Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania continues a long and rich ecumenical history which began in 1817 with the formation of the Pittsburgh Sabbath School Union. The Union connected Protestant congregations within the city as they shared resources for Christian education. Later the Union merged with the Protestant Ministerial Union (established 1900) to form the Allegheny County Council of Churches.
In the 1960s, Christian leaders in southwest Pennsylvania saw a shared vision for greater collaboration and unity among the region's many denominations. These visionaries sought to emphasize the unity of Christ that transcends throughout all of Christianity. While separateness, miscommunication, and mistrust unfortunately marked much of ecumenical relations throughout the country, these leaders were organized to put into action a hope for growing trust and understanding.
In fact, these leaders were so visionary that Christian Associates was the first metropolitan ecumenical agency in the United States to include Roman Catholic participation. When approached by Allegheny County Council of Churches' executive director Lee Hicks, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, Bishop John J. Wright, wrote, "If you are asking me to join the Council of Churches, I'm not interested. But if you are asking me to study a new ecumenical thrust which might include Catholics, I am very interested." Indeed, a new ecumenical movement was forming in Christian Associates as it built upon the efforts of the Council of Churches and incorporated the opening spirit of Vatican II.
After much prayer, fellowship, research, and study, the new ecumenical movement of Christian Associates was founded on seven guiding principles:
A Christ-centered approach
Faith is the undercurrent of all work of the organization
Life and work were to be the major expression of witness
Judicatory oriented, rather than congregational oriented
Service to a nine county area in the southwest region of Pennsylvania
Emphasis on resources rather than programs
Receptivity to the work of the Holy Spirit
With these principles in mind, the early leaders gathered on April 15, 1970 at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh to officially begin the storied legacy of Christian Associates. The first five years were so successful that Christian Associates received the National Ecumenical Service and Recognition Award from the National Council of Churches on December 1, 1975. Two years later, Christian Associates became the first ecumenical agency to host the National Workshop on Christian Unity.
During its first forty-five years, Christian Associates established itself as an organization that approaches ecumenism at the judicatory level, but in a way that provided the communication and resources to help efforts at the congregational level. Thus, Christian Associates became the main actor in collaboration between the region’s denominations as they worked together towards education and social issues. For example, Christian Associates was an important organizer for the faith community’s response to Pittsburgh’s high unemployment rates during the late 1970s and early 1980s following the closure of many of the steel mills. Christian Associates took the lead in organizing the faith community's response to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The organization has been active in anti-racism work; in communications in print, TV, and radio; and in projects to increase interfaith understanding.
Today, Christian Associates continues its legacy of engaging the wider Church through collegiality, collaboration, connectedness, and communication. It builds trusting relationships between church leaders; organizes the region’s congregations around social issues; connects the Church to the local communities; and communicates news, events, and information to help churches thrive. All of Christian Associate’s efforts point back to the seven guiding principles that the original leaders envisioned for a truly united Christian community in southwest Pennsylvania.