- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

The umbrella group representing evangelicals, the largest wing of U.S. Christianity, yesterday committed itself to "transforming" culture, recognizing minority leadership and mending fences with old theological foes.

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), having elected its first black chairman, also changed its bylaws so that its members may belong to liberal ecumenical groups, such as the National Council of Churches (NCC).

As the "evangelical movement" changes culture, "we are going to be encountering resistance, and we are going to be creating waves," Free Methodist Bishop Kevin Mannoia, NAE president, said in opening its four-day assembly here.

To improve society, he said, conservative Protestantism, which includes up to a third of American Christians, must "get its hands dirty," rather than merely decrying moral evils or "circling our wagons into a nice, holy huddle."

"It's not to overpower, push aside, or succeed culture, but to transform culture," he said.

Bishop Mannoia said afterward that his call to activism is contrary to images evoked in recent political talk about an "intolerant" so-called "religious right."

"When I'm talking about transforming culture, I'm not talking about taking over," he said. "Generally, evangelical Christianity is committed to a very positive engagement with our culture."

The NAE, which rarely holds annual assemblies in Washington, D.C., this year gave a Hispanic affiliate equal billing.

This inclusion of minority groups is part of the new demographics for evangelicals, with growth in black and Hispanic circles, which tend to combine morally conservative stances with socially liberal policies.

"The NAE has been too male, too white and too aging," said the Rev. Edward Foggs, the association's first black chairman and former general secretary of the Church of God, based in Anderson, Ind.

"There has been a real effort to change that," Mr. Foggs said. He noted that the Student Leadership Conference, aimed at college-age evangelicals, has held center stage at this annual assembly.

Besides attending an array of forums on Capitol Hill, the NAE participants today will hold a rally for laws against "sexual trafficking of women and children" worldwide. Saturday, they will bring a "Convoy of Hope" to Camp Simms, a plot of barren acreage in Southeast.

Meeting at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington, Va., the NAE board passed resolutions supporting the "charitable choice" law, which allows ministries to use federal funds for social welfare, urged racial reconciliation, and backed entry into the United States for refugees facing religious persecution.

The NAE also endorsed efforts to legally define marriage as "between a man and a woman," such as the Proposition 22 ballot initiative in California.

The joint meeting of Hispanic ministers here also points to a newly trained evangelical leadership, said the Rev. Marcos Rivera of Primitive Christian Church in New York City.

"Now, you are seeing the emergence of Latino leadership that has been in incubation," he said. "Denomination in the Latin mind-set is not important."

The NAE was born in 1941 as an alternative to a decades-long clash between modernist Protestants and fundamentalists. It promoted the label "evangelical."

It is tied to the Rev. Billy Graham and Christianity Today, a journal founded to counter liberal Protestant media.

The NAE's membership includes 51 denominations, totaling 45,000 congregations, and 250 independent ministries. That amounts to 4.5 million evangelicals, whose work is said to "benefit" 30 million people.

But in a survey released yesterday, only seven in 10 Protestant clergy in the United States know of the NAE, and less than a third of them know its role and history.

"Most of [those who knew] were in a senior generation, and most of them were in a denomination," Bishop Mannoia said.

In allowing dual membership to groups such as the NCC, the evangelical NAE said that is possible now because the conservative theological identity is stronger than ever.

"Whereas we have often been defined relative to the more theologically liberal NCC, we recognize that our identity is no longer based on being compared to them," a statement said.

In his talk, Bishop Mannoia appealed for unity among theologically conservative Protestants who otherwise are known to easily split over personalities, ministry styles or points of doctrine.

Embracing all of these "styles and traditions" is "beyond tolerance," Bishop Mannoia said. "It's an embracing of the wholeness of the body of Christ."

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