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Church Cooperation In Community Life by Paul L. Vogt


The task of the minister is primarily to deal with man, either in his own personal life, his relations to his Maker, or to his fellow-man. Unlike the farmer, whose interest lies in the control of animal or plant growth, or the mechanic, who controls and molds the forces and conditions of inanimate nature, the minister has to do with that most delicate and elusive subject of all -- the human soul. His business is to tune the individual soul instrument so that it will harmonize with the musical vibrations of the Infinite Will; and to bring about such a relationship between the different instruments in his little group that all together will produce a heavenly harmony.

The Christian religion, except when it has degenerated into formal Pharisaism, has been an ethical religion; and the ethical conduct of the individual has been a criterion of the depth of his religious experience. Ethics have primarily to do with the relation of man to man, so that the conclusion is logical that the church is vitally interested in the ethical problems of humanity and in anything that tends to lower or raise the moral standards of the individual or the community.

There is no other agency more vitally interested in moral problems than is the church. Business organizations may be interested, but their efforts have apparently not been to conserve moral standards, even in business. The school is interested, but its emphasis has been placed more on mental development without regard to moral implications, or on utilitarian objectives. The church has been preaching right living, and other objectives have been incidental. Since this is true the thesis is advanced as the basis for this chapter that it is the business of the church to provide building, equipment, and leadership for conserving the moral life of the community. Since the moral welfare of any community finds its expression largely in its social and recreational activities, such provision involves providing for the social and recreational interests. This is a function which is not to be encouraged and then turned over to other agencies, but is to be retained by the church itself as its legitimate service.

In view of the fact that the efforts of various agencies have not been in entire harmony with this point of view it deserves further consideration. For many years it has been argued that the schoolhouse should be so built that it could be made the community center for all types of activities. Without intending to limit the public schools in any laudable endeavor to enrich rural life it should be noted:

1. That so far as villages and open country schools are concerned it is not believed that the agitation for the wider use of the school plant has yet resulted in any marked nation-wide response to such agitation further than to provide room for physical training of upper-class students.

2. In general, the schoolhouse is so located that it is not suited for community service. It is usually located on the outskirts of the village, where plenty of ground may be had for outdoor school games. When people gather for social life and leisure they do not go away from the lights of the village street but move toward them. The well-lighted poolroom near the village store will attract more boys than the building on the village edge that must be reached through the dark. Villagers have their downtown as well as do the great urban centers.

3. The school teachers and principal are busy five days in the week in the classroom. The schools cannot assume charge of community center activities without danger either of overworking the teachers or of having to hire special assistance for this service. Many villages cannot afford to hire special workers for this purpose alone.

4. It has been argued that the school is the democratic institution since it is tax-supported, and thus every one may go there as a right. To this it may be replied that, as with the church, only those contribute who have resources from which to contribute. The only difference is that in the public school the majority decide that all those who are able must contribute to the support of public institutions, thus it falls short of complete democracy, which must, in the last analysis, be a purely voluntary association. In the church the only force compelling contribution is personal desire and public opinion. Thus it is as democratic, if not more so, than the school.

5. On the other hand, a large part of the time of the country minister is available for pastoral service. The establishment of community service activities under the auspices of the church bids fair to rescue pastoral calling and service from a routine of personal visitation by giving it a definite community service objective. Again, in the beginnings in the medium-sized and larger villages and probably continuously in the smaller places the pastor is the only salaried servant of the community with free time during the week for the organization and direction of community service.

6. The church building and parish house can be located conveniently at the center of the village, thus obviating the objection to the school building for this purpose.

7. True religion is a loyal supporter of everything that is safe in social and recreational life. It is subject to the control of the community in the same way as the school; excessive puritanism need not be feared under its auspices more than under the auspices of other agencies.

The usual argument against serious consideration of the church as the center of community life is that religious agencies are so divided up by dogmatism that it is impossible for any one religious organization to assume leadership in this respect without incurring the opposition of other agencies. While this is true in many cases, it should be remembered that dogmatism does not have the influence in more highly developed communities that it once had. Moreover, considerable progress has already been made toward intergroup agreements, including the two great divisions of the Christian Church giving responsibility for community leadership to one denomination or another. In cases where local adjustments have not been made it may be necessary to depend on other agencies to conserve the social and recreational life. In these cases the church loses its rightful heritage.

8. The popular response to projects of building community churches and parish houses in small communities leads to the belief that the general public accepts as the correct one the principle that the church should provide these facilities. The Methodist Episcopal denomination alone, through the aid of its Church Extension Board, aided in 1920 in building or remodeling over four hundred church and parish houses equipped to provide for all or a part of a community service program; it is not known how many more made such advances without outside aid. The question of whether the church or some other agency than either the church or the school should provide community service facilities may be answered in much the same way. In some States local communities may levy a tax for the building and maintenance of community buildings. Where this is possible there seems to be no serious objection to such a course. But a community building without adequate supervision is likely to become a center of moral deterioration. On the other hand, such a public building can be located more strategically than can a schoolhouse. The objection to stock-company-owned community houses is much more serious. These are likely to become mere pleasure resorts, often of a very questionable nature.

The judgment of the American people seems to be rapidly determining that the safest plan is to look to the religious agencies for conserving the social and recreational life; and this judgment is in harmony with the thesis advanced at the opening of this chapter.

If the principle is accepted that it is the business of the church to conserve the social life of the community, then it is next in order to consider some of the problems of social life that are a challenge to the church at the present time.

The social organization of this country in its smaller communities as in the larger centers, such as it is, is the product of undirected uncoordinated efforts of special interest groups. A general classification of the types of rural organizations may be made, first, into political, including the incorporated village, towns, townships, counties, and political parties; economic, including special associations around specific interests such as farm bureaus, stock breeders' associations, potato-growers' associations, etc., and the increasing number of cooperative organizations, such as farmers' elevators, fruit-marketing organizations, live-stock, shipping associations; social, including the Grange, the various types of farmers' clubs for men and women that perform much the same function as the Grange, and the more or less permanent groupings for purely recreational purposes, such as dancing parties, card parties, etc.; and the conventional religious organizations as represented by the denominations and their many subsidiary groups for special purposes.

As was pointed out in the chapter on definitions, each of these various groups has a customary center for coming together. But owing to the fact that each interest has grown largely without reference to the others, their centers of activity have been determined largely by conditions of local convenience. Now, these centers may have been well adapted to the times when they were established, but as time has passed shifts of population have come, road improvements have been made, and new interests developed so that the traditional centers not only tend to lessen community solidarity but also tend to prevent its accomplishment. One of the first tasks of the community leader is to make a study of his proposed field of activity for the purpose of determining what are the present centers of group interests, what changes have taken place in rural life conditions which make reorganization and readjustment of centers desirable, and then, in consultation with representatives of the community, to organize a community plan toward ward which the entire community may work. City planning has long been an accepted principle for service in the more progressive larger centers. The time has come when plans for the most efficient organization of village and open country communities should be made. It is interesting to note that already in many sections of the United States the movement toward community planning has made considerable progress. It is now generally recognized that with rare exceptions the village rather than an open country point is the normal basis for such a plan. In accordance with this, movements are now under way to displace the traditional township boundaries created as political limits for government and to replace them by boundaries conforming as closely as possible with those limits that careful investigation indicates are now and probably will continue to be the most representative of what the future limits of rural communities will be. In like manner educational work is being reorganized to include the community territory instead of the political areas inherited from the methods of survey adopted under the ordinance of 1787. As this movement continues, doubtless farm bureaus, and even religious agencies, will try to adapt themselves as far as possible to the program of other agencies.

The breakdown of social life in the open country and the very questionable forms it often takes in the villages has long been the nightmare of the minister of the gospel who stands for a high ethical plane of social life. The church, with its Ladies' Aid, its young people's societies, its occasional men's clubs, fails to reach more than a very limited number of those living in the open country or in the village. The lack of a definite, well-organized social program results in all kinds of association often anti-social and lowering of the moral fiber of the entire group. It is unnecessary to go into the sordid details of moral conditions existing among both young and old in many village communities. The pastor with a program of absentee service consisting of an occasional sermon and holding a Sunday school finds his efforts continually nullified by more powerful social and recreational impulses expressing themselves in ways recognized as morally deteriorating. When a plan for ultimate centralization of wholesome and legitimate community interest has been made it is the minister's task to organize a plan for bringing to the community an abundance of wholesome recreational life. The traditional plan has been to preach against dancing and card playing. Such preaching has more often alienated the young people from the church than it has attracted them to religious life. The modern plan is to overcome evil with good; that is, to provide such a program of unquestioned recreation that the evil will die of itself.

That this actually happens has been demonstrated over and over again. The Rev. Matthew B. McNutt, on arriving at Du Page, Illinois, found a large building near the church turned into a dancing center. Without saying a word against dancing he began to organize his young people for singing. In a short time the dancing mania had ceased and did not return in the twelve years of his service on that charge. The Rev. L. P. Fagan found dancing all the rage when he went to a little town in Colorado. He began to develop a wholesome program of recreational life, and before long dancing had ceased and had not returned two years after he had left the charge. At a little town in New York State, the young men of the town were accustomed to gather at the fire house and indulge in cards with more than occasional playing for money. A recreation hall opened in the village broke up the card-playing and brought the young men into something more wholesome and which they preferred. A village in Southwestern Ohio had a gang of |Roughnecks,| as they were called, who were accustomed to loaf in the poolrooms and find their amusement in neighboring cities. A room in the upstairs of the town hall was opened up and fitted for basketball. Leadership for clubs was provided by college students training for community service. The result was that this group of young men, of exceptionally good native qualities but spoiling morally for want of adequate provision for recreational life, came to the community center and for the time being avoided the lower forms of social and recreational activity.

These illustrations prove three things: first, the need of such equipment; second, the fact that young people prefer and choose the better when it is provided for them; and, third, that the church can solve many of its most serious problems most readily by attacking the source of corruption of the morals of young people through caring for recreational interests. The minister who neglects this powerful force in attempting to build a Christian civilization is failing to take advantage of one of the greatest instruments God has placed in his hands. Yet it is the sad fact that in too many instances ministers are failing to take advantage of the forces at hand, and that even those who have caught the vision of the possibilities of these other forces are not trained to use them safely.

The number of village communities that have organized social and recreational life is still so small that when such movements are discovered they receive widespread comment in the public press. One can drop into almost any village in America and make inquiries as to what is being done for conserving the recreational life by the church or any other community agency, and the answer will be that nothing is done either in providing leadership or buildings and equipment. Much good work has been done for specific groups by the Christian Associations, and now the American Playground Association, the Red Cross, and other organizations are applying themselves to the task of bringing about a better condition in smaller communities. But the work accomplished by all of them is still, as compared with the task in hand, scarcely more than a beginning. The church with a paid community leader in each community offers the solution for most rapid and permanent progress; and the outlook for rapid development under religious auspices is most hopeful.

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