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Connecting and Representing Evangelicals Since 1942
The year 2017 marked 75 years of spiritual ministry by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a coordinating agency facilitating Christian unity, public witness, and cooperative ministry among evangelical denominations, congregations, educational institutions and service agencies in the United States. NAE traces its beginnings to April of 1942, when a modest group of 147 people met in St. Louis with the hopes of reshaping the direction of evangelical Christianity in America.
An Unlikely Time
The time for creation of an organization for evangelicals seemed an unlikely one. On the heels of a severe economic depression, the nation had just declared war against Germany and Japan. American energies were being directed to the war effort, not matters of religious endeavor. Furthermore, if the public was expecting any new ecclesiastical initiative, they certainly were not expecting one from conservatives. The Scopes Trial of 1925 and the resulting loss of evangelical influence in the mainline denominations had led many to believe that conservative Christians had vanished from the scene, never to be heard from again.
But from another perspective, the formation of the NAE seemed like a logical outgrowth of developments among those later to be known as evangelicals during the 1930s. After conservatives had suffered public defeats in the 1920s, they channeled their creative and innovative energies into building alternative institutions independent of the established denominations, including local church congregations, mission agencies, Bible institutes, conference grounds, and publishing houses. They also placed renewed emphasis on evangelism, and found radio to be an effective medium for taking their message to the people at a time when they could not rely upon established cultural and ecclesiastical structures. As a result, evangelical Christianity, while remaining outside the cultural mainstream, established a thriving subculture, centered around engaging personalities and independent institutions.
The downside to this emerging popular movement was that many radio preachers, Christian college presidents, and pulpiteers tended to speak and act independently with seeming little regard for the big picture. Instead of acting like brothers, they acted like rivals, weakening the possibilities of meaningful Christian witness. This was particularly disheartening to J. Elwin Wright of the New England Fellowship, the man whose ideas and energies, more than any other single individual’s, resulted in the formation of the NAE.
An Idea Whose Time had Come
Wright was the right man at the right time. Lacking national stature and connections, he was a perfect example of the popular, independent religious leader in the decade before the creation of the NAE. He followed in the footsteps of his father, a Free Will Baptist minister turned Free Methodist minister, who left his denomination to start an independent Pentecostal ministry called the First Fruits Harvesters Association in Rumney, New Hampshire. After graduating from the Missionary Training Institute (now Nyack College) at Nyack, New York, in 1921, Wright was ordained by his father to the work in Rumney.
When the younger Wright succeeded his father in 1929, he transformed First Fruits Harvesters into the New England Fellowship. Rather than continuing a ministry devoted to Pentecostal distinctives, the new fellowship served a broader constituency by operating a summer conference to inspire and bring together evangelicals of all stripes throughout New England. This was not the only change he engineered. In 1934 Wright became a Congregationalist, being received on profession of faith into the membership of Park Street Church in Boston. This new affiliation proved beneficial to the New England Fellowship, enhancing Wright’s relationship with a number of emerging evangelical leaders, including one who would play a role in the NAE: Harold John Ockenga.
The New England Fellowship struck a responsive chord in an area of the country many had considered lost to the evangelical cause. But the fellowship did more than bring New Englanders together. By hosting such prominent personalities as William B. Riley of Minneapolis, Will Houghton of New York, Charles Fuller of Los Angeles and Walter Maier of St. Louis, Wright alerted New Englanders to the emerging network of conservative Christians nationwide. By the end of the 1930s, the idea of duplicating the fellowship on a national scale emerged and Wright found himself crisscrossing the continent to promote the idea.
At the same time, Ralph Davis of Africa Inland Mission had sensed the need for greater cooperation in missions and for representation before civil authorities. With these new ideas brewing, Will Houghton, by this time president of Moody Bible Institute, called for an exploratory meeting in October 1941 in Chicago. At that meeting, a temporary committee for United Action Among Evangelicals was created, Wright was named chairman, and in April 1942 a national conference was slated for St. Louis. The committee opened an office in New York, met several times during the winter to make arrangements, and issued an invitation to the first National Conference for United Action Among Evangelicals. The invitation was signed by 147 leaders, all of whom agreed that “the time is ripe for frank discussion and exploration” of the possibility of a national organization.
It Started in St. Louis
While they may not have realized it, those who responded to the invitation to St. Louis would be changed forever. What were previously isolated leaders working in limited frames of reference were molded into a cohesive whole through stirring addresses by Harold Ockenga of historic Park Street Church in Boston, William Ayer of Calvary Baptist Church in New York, Stephen Paine of Houghton College, and Robert G. Lee of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. Ockenga’s often-quoted “The Unvoiced Multitudes” speech captured the mood of the hour, lamenting that the cause of evangelical Christianity in America — once maintained by the united, corporate testimony of the established denominations — had been reduced to individuals and individual congregations. He challenged those single voices to put aside denominational differences for the sake of a more consolidated witness for Christ.
Moved to action, the conference drafted a tentative constitution and statement of faith and accepted a report of the policy committee that called for a constitutional convention a year later. As the proposed constitution stated, the group determined “to organize an Association which shall give articulation and united voice to our faith and purpose in Christ Jesus.” The only source of tension during the proceedings centered upon a motion presented by Carl McIntire, the fiery fundamentalist from New Jersey. A month before the October 1941 exploratory meeting in Chicago, he asked that participants join the American Council of Christian Churches, an organization he had founded to counter the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), an organization that later merged with the International Council of Religious Education to form the National Council of Churches. His request had been placed on the table at the earlier Chicago meeting, but in St. Louis the participants declined McIntire’s invitation, believing that a more positive presentation of the gospel was needed. While they all shared serious reservations about the FCC, the participants did not feel that militant opposition and direct confrontation with the well-established Protestant council was the best strategy.
Following the St. Louis meeting, Wright moved what was the New York office of the temporary committee to Boston, held regional meetings to generate interest, and launched the official NAE publication, United Evangelical Action. Interest in the “National Association of Evangelicals for United Action,” as the organization was called during the first year, was growing and not simply because it promised new opportunities for fellowship. Some practical issues were drawing evangelicals together, particularly an item close to home: access to radio. The Federal Council of Churches had persuaded the CBS and NBC radio networks not to sell time to religious broadcasters, but to allot free time to “recognized” faith communities. Since evangelicals were unorganized — and therefore “unrecognized” — the new radio policy posed a serious threat to evangelical broadcasting.
When the doors opened for the 1943 constitutional convention in Chicago, more than one thousand participants were ready to take their seats and constitute the new entity. While they were not official delegates, those who came represented, by some estimates, nearly 50 denominations with a potential constituency of 15 million Christians. After amending the proposed constitution and doctrinal statement, they adopted the documents and shortened the name of the organization to the National Association of Evangelicals.
The Formative Years, 1942-1950
The years following the first convention proved determinative for the fledgling organization. The first among many action items was the 1943 opening of an office in Washington, D.C., to help on a number of fronts, such as supporting evangelical chaplains, assisting mission agencies in dealings with the State Department, championing the cause of religious broadcasting to the Federal Communication Commission, and defending religious liberty. Because the demands were great, NAE called Clyde Taylor, a Baptist General Conference pastor in New England, to oversee the strategic office. Taylor, a former missionary to South America with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and part-time professor at Gordon College, was well suited for the post and for the NAE in general. While he served in a number of roles, Taylor would become the dominant figure in the NAE over the next 30 years.
Continued concern over radio prompted the NAE to form the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) at its 1944 convention in Columbus, Ohio. NRB was the first of many related service agencies the NAE would charter with a particular purpose in mind. Following the lead of CBS and NBC, the Mutual Radio Network had announced it would no longer sell time for religious broadcasting and turned the Protestant broadcasting slot over to the Federal Council of Churches. NRB, after holding its own constitutional convention later that year, responded to the challenge, eventually persuading the networks to reverse their policies.
In addition to NRB, the NAE created two task-specific commissions in 1944 — the Chaplains Commission, to assist evangelical chaplains in the military, and War Relief Commission, which would eventually become a subsidiary known as World Relief, NAE’s humanitarian assistance arm. The following year, the NAE created the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (later called the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies and now Missio Nexus, the largest missionary association in the world), chartered to handle the special needs of missionaries and their agencies.
By 1945 the NAE had also established regional offices in Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland and Los Angeles to promote the cause locally and foster communication with individuals, local churches, denominations and Christian organizations.
Some debate has focused on whether or not the NAE helped itself by founding new agencies rather than consolidating the functions under one centralized structure. Whatever the pros or cons, the arrangement was reflective of the evangelical mood at the time. While evangelicals sensed the value of some level of structure, the dynamic nature of their movement would only tolerate a limited amount of centralization. The emerging association, while providing a loose structure which linked commissions, affiliates, and a subsidiary, reflected the dynamic and independent nature of American evangelicalism.
The accomplishment of the NAE during its early years was not simply the creation of new agencies or the opening of regional offices ready to serve the evangelical public. Instead, the accomplishment of the NAE was its ability to pull together a new coalition of conservative Protestants. While the fundamentalist movement that preceded the NAE was largely the domain of Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians in the northern part of the United States, from the 1942 conference on NAE embraced numerous Christians in the Pentecostal, Holiness, and Anabaptist traditions. Pentecostalism, which had been kept at arm’s length by most fundamentalists, had become part of the conservative alliance.
Yet just when the young organization seemed to be on a roll, an issue arose that had the potential of dismantling the new coalition. The issue was evangelism; not whether it should be done, but what the NAE’s exact role should be. Should NAE as an organization be involved in evangelism directly, or should the NAE leave the preaching of the gospel to constituent member churches? A compromise was worked out at the 1945 convention, limiting the national organization’s role to simply promoting the cause of evangelism, while giving city and regional associations the option to sponsor evangelistic initiatives as they saw fit. While the compromise was satisfactory to a good majority, it did not sit well with some. The issue would undergo further revision twenty years later. One result of the controversy was that those who had been looking to the NAE for a more direct role in evangelism began to look elsewhere to parachurch agencies such as Youth for Christ and its promising first evangelist, Billy Graham.
While the NAE did represent a diverse coalition, the sizeable coalition for which the founders had hoped did not emerge. By 1945, just 15 relatively small denominations representing less than 500,000 members had signed on — a far cry from the 50 denominations and 15 million Christians that had been unofficially represented at the constitutional convention. Some larger conservative denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, remained outside of the NAE. In addition, the NAE adopted a policy in 1944 disallowing dual membership in the NAE and Federal Council of Churches creating a barrier for some denominations. As a result, when committees of the Reformed Church in America and the United Presbyterian Church of North America (not to be confused with the United Presbyterian Church, USA, created in 1958) were formed in 1948 to study the merits of switching to the NAE, they decided to remain with the Federal Council. In the same year when the motion of continuing membership in the FCC was put before presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (Southern), the affirmative vote precluded any relationship with the NAE.
Growth and Accomplishments in the 1950s
Reflecting the democratic and popular orientation of its founders, the NAE’s inability to win over elements of the ecclesiastical mainstream steered the organization toward a closer identification with the smaller, lesser known, and more culturally isolated denominations. Yet the organization would prosper in the 1950s, even without the help of the larger denominations. These were the Eisenhower years, a period of economic growth when large families, tract housing, and new churches were dotting the expanding suburban landscape. The NAE’s reputation in Washington as a service organization that could get things done was well-established. It was also the period when evangelist Billy Graham, who was identified with the NAE, became a national figure.
The cooperative agency had reached new heights as President Eisenhower welcomed an NAE delegation to the White House — a first-time honor for the association. Denominations continued to join so that by 1960, 32 denominations representing nearly 1.5 million individuals maintained NAE membership. The growth meant that the number of member denominations had doubled while the number of members of these denominations had tripled in 15 years. The numbers may still have seemed rather modest, but the NAE family was gaining national attention. In 1958, Life Magazine called attention to an emerging “Third Force” in Christianity alongside Protestantism and Catholicism which Life termed “the most extraordinary religious phenomenon of our time.” Although the article did not mention the NAE, it identified among the new force five denominations that comprised nearly two-thirds of the NAE’s membership: Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland), International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, Pentecostal Church of God, and the Pentecostal Holiness Church.
But in the 1950s the NAE would also wrestle again with its identity as compared with the National Council of Churches to the left and the American Council of Christian Churches to the right. Aiming to present a positive testimony to the gospel without directly confronting the Protestant establishment in fundamentalist fashion proved difficult in early years, especially after adopting the no-dual-membership policy in 1944. Strident criticism of the old Federal Council was not characteristic of the NAE in general. But after the formation of the National Council in 1950, NAE’s publication, United Evangelical Action, veered in that direction, denouncing the new council as an ominous superchurch threatening the freedoms of American Christians and their churches. Not until the late 1950s did the magazine move away from direct criticism and toward promotion of the evangelical cause in more positive terms.
A key accomplishment of the NAE in the 50s was its role in restoring global evangelical fellowship and cooperation after the ravages of the Second World War by reorganizing the “World Evangelical Alliance” (dating from 1846) as “the World Evangelical Fellowship” in 1951. Both J. Elwin Wright and Clyde Taylor had sensed the need for an NAE on the international level that would be a counterpart to the World Council of Churches, formed in 1948, a need the World Evangelical Alliance was too weak to meet. An exploratory meeting with the British Evangelical Alliance was held in Clarens, Switzerland, followed by two consultations in 1950 in London and Boston with representatives from the United States, England, and eleven European nations. In August 1951, 91 leaders from 21 countries attended the International Convention of Evangelicals in the Netherlands, where the World Evangelical Fellowship was officially constituted.
Another NAE initiative in the 1950s with long-range consequences was the formation of a committee in 1957 to explore the possibility of a new translation of the Bible. The National Council had five years earlier released the Revised Standard Version, but the new translation did not prove popular among many evangelicals. The NAE committee began meeting with a similar committee commissioned by the Christian Reformed Church in 1961. By 1965, the two committees formed an independent Committee on Bible Translation and two years later, the New York Bible Society (today known as Biblica) became the official sponsor. In 1978, the first copies of the New International Version of the Bible came off the presses. The presses would not stop. Ten years after initial publication more than 50 million copies had been distributed throughout the English-speaking world.
Trials and Tribulations, 1960-1978
While NAE momentum was strong from its founding in 1942 through the late 50s, the next two decades would prove to be a time of testing for the organization, just as they were for the country as a whole. Not until the late 70s would any new initiatives galvanize the association into meaningful action. The 60s were particularly difficult. The NAE and most of its leadership were not at all encouraged with the prospect of the 1960 election of John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, to the presidency — a first in American history. The mood digressed as civil rights, the Vietnam War and a new counterculture divided the nation. Assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading political figures, shocked the populace. The state of the church was equally disturbing as liberal theologians proclaimed “God is dead” while some bishops experimented with psychedelic drugs. Young people were leaving churches seemingly as quickly as babies were being born in the 1950s.
NAE faced its own troubles as its executive leadership changed hands more often than did residents of the White House. While George L. Ford, the first permanent and resident executive director (1956-63), had brought needed stability to the organization, his ascendancy to the newly created position of general director in 1963 lasted only one year. Stanley Mooneyham, director of information at the time, was considered by many as heir apparent, but left NAE for a position with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The board then named Clyde Taylor, who was in charge of the Washington operation, to the top post of general director. Taylor would remain in the nation’s capital while the executive director handled administrative matters in the Wheaton, Illinois office. Arthur Climenhaga was named to the Wheaton post, but three years later, in 1967, returned to a post in his own denomination, the Brethren in Christ Church. Billy Melvin, a denominational official with the Free Will Baptists, was brought in to succeed Climenhaga, and following Taylor’s retirement in 1974, was given sole leadership responsibility for NAE.
The frequent transitions in leadership during those years, coupled with the cultural upheaval in general, took a toll on the NAE. The rate of membership growth in the association slowed considerably. Black evangelicals formed a separate National Black Evangelical Association in 1963. The association lost its third largest denomination, the National Association of Free Will Baptists, in 1972 in the wake of internal ecclesiastical struggles. The publication frequency of United Evangelical Action, issued twice a month in the 1950s, was cut to four times a year. Also, during this period all regional NAE offices were closed as the field services department was centralized in the Wheaton office. By the late 1970s the NAE had only experienced a net membership gain of five denominations since 1960. Small wonder when Newsweek marked 1976 as the Year of the Evangelical that the magazine had very little to say about the NAE.
Maturing Leadership Brings New Life, 1978-1992
In the late 1970s the NAE entered another phase of history marked with leadership stability, near record growth, and increased national recognition. Reversing an apparent decline since the early 1960s, this phase extended through its 50th anniversary celebration in 1992. With the maturing leadership of Billy Melvin, now the sole director, the organization expanded on several fronts, including the 1979 construction of a new headquarters building in Wheaton, Illinois, called the Evangelical Center, expansion of the Office of Public Affairs, and a concerted effort to enlist new denominations.
The beginning of this phase of the NAE’s history was in 1978 when the NAE moved to significantly expand the Washington operation, naming Robert Dugan, a Conservative Baptist minister and former congressional candidate, to head the expansion. The time was right for such a move. Five years before, the Supreme Court had handed down the Roe v. Wade decision granting women an unrestricted right to abortion. While the Court did not foresee it, the decision awakened evangelicals to the world of politics in general and the nation’s capital in particular. The association launched a monthly newsletter, NAE Washington Insight, to keep evangelicals informed, and hired an experienced attorney and public policy analyst to gain influence in Washington.
While President Jimmy Carter had distanced his administration from the expanded NAE office, the new phase of the NAE history swung into full gear with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan had come to power with the wide support of evangelicals. The NAE, increasingly consulted about administration appointments and policy, seized opportunities to influence government further and enjoyed unprecedented access to the White House. The Republican president courted evangelicals for support speaking at the 1983 and 1984 NAE conventions. This was the first time a U.S. president had ever visited an NAE function. At the 1983 convention in Orlando, Florida, Reagan delivered one of his most famous speeches referring to the Soviet Communist system as “the Evil Empire.”
The association was also gaining influence on Capitol Hill. The NAE’s efforts resulted in a number of legislative victories in the 1980s including the passage of bills on drunk driving, church audit procedures, and equal access to public school facilities for religious organizations. But the NAE did not just concern itself with domestic matters. In 1984, the NAE launched the highly-praised Peace, Freedom and Security Studies program in an effort to make a distinct contribution to the public debate.
With new visibility in Washington, Billy Melvin worked tirelessly to highlight the status and role of denominations in the NAE. At the 25th anniversary in 1967, some observers had noted that while denominations held membership in NAE, their role seemed to be minimized. Twenty-five years later the opposite was the case as NAE become more and more identified as a fellowship not just of evangelicals, but as a fellowship of evangelical denominations. Closely related to this change of identity was Melvin’s deliberate effort to persuade new denominations to join the NAE. In the mid-70s Melvin began building relationships with key officials in denominations outside the NAE’s fellowship. By the 1980s, his campaign had paid off as one denomination after another applied for membership in the NAE, enabling NAE’s membership to expand at a level not experienced since the 1940s. Between 1981 and 1990, 15 denominations joined NAE. Total NAE membership reflected in the combined categories of individuals, ministry organizations and constituent denominations reached nearly 4.5 million — a 74 percent increase since 1980. The gain during the decade was greater than the entire NAE membership as of 1960. While growth under Melvin did not bring the NAE up to the expectations of the 1943 convention, the growth was nonetheless remarkable, considering the record membership losses experienced by mainline Protestant denominations at the time.
NAE Celebrates its 50th Anniversary, the 1990s
The 50th anniversary of the organization was celebrated in 1992 at the annual March Convention at the Chicago Hyatt Hotel. President George H. W. Bush spoke to the World Relief annual luncheon at the invitation of the organization’s president Arthur Gay, making Bush the third President to so honor the NAE. During the convention Billy Graham spoke for the last time at an NAE gathering, calling on evangelicals to a renewed commitment to spread the gospel. The NAE responded with “Forward in Faith,” a reaffirmation of the historic NAE manifesto. Donald Argue of North Central University in Minneapolis was elected the 26th president of the NAE at the Chicago gathering. In his acceptance speech he foreshadowed coming changes when he suggested that NAE members were “too old, too male, and too white.”
As it entered the 1990s, the NAE maintained its largest staff to date. It supported a staff of 22 with 14 in Wheaton and eight in Washington, D.C. While the NAE had developed and spun off many ministries over the first 50 years, it maintained World Relief as a subsidiary, as well as affiliates including the Christian Stewardship Association, National Religious Broadcasters and the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies. The NAE also listed a wide range of “commissions” — groups commissioned to develop ministries to women, chaplains and the world of higher education.
When long-serving Executive Director Billy Melvin completed 27 years of service in 1994, the NAE moved forward with a reorganization plan. The executive director position was eliminated and a new structure called for a full-time president and CEO, a change from the presidential rotation structure of the past. The position of chairman of the board was created. Robert Cooley, chairman of the World Relief Corporation board, had proposed and shepherded this change after having restructured the board of World Relief in the same way.
To fill the new full-time position of president and CEO, the NAE turned to Donald Argue, who was finishing his two-year term as president of the NAE under the previous rotating system of volunteer presidents of the board. Argue was elected to the new position in December of 1994 and was installed in March of 1995 at the annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky. David Rambo, president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, was named chairman of the board.
While the NAE reorganized itself, the country welcomed a new president to Washington. The election of Bill Clinton was, according to NAE staff member Richard Cizik, “celebrated in the offices of mainline Protestants … and bemoaned by most white evangelical leaders.” This sudden shift after years of Republican administrations revealed that perhaps evangelicals had become too comfortable with just one political party. In this new atmosphere the NAE board charged incoming President Argue with the task of encouraging a distancing of evangelicals from political parties. As he undertook the task Argue noted, “We are in danger of being, if not already identified as, the political arm of one party — a very dangerous position to be in.” The Clinton administration courted evangelicals, and specifically NAE leadership, with invitations to state dinners, religious leaders breakfasts and other such events. Argue was perhaps personally more active in Washington than prior presidents and developed a friendship with both President and Mrs. Clinton. Yet in spite of open access to the White House during the 1990s, the NAE’s resolutions often contradicted the Clinton administration policies on issues such as gay rights.
As Don Argue assumed his new role as full-time president in the summer of 1995, other significant transitions followed. Upon the decision of Art Gay to return to parish ministry in 1997, Clive Calver, general director of the Evangelical Alliance of Great Britain, was selected to be the new president of World Relief. The selection of Calver, a non-American, created somewhat of a controversy. The approval by the board of World Relief did not necessarily reflect the will of the NAE board, leading to some struggles and extended board sessions. When the process ended Calver took the helm of World Relief and served until 2004.
In 1997 Robert Dugan retired from the Washington office where he had served and had established himself as a trusted voice for evangelicals in the nation’s capital since 1978. Richard Cizik, an ordained Presbyterian who had served as a policy analyst and researcher/writer for NAE’s Washington Insight since1980 was chosen to succeed Dugan. As director of the Office of Governmental Affairs, Cizik brought a significant international focus to the office. His passion for international religious liberty and other global issues made a significant mark on NAE policy. With a new tactic of cooperation with non-evangelicals and even non-Christians, the NAE had a significant impact under Cizik’s leadership and played a major role in the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act, the Sudan Peace Act, and the North Korean Human Rights Act, as well as legislation on international sexual trafficking, prison rape and AIDS. The assertion of New York Times columnist Nicholas Krisof that “evangelicals are the new internationalists” reflects the impact Richard Cizik made.
Don Argue stepped down as NAE president in May 1998 to return to academia as president of Northwest University in Seattle. The mid-year timing proved difficult for the organization. However, the search for a new president was begun with a March deadline only a few months away. While the Washington Office was active with some of its most significant work, the Wheaton Office entered its final days.
At the NAE convention in March 1999, Kevin Mannoia, a Free Methodist Bishop who had only recently joined the NAE board of directors as his denomination’s representative, was presented as a late nomination for president.
Relatively unfamiliar with culture of the NAE, President Mannoia launched out boldly at a time when he sensed NAE needed a new vision: “It is time to enlarge the borders and include those with compatible views who are outside the traditional realm of evangelicalism.” He noted that the NAE should not be fearful of charismatic movements such as the Vineyard, adding that many evangelical United Methodists would feel at home in the NAE. “We don’t need to be looking for litmus tests,” he said. “We should be replacing block walls with picket fences.”
During his first year in office, Mannoia took steps to open an office in Los Angeles and to vacate and sell the Evangelical Center in Wheaton. He envisioned the NAE having offices on both coasts, at the governmental and cultural power centers. In President Mannoia’s “Ministry Platform: The Cascading Flow,” he outlined three roles for NAE, a shift from the roles articulated in “Forward in Faith” at the 50th anniversary in 1992. He urged NAE to be a prophetic ministry casting a “vision for a missional future,” empowering and validating evangelical ministries, and continuing to expand its representative function.
A desire to define evangelicalism by its center rather than its boundaries was behind the initiative of Mannoia to change the NAE bylaws allowing denominations with membership in either the National Council of Churches (NCC) or World Council of Churches (WCC) to hold dual membership with the NAE. Certainly many individual churches whose denominations were part of the NCC were solid members of the NAE. But the provision to offer membership to NCC and WCC member denominations seriously concerned the NAE Board of Directors at its March 2000 meeting. The board was torn and divided. After all, as some suggested, there was an automatic safeguard: Any denomination might come and apply for membership but would be admitted only by vote of the entire board. Others were not persuaded reflecting the painful denominational struggles and even some denominational splits that had occurred in the past. Yet, desiring to support the heart and vision of its new president, the board approved the proposal after a contentious meeting.
Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler took the NAE to task for “rescuing the National Council of Churches from irrelevance” by its decision to drop the bylaw prohibiting member denominations from holding joint membership. Even Carl Henry opined that this is the “worst possible time” to elevate the NCC. The National Religious Broadcasters — a life-long affiliate birthed by the NAE — voted to withdraw from the NAE, citing the abrupt shift on the part of the NAE in relationship to the NCC and the WCC.
A growing backlash against the bylaw change proposed a year before by Mannoia was reflected by the attendance at the March 2001 annual convention in Dallas. Only 200 attended what was to have been a major evangelical summit. It would prove to be the last annual convention of the NAE held in a commercial facility. The low attendance resulted in significant financial losses for the convention. As a result, the financial health of the organization was seriously destabilized. Combined with the costly earlier decision to relocate the office to Azusa, California, the NAE was in a serious financial situation.
In June of 2001 Kevin Mennoia resigned as president. Due to financial burdens, staff cuts in both offices were made and much of the work of the NAE ground to a halt.
In the fall of 2002, Leith Anderson, pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, stepped forward to become the interim president of NAE. With his longstanding service to the local church and extensive connections in the evangelical community, Anderson was an ideal leader in a moment of crisis. He had served as interim president of Denver Seminary during a critical transition there, and had the managerial and people skills to lead NAE at such a critical time.
The Los Angeles office was closed and Washington, D.C., became the NAE’s headquarters. The staff was streamlined while the NAE began the slow task of rebuilding. No convention was held in 2002 as energies and resources were redirected.
At the NAE’s 60th anniversary in 2002, the organization was struggling on the road to recovery. What caused a vibrant organization to fall so precipitously in the ten years since its grand 50th anniversary? A simple explanation is difficult, but there are several factors which seem to have contributed to this period of decline.
Perhaps at the heart were several dramatic changes that had taken place between 1942 and 1992. First, in 1942 evangelicals united for action because they had a common cause, if not a clear common enemy. The Federal Council of Churches dominated the landscape and evangelicals struggled together to offer a Biblical alternative between the historic modernists and fundamentalists. Fifty years later the liberal mainline denominations were in rapid decline, and the National Council of Churches, discredited by its support of liberal causes such as the gay agenda, was on the verge of irrelevance if not extinction. Evangelicalism had eclipsed the mainline churches, and the cause that had united evangelicals to action no longer seemed significant.
Second, at the same time Billy Graham who had served as the standard bearer for the evangelical movement through the 50s, 60s, 70s and the 80s was moving into an emeritus role. Although there was no shortage of strong leaders within the evangelical movement, no single leader had emerged to take Graham’s place.
Third, the evangelical movement became a victim of its own success; to some degree its strong entrepreneurial spirit fragmented the movement and the vitality of the NAE. The multiplication of megachurches and parachurch ministries since 1968 had created a changing evangelical sub-culture where resources and influence rested in large heavily-resourced churches and parachurch movements rather than in denominations. Since then, large churches have flourished, with multiple churches growing into mega-church size each year. And for many, parachurch leaders like James Dobson and Charles Colson had become, by virtue of media access, the spokespersons for the evangelical movement.
Fourth, during the 90s the most significant generation among the U.S. population was the Baby Boomers (those born between 1945 and 1968). Boomers were not only the major force behind the explosion of the megachurch, but have been identified by their strong independence and unwillingness to support or belong to the institutions of their parents’ generation.
Rebuilding in a New Century
Interim President Leith Anderson proposed to the board that new charter documents were needed for the NAE. The NAE’s constitution and bylaws that mandated a very formalized structure of commissions and affiliates were out of date. In fact, Anderson suggested the NAE was in violation of its own constitution, because it was unable to sustain all of the various parts of the organization. New charter documents were adopted which granted the board discretion to structure the organization as it deemed necessary. Nine pages replaced 40 pages of documents.
In 2003 a new era of NAE was introduced as the 61st Convention was held not a hotel or convention center, but at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. As pastor of Wooddale Church, Interim President Anderson was the host. The change of venue signaled a significant change in philosophy regarding the NAE convention. For much of its history, large NAE gatherings could not be held in churches — space in even the largest U.S. churches for gatherings of 1,500-2,000 was insufficient. The emergence of the megachurch changed all that. Hosting the NAE convention at a megachurch sent a strong message to the NAE family that the church is home!
During the convention Anderson moderated a forum entitled, “The Future of American Evangelicalism.” Others serving on that panel were David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago and editor of Christian Century, and George Brushaber, President of Bethel University.
Martin Marty made a remarkable declaration to the convention: “You won!” By that he meant that evangelicalism had won the day and now was the major force in American Christianity. In his acknowledgement that mainline Protestantism had been eclipsed by evangelicalism as the dominant force in American Christianity, he confirmed that the open struggle between the National Council of Churches and the NAE was over.
While it was significant for Marty to crown evangelicalism as triumphant over its 60 year “contest” with mainline Christianity, the NAE was still a shadow of what it had been. The feeling of many was that the NAE was needed now more than ever. A new NAE for a new century was emerging.
At the close of the 2003 convention Leith Anderson stepped down, having demonstrated that a megachurch pastor could provide credible and effective leadership for the NAE, and do so on a part-time basis. In his 15 months as president he had closed the Los Angeles office and consolidated the office in Washington, D.C. New administrative staff was hired in Washington, the accounting was contracted, and the NAE began to put its financial house back in order. More than anything else, Anderson’s personal credibility restored confidence in the NAE as a viable network of evangelicals for the new century.
The executive committee of the NAE turned to one of its own members, Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, to serve as the new president on a part-time basis. Haggard, whose independent congregation with 12,000 worshippers was one of the largest in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States, was confirmed at the 2003 October board meeting to serve as president of the NAE.
An NAE Office of the President was opened with a small staff at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. The vision of the new president was to move the NAE to a web-based network of evangelicals focused on bringing together evangelicals who are doing the work of the kingdom in order to make each other more effective. The NAE commissions — groups commissioned to do ministry — were set aside in favor of strategic relationships with those who were already doing ministry. Mission America Coalition (MAC) and the NAE formalized a partnership by which MAC served as an arm of evangelism of the NAE. The Office of National Ministries, headed by Dr. Bob Wenz, worked to develop other strategic partnerships.
The longstanding vital Chaplains Commission of the NAE, whose membership is responsible for credentialing 900 evangelical chaplains in the U.S. military and Veterans Administration, was revitalized and brought into the Office of the President in Colorado Springs.
The March 2004 convention in Colorado Springs celebrated the reemergence of the NAE. The visibility of the NAE had increased remarkably with an unprecedented number of requests from the media for interviews and information. Certainly the 2004 election year forced the media — confronted everywhere by talk about evangelical voters — to turn to the NAE again and again for insights into millions of self-identified evangelicals in the United States. It came as no surprise that President George W. Bush, running for reelection in 2004, would visit the NAE convention via satellite link and tell the delegates, “You cannot endorse me, but I endorse you.” At the convention the NAE launched an emphasis called Young Evangelicals to encourage young believers to faithfully take on the work of the church in their generation.
During the Mannoia years, the board launched the Project for Evangelical Social Engagement, which came to fruition at the end of 2004. Referencing an important volume by Carl F. H. Henry in 1947, “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism,” the project team worked to articulate a framework for evangelical civic and political engagement for the 21st century under the direction of Richard Cizik, the vice president of governmental affairs. The project generated a major volume edited by the late Diane Knippers and Ronald Sider and published by Baker Books titled “Toward an Evangelical Public Policy.” The work is a scholarly and provocative book from sixteen authors that serves as a resource to the evangelical community.
“For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” is a clear and pointed summary of the larger volume that calls evangelicals to address seven spheres of social involvement from a biblical framework and also provides specific principles of engagement. The spheres of engagement range from religious freedom and the protection of the life of the unborn to care for God’s creation.
The document was presented publicly on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in March 2005, where the signatures of 100 plus evangelical leaders were released. A remarkable variety of evangelicals affirmed the document including Rick Warren, James Dobson, Charles Colson and Richard Mouw. Speaking at the event, church historian Mark Noll declared: “This document is, in unusual measure, compassionate, well-balanced, thoughtful, remarkably comprehensive, humble, well-informed, noncombative, irenic, and wise. Believe me, in over 30 years of lecturing and writing about the history of evangelical Christianity, I have very rarely been able to use all of those adjectives all at once about the same thing.”
“For the Health of the Nation” gave the NAE a clear framework for civic responsibility as it moved ahead in its work. Nevertheless, not all evangelicals were happy with the way the NAE interpreted the document. As Cizik began to publicly call on evangelicals to care for creation and take action on climate change, the push-back from some evangelical circles was fierce. In May 2006 James Dobson publicly accused Cizik of “dividing evangelicals,” and in March 2007 Dobson and other conservative leaders sent a letter to the NAE board requesting that Cizik limit his speech on creation care or be asked to resign. The NAE board stood behind Cizik, reaffirming the broad agenda of the “For the Health of the Nation” document at the March 2007 meeting. Cizik resigned his post with the NAE in December 2008.
Several months earlier in the late fall of 2006, the NAE faced a crisis that may have ruined a lesser organization. On November 2, Ted Haggard resigned suddenly from his position as NAE president amid allegations of sexual misconduct. The executive committee of the board acted quickly and decisively, inviting Leith Anderson to once again serve as interim president. Anderson agreed to serve for an indefinite period to give stability while the NAE searched for a new president. While Anderson worked to stabilize association operations, the board launched a Presidential Search Task Force. The task force concluded that Leith Anderson best fit the needs of the association and asked him to consider assuming the presidency. Anderson agreed and was formally elected to a three-year term at the October 2007 board meeting.
Anderson assumed the NAE presidency with a firm understanding of the NAE’s history and a clear vision for the future. He is a gifted communicator and leader, regularly gives interviews and occasionally ventures into the public policy arena, but his primary interests are with the church, rather than with politics or the press. He has cast a vision for an association with strong connections to member denominations and organizations, one which influences society for justice and righteousness, and gathers the many voices of evangelicals together to be more effective for Jesus Christ and his cause.
Anderson streamlined the NAE staff and hired Todd Bassett (former National Commander of the Salvation Army) as an NAE special representative. Under their leadership the various offices of the NAE continued to move forward. Currently, Galen Carey, vice president for government relations, is working to establish projects in each of the policy areas outlined in the “For the Health of the Nation” document. Heather Gonzales, vice president and COO, is tasked with strengthening NAE connections to our member churches, denominations, schools and organizations. The Chaplains Commission and World Relief are also strong and are serving their respective communities with distinction.
With a record of over 70 years of facilitating evangelical unity, witness and cooperation, the NAE is well situated to continue providing strategic leadership for evangelicals. While the NAE has not become everything or done everything that many had hoped, it still remains the only institutional structure and the most representative agency of American evangelicals in the 21st century. It serves a critical need by providing stability and connectedness for evangelicals while projecting a respected voice for the evangelical movement across America.
No one can predict the certain future of the NAE, but evangelicals can be certain that the association will remain faithful to its original vision of providing a united and public witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.