The National Council of Churches, the largest religious organization in the country, today approved plans for a massive nationwide assembly of Christians that would include Roman Catholics, conservative evangelicals and other groups that are not NCC members.

The Gathering of Christians, which has yet to be scheduled, is one aspect of a reshaping of the NCC, designed to take the interdenominational agency into the 21st century. The NCC's governing board approved the plan at its twice-a-year meeting.

The planned Gathering of Christians was described as "a forum for the broadest possible sharing among its participants."

Although the Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical denominations have participated in some aspects of the council's work, they have declined formal membership in the NCC because of theological differences. The Gathering of Christians, which would be held once every four years, was described as a forum that could "reflect the diversity found among U.S. Christians" without theological entanglement.

Also discussed was a plan that would give the 266-member governing board, made up of representatives from 32 member churches, greater accountability for the council's programs and activities.

The organization also selected new officers.

The Rev. Dr. Arie R. Brouwer, 49, a seasoned church administrator with experience at national and international levels, was the unanimous choice for general secretary, the council's top executive officer. The Reformed Church pastor succeeds Claire Randall, who is retiring.

Bishop Philip R. Cousin Sr., was elected president. The bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church is the first representative from a predominantly black communion -- though not the first black -- to be elected president.

Cousin, who was elected first vice president three years ago, has been serving in the top spot for nearly a year, following the resignation of the Rev. Dr. James Armstrong.

Brouwer, a Midwest native on whose shoulders will fall the day-to-day responsibilities of implementing the restructuring plan, is currently deputy general secretary of the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva.

In accepting his new position, Brouwer offered a theological justification for some of the controversial positions the council has taken in the past, particularly in the area of social justice.

In order to be faithful to their Christian beliefs, Brouwer said, "we have sometimes been, and surely will again be, required to stand against public opinion and governmental authority and financial pressure in the struggle to resist oppression and injustice.

"But this is not to stand against America. It is to stand for America," he said. "We stand against injustice because we wish America to be a just state -- to fulfill its purpose in the service of God and humankind."

In other actions, the governing board adopted a comprehensive policy on day-care centers for children, operated in or by churches. A study some years ago disclosed that there are more day-care facilities in churches than in any other institution.

Whether the child-care facility is operated by the church or an outside contracter, "the governing body of the church should be conscientious about its involvement," the NCC document said.

The statement recommends separating the day-care center from efforts to recruit new members, directed either at parent or child.

In those churches that disagree with this concept and who consider child-care programs "as outreach and evangelism," then that policy "should be clearly stated to parents so that their decisions can be well informed," the statement said. If explicit Christian education is to be a part of the day-care program, "parents must be made aware" of that "before they make the decision to enroll their children."

The NCC, which has been vigilant in its defense of church-state separation, cautioned churches not to use First Amendment rights to seek exemption from state regulations of health and safety for day-care centers.

The policy statement adopted by the council's governing board, in addition to setting standards for the churches' own child-care programs, urged that churches also press for a national policy on child care.