of a single minister except financial strength and the superior quality of leadership that this usually secures; and even this apparent benefit is generally more than offset by the division of interest, and the limited time that the minister can devote to each constituent field. The influence of a church is sure to suffer when the leader of its activities is not identified with the community to which it ministers. He must have a stake in the community, must be of it, if he is himself to be, or to lead his church to be, a potent factor in its affairs.
No church can thrive under "absent treatment." Merely to dip into the community at intervals, as a comet into the solar system, and then retire to some distant point inaccessible to his parishioners until the period for return recurs, is not conducive to the minister's usefulness, either in church or neighborhood. A district large enough to sustain a church needs the entire time of the pastor of the church. In the report of the rural survey of Ohio made by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, to which reference has already been made, it is said, "There still remains in some sections an outworn notion that it does not require a whole minister to direct a country church; that the work of a country church is easier than the work of a town or city church. This notion is gradually being shocked out of us, and we are discovering how hard it is to succeed and how easy it is to fail in the country field.
A whole minister has a big enough task to keep a church alive, particularly in the country, as the records well show; a fraction of a minister has an infinitely more difficult task. The connection of the churches on a circuit is an important factor. Where the churches are so located that their respective parishes are practically contiguous, making one large parish with several preaching points, this system does not have such ill results. Where the churches are so located that their parishes are quite distinct and a considerable amount of travel is necessary to go from one to the other, the situation is more serious. In either event, however, the effect of this systematized vivisection upon church growth is unmistakable. Of all the churches with a whole minister each, 60 per cent. are growing. The few country churches that come in this class make as good a showing as the town churches. Six times out of ten the minister who can give his entire attention to one church succeeds in making it prosper. Probably this is as high a percentage of efficiency as any profession can show. Of the half-a-minister churches only 39 per cent. are growing. Of the third-of-a-minister churches only 35 per cent. are growing, while of those churches which have one-fourth of a minister or less, 26 per cent. are growing." Evidently one of the causes of the lack of strength in rural churches is the non-residence of the pastors, and the consequently fractional character of the service they are able to render. The absentee pastor is no more likely to cultivate successfully his spiritual vineyard than the absentee farmer is likely to pro-duce good crops. "The success of the church and its continuance," declares the report of the survey dealing with conditions in Missouri, "are dependent upon the residence of the minister in the parish. The difficulties of the church and the danger of its extinction are greatly increased by a non-resident ministry." It may at least be said in favor of such a combination of churches of different denominations situated in a single community as we have now in mind, that it generally makes possible a resident ministry.
A one-minister plan has been tried in many places during the past twenty years with varying degrees of success. The details of method and organization differ widely according to conditions. It is an essential characteristic of the plan that the church organizations involved remain intact, each retaining its own denominational affiliations and contributing to its own objects of benevolence. Usually the pastors are chosen in succession from the ministry of the constituent denominations. Very often, and generally most widely, the union is entered into for a specified time only, and may be terminated at the expiration of the period at the desire of either party.
Success under this method, it need hardly be said, is impossible except upon the broadest basis of requirements for church membership. If it is to be truly a community church, all who love the Lord Jesus and who desire to labor for the coming of his kingdom must be welcomed. A successful church of this type at Freewater, Oregon, reports: "Among our members we now number Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Christians, Baptists, German Lutherans, and Episcopalians." The widest liberty of conviction as to non-essentials, and of practice in the administration of the ordinances, particularly as to admission to the Lord's Table and as to the mode and subjects of baptism, must be permitted, and if the convictions of the minister in charge do not permit him to administer the ordinances as the individual member or candidate for membership desires, the services of a minister from a neighboring parish must be sought. Fortunately, such a spirit of tolerance and charity is increasing every day as "the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns."
The advantages of such a plan are evident. Many federated churches have secured a stronger and better paid ministry, resident upon the field, and a more adequate equipment; and this at a lower total expenditure. Where there is real union of spirit, such a federation is likely to take a place of moral leadership in the community impossible to any one church while the Christian forces are divided. The federated church in Freewater, Oregon, composed of a Congregational and a Presbyterian church, declares after two years' trial, "All are working together in harmony, making possible several things not attainable before. The Christian forces of the community now present a united front to the enemy, and instead of discord, proselyting, and small numbers, union and harmony prevail. . . . The church has attained the distinction of being called 'the town's church.' . . . It has called forth the respect and cooperation of many not otherwise connected with it. It is a community church, with the stamp of approval of the city officers and business men of the town. The membership has already crystallized into a strong working force for righteousness which will be far-reaching in its results."1. Similar testimony comes from many quarters of the effectiveness of such a form of federation under favorable conditions and leadership.
An experiment of this sort, however, often encounters the gravest difficulties; and it is to be questioned whether there have not been more failures than successes in the trial of it. The odium theologicum dies hard, unfortunately, and the grace of God often ! From a leaflet of information issued by this church seems to be insufficiently appropriated to overcome the crotchets of his children! Sectarian principles, that have been so assiduously cultivated, and that are so deeply rooted, are not easily trans-planted, even across the street, from one ecclesiastical garden-bed to another. Local rivalries with the irritations that they sometimes provoke are not easily forgotten, and since the churches that are the subjects of federation retain their respective identities, these are sometimes carried into the partnership and become disturbers of the peace. The minister in charge, who must necessarily retain ecclesiastical standing in a particular denominational body, often seems an alien to members of the denomination within the federated church to which he does not belong. "The fact is," writes an experienced leader in this form of church organization, "that when a Methodist is on the' field, if the federation is between the Methodists and the Baptists, the Baptists pray for his removal, and when a Baptist pastor is on the field, the Methodists sit up all night praying for his removal, and by actual experience, after a five years' test, the united congregation is very little larger than either one of them was before the federation began." The question might be raised as to whether the churches under consideration have enough of the Christian spirit to make worth while the attempt to federate them.
The difficulties of administration, where the constituent bodies retain their individual organizations with separate sets of officers, are often extremely serious without discernible fault in any quarter. A broad-minded and efficient Christian worker in Vermont, where the idea originated, writes in answer to an inquiry, "Federation, where two or more churches get together for the support of one pastor, is an utter failure in Vermont and I believe will be everywhere."
Notable results in many experiments seem to promise permanent success for the federated church in certain localities. On the whole, however, this plan has not proved to be as successful as that of the complete union of churches into a single organization in affiliation with a particular denomination. This, the third of the methods of federation, may be distinguished as "the union denominational church."
Under such a title it is not meant to include those combinations of believers that exist in some localities in so-called union churches that sustain no denominational connection whatsoever, nor such as are composed of those holding elsewhere their ecclesiastical connections and uniting only for the purpose of common worship. Such organizations, unaffiliated with any general denominational body, are deprived of some of the essentials of strength and usefulness and tend to become mere preaching stations. They lack the stimulating fellowship of other churches, and are without incentive to missionary activity or channel for its expression in gifts of money or service. They tend to become isolated and self-centered and out of touch with the stream of religious interest and progress.
The union we are now considering is that of two or more churches of different denominations that unite to form a single church, either of one of the constituent denominations or of some other faith not represented in the combination. Thus a Baptist and a Methodist church in a community too small to support more than a single organization might unite, under this plan, to form either a Methodist or a Baptist church, or, if it should be deemed wise, they might choose to become a Congregational church. The essential features of such a plan of union are that the churches forming the combination shall not retain their original identity, nor their separate sets of officers, nor cut themselves loose from all denominational affiliations; but shall organize themselves into a new church that shall be a member of some one of the denominations already existing, thus retaining the stimulating influences of association with other bodies of Christians, and sharing the world-wide outlook of denominational activities and securing the benefits of the counsel and direction of the larger body to which they belong.
The possibility of unions of this nature might seem chimerical were it not for the fact that they have been accomplished in numerous localities and are growing more frequent. Such a plan avoids most of the difficulties which the federated churches are called upon to meet. It has, however, obstacles peculiar to itself with which to contend. The most obvious is the natural reluctance of any church to relinquish its identity. Even a failure does not al-ways recognize failure, and never likes to admit it, particularly in the presence of an apparently successful rival. Which shall be the church to sacrifice its life upon the altar of efficiency? When that difficult question is decided, the problem of union is well on the way to solution. Blessed is that church, which, in the face of the crying needs of a community that only a united church can meet, has so caught the spirit of its Master as to believe that with the church, as with the disciple, to save life is to lose it, and that to lose life for Christ's sake and the gospel's is to find it!
It is essential, of course, to this form of union that the constituent churches shall deliberately put aside all divisive denominational peculiarities of polity and practice. Where conscientious convictions prevent this, the price is continued disunion.
If, for example, Congregationalists and Baptists are to unite to form a Baptist church, Congregationalists cannot impose sprinkling upon Baptists, nor Baptists immersion upon Congregationalists. So much is obvious. There is always the possibility of the establishment of a form of "associate membership" by which unimmersed believers may be affiliated with the church, but this is to take in members, as it were, by the back door, and is always an unsatisfactory makeshift. Either sprinkling must be frankly recognized as valid in essence and spirit if defective in form, or Baptists must cease to require baptism in any form as a prerequisite to church membership, and receive members on profession of faith alone, leaving the observance of the ordinance to the individual conscience, like their open-membership brethren in England. Similarly, if diverse elements are to unite in the organization of an Episcopal church, the Episcopalians must relinquish insistence upon the exclusive validity of ministerial orders episcopally derived on the basis of a doctrine of apostolic succession. Where such concessions are impossible, a union of churches is for the present impossible. These are but examples of practical difficulties that may arise, whatever denomination may be chosen by the union of forces. It is to avoid them that it is sometimes counted wise to organize the united church under a denomination other than that to which any of the churches concerned be-longs. One thing only is essential: that the new church, whatever its affiliations, shall be flexible and tolerant, comprehensive and catholic, truly a community church.
This is the form of union, however brought about, that holds most promise for the future. When arranged through state denominational agencies, or by state interdenominational federations, so that the denominations involved shall each gain a union church where they consent to surrender a church to unite with one of another denomination, it promises best. As the federated church is known as "the Vermont plan," the credit for the promotion of the plan of reciprocal exchange of churches between de-nominations belongs to the Interdenominational Commission of Maine, the first of state church federations, which has long advocated it. The re-port of the Commission for 1914 declares, "Our Maine plan of reciprocal exchanges was recommended to the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America in Chicago last December by the Home Missions Commission, and was approved by the Federal Council as the ideal for adoption in all parts of the country." The spirit and method of the plan are well described in another section of the report: For the purposes of preventive and constructive co-operation it was recommended:
1. That the denominations, through their supervising representatives, such as state agents, home missionaries, or presiding elders, report to the Commission the names of towns in which a union of churches may seem desirable, in order that the Commission may serve as a clearing-house and bureau of reciprocity.
2. That the Commission then shall consider the conditions in these several towns, the constituencies of the churches and the changes which would appear desirable for the best welfare of the community, and, when the Commission finds that an equitable exchange can be made so that in one town denomination A may surrender to denomination B its church interests, and in another town denomination B can surrender an equal interest to denomination A, then the Commission shall recommend to the two denominations such an exchange.
3. That such reciprocal exchanges shall be contemplated only between those denominations which distinctly commit themselves to the plan, and the interests of other denominations shall be in no wise molested by recommendations of the Commission.
4. It is recognized that this plan requires great care and consideration in its execution lest the prejudices and the feelings of local church-members be ignored and ideal states be sought which are not practical. Particularly must all conscientious scruples be carefully safeguarded and good feeling and brotherly love be preserved.
5. This plan distinctly confesses that the so-called "union" churches, while approved in some places, yet incur so many perils, through their lack of associational fellowship or superior ecclesiastical supervision, through having no larger missionary interests, home or foreign, and no approved ministry from which to secure pastoral care, as to be unwise organizations to encourage. This plan aims at consolidating religious forces and leaving them within the limits of denominational fellowship.
The Rev. Josiah Strong, of the American Institute of Social Service, is quoted as saying, "The greatest need at the present time of this entire movement (toward the unification of Christian forces) is a practical vindication of the principles and methods of church union and federation in the smaller towns, villages, and hamlets." The pioneers in these experiments are rendering a service to the cause of the kingdom of God that can hardly be overestimated. Out of the present experimental stage are to come principles and methods that will guide the development of the future. Even the failures are instructive as showing ways to be avoided. It is something gained that we have come to see so clearly the necessities that compel some readjustment of religious forces in over-churched rural communities if the Church is to rise to its duties and opportunities. The future of the Church in America and the place that it is to hold in the developing life of the nation are dependent upon the progress of the spirit of Christian unity. "Organic church union at the top," i. e., through the amalgamation of entire denominations, has thus far made slow progress; the immediate need is a larger number of successful examples of the possibility of "union at the bottom," in the co-operation and combination of individual churches of different denominations. The spirit of unity thus fostered at the base will make its way toward the summit. The greatest hindrances to-day are inertia, a narrow sectarianism, selfishness, and a lack of spiritual vision; but these are not inherent, and are not insurmountable. When the churches are more anxious to leaven the community with a saving gospel than to keep up denominational fences and to win a sectarian success, they will be willing to unite on essentials, whatever may become of non-essentials. The foggy thinking in which we lose ourselves and lose touch with our fellow-Christians will some day be dissipated when love floods in like the light and the mists and noxious vapors of the night fly before the ascending sun.
( Originally Published 1915 )
The Union Of Christian Forces:
The Expense And Waste Of Christian Disunion
The New Testament Ideal Of Christian Unity And What Became Of It
The Passing Of The Sectarian Spirit
The Growth Of The Spirit Of Christian Unity
Christian Unity Through Federation
The Union Of Christian Forces In Country And Village
Co-operation In Home Missions
Co-operation On The Foreign Mission Field
Organic Church Unity
The Basis Of Organic Unity