Evangelical congregations in churches across the U. S. support a common doctrinal position embodied in the seven-point statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals as drawn up in 1942. Although identified with the NAE, many have only a hazy idea about the scope of cooperative endeavors they are involved in through the association. CHRISTIANITY TODAY interviewed executive director Billy A. Melvin to bring its Junctions into focus.
What is NAE?
It is just what those initials signify: a national association of evangelicals—denominations, churches, individuals—who have banded together in order to serve the church of Jesus Christ more effectively than they could by working separately.
Who are the evangelicals who make up NAE?
Our organization is composed of 42 denominations plus local churches in 33 others. That means we represent a total of 75 denominations—some by the membership of the entire body, others by local churches within the denomination. One way or the other, individual churches from all of the historic Protestant denominations are related to NAE, and almost all of the smaller groups, too. We estimate that there are some three-and-a-half million people from about 38,000 local churches in the organization.
What is the theological coloring of NAE?
Theologically we represent the whole spectrum—everything from Mennonite to Reformed Presbyterian, from Baptist to Lutheran, Pentecostal, and holiness. Probably the total membership is slightly more Calvinistic than Arminian; it’s almost fifty-fifty.
What does NAE do? What are its goals?
First of all, we provide a platform and united voice for evangelical Christian churches in the United States so they will be heard. NAE’s distinctive is its biblical commitment. We seek to represent that perspective to the public at large and to the government. Because of this we stand over against the National Council of Churches.
For years the NCC has testified time and again before congressional committees and hearings. Government leaders thought they were hearing what the churches think, but they really had not heard. It took about 10 years to break through that attitude; now we have created a voice for evangelicals. Government leaders solicit our written or verbal testimony. From the NAE they hear a more authentic voice of the people within America’s churches than they hear from the NCC.
Second, we pull church leaders together in ways that strengthen the work of the entire church. Leaders can sharpen and hone one another, and NAE does this beautifully. For example, in November we will have a consultation on church planting. Leaders from 40 to 50 denominations will be there. They’ll come because it’s sponsored by NAE, spend two days meeting with resource people, and collect practical information and stimulation from the consultation.
So your main input into the life of a church would be through these gatherings, from which ideas filter down to the local level?
Yes. We work primarily with leadership. I’m talking about leaders in missions, in church planting, in stewardship—in all areas of the work of the church. They know what fits into their own denominational goals. And they have the resources—mailing lists, reports, newsletters, magazines—to feed the material out to the churches. We multiply ourselves by working with church leaders.
The majority of the churches in America are small, with 150 or fewer members. We try to meet their needs, too, and not just those of the super-deluxe models. We want to build and strengthen local churches.
In the forties and fifties it seemed there was an effort to build local, citywide NAE’S. Are they still going?
Of course. We are working with well over 200 local associations of evangelicals, the strongest being the Greater Minneapolis Association of Evangelicals, which has more than 200 churches, a full-time staff, and a marvelous program.
What does the Minneapolis group do?
All kinds of things. It has a chaplain’s program at the prisons, jail ministries, halfway houses, and coffee houses, and is involved politically in moral issues directly affecting the city.
If a pastor phones and says, “I’d like to have an NAE association in my city,” what do you say?
We encourage him, give him instructions on how to organize a group, and support him. We have materials to tell him step by step what he needs to do—all of it proven by those who have done this sort of thing successfully.
Do you have field men who organize such groups?
We ourselves do not initiate local NAE associations. We don’t try to pump up interest where it doesn’t exist. We used to have regional offices, but now we do a great deal of our work by telephone. We still have men out in the field, but it’s a big country. They meet twice a year with each state board—with those committed to doing something. In a way, our staff serves as disciplers, not recruiters, helping to direct more intelligently and effectively the energies of those who have recognized a need.
NAE has given birth to a number of daughter organizations. Tell us about them.
The initial catalyst that resulted in the formation of NAE was radio broadcasting. The National Religious Broadcasters started as a radio committee of NAE and eventually developed into a separate, though affiliated, organization. Today NRB represents about 85 percent of all religious broadcasting in the world, and its annual convention has become an international affair.
NAE concern over missions sprang from the difficulty missionaries were having getting visas after World War II. NAE tackled that problem and eventually formed the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association to serve the many growing evangelical missionary societies. EFMA today represents 81 denominational and nondenominational agencies. These agencies send out more than 10,000 missionaries to over 130 countries worldwide.
As the war wound down in Europe, refugees became more of a problem and the churches wanted to respond, but needed help. So NAE formed a War Relief Committee to gather blankets, medicine, food, vitamins, and other necessities for the refugees of Europe. That became the World Relief Corporation, which has its headquarters with us but branch offices in places of need all over the world. Help is being extended in 51 nations, and over the past three years, 32,000 refugees have been sponsored for resettlement in this country.
Are these organizations a direct part of NAE?
Absolutely. We have three affiliates: NRB, EFMA, and the American Association of Evangelical Students. The presidents of these organizations are ex officio members of our board of administration, and the members of their boards must be confirmed by NAE.
You also have commissions. What are they?
Commissions are permanent working groups set up to research, plan, and make recommendations in specific areas of concern. Each member denomination may name one person to a commission and the NAE elects seven or more members at large.
What is the relationship between the NAE and the American Council of Churches?
None. When I first came on staff, we heard a great deal about the ACC in the public media. In the last five years the subject has seldom been brought up. I hardly ever read about it. It’s as though it didn’t exist.
What about the World Evangelical Fellowship?
We are members of WEF, which is a world body. We are one of 50 national bodies related to WEF now. Last month WEF moved its offices into our NAE building. David Howard heads that organization, and we will work closely together.
How about the National Holiness Association?
It is a member of NAE. Some denominations, such as the Church of the Nazarene, have never joined NAE, but we represent them indirectly because they are members of the National Holiness Association.
I should also mention the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America, which had its initial impetus from NAE. The Pentecostal leaders created their fellowship out of contacts and acquaintances first made in NAE.
What relationships have you with the National Council of Churches?
None. I do not go to their meetings. Occasionally I have contact with their leaders by phone or letter or in meetings of common interest attended by both.
We’ve picked up that they are finally becoming less hostile toward evangelicals. Do you sense any doors opening or willingness to sit down and talk?
There’s no question but that this is the case. I believe the current president, Bishop James Armstrong, is very interested in dialogue with evangelicals, but the person following him may well have a different attitude. Moreover, it is important not to contuse your constituency about what you stand for and where you are going.
I think some of the lessened hostility has come about because they are in numerical and financial difficulty. Since evangelical churches are growing, they have become more interested.
Of course, there are many good, solid evangelicals within all the mainline structures. I’m not on any crusade to get them to leave their denominations. But certainly, we encourage them to be faithful to their evangelical convictions both in their work and in their witness. This has been the stance of NAE from the beginning. That was one reason Carl McIntire and the ACC went in another direction. They felt all evangelicals in NCC-related denominations had to leave their denominations.
Our position has been that it is not the business of NAE to interfere in the internal affairs of a local church. We are prepared to fellowship with them and love them whether they are in or out of their denomination.
Is this one reason NAE has sometimes been looked upon as condoning apostacy from biblical faith or unwilling to attack liberalism?
That is correct. NAE is unequivocally evangelical, but it welcomes conservative evangelicals within denominations whose leadership may have departed from biblical commitments of the past.
Obviously the biggest chunk of evangelicals is the Southern Baptist Convention. Could it be pulled into NAE?
As a group, no. It has no authority to commit its local churches, so there’s no way it could join NAE as a convention. The only way Southern Baptist churches can be involved with NAE is to join individually, one by one, as Conservative Baptist churches have done. Some Southern Baptist churches are members of NAE.
Why does NAE have so few members from the mainline denominations?
That is not accurate. A significant number of mainline churches and leaders are connected with NAE. Of our 20 past presidents, 6 have come from mainline denominations.
One problem for churches in the traditional denominations is that they must demonstrate loyalty to their denominations, and membership in organizations like NAE tends to jeopardize that. Can NAE lick that, or do you just have to live with it?
I think we have to live with it. That is a climate created within the denomination. I know United Presbyterian pastors who have led their churches into joining NAE. If they left their present ministries, they would likely be sent to the boondocks. So, many pay a price for identifying with us—a price others are not yet prepared to pay.
What about the fundamentalists?
We welcome them, too. I invite them to look at the 40-year history of NAE, because I believe this organization has proven faithful to its biblical commitment. On the basis of that history, I’ve urged fundamentalists to join hand and heart with us for the greater good of the church in making an impact on our nation and the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Would you say you stand doctrinally with fundamentalists as the word was originally used?
Oh, without question! This has caused me heartache more than once. People write to me and say NAE doesn’t believe in the Bible. But I believe the Bible is verbally inspired and the inerrant Word of God. On traditional, fundamental doctrines, NAE and the fundamentalists are in agreement, except that not all of us hold their view of ecclesiastical separation. If fundamentalists are willing to accept that some in NAE belong to denominations that are influenced by liberalism or wish to support the Billy Graham crusades, we’re together.
Do you sense that there are some who were reared in liberal theology or who through their educational process drifted away from evangelicalism who now have second thoughts?
Yes, indeed, and we would like to win them to the NAE. Some are discovering that liberal theology is a dead-end street and returning to a true evangelical position. We believe we can do more together than separately.
When someone from NAE testifies in Washington to influence legislation, does he speak as an individual or for the organization? Who decides what NAE’s position is?
Our constituency decides. We have a very orthodox Protestant statement of faith. Within this framework, stated positions work their way up through our member church bodies and denominations to find expression in resolutions passed at our annual national conventions. Also, there is informal input from denominational leaders, board members, and our commissions and affiliates.
NAE spokespersons work very hard to represent their constituency responsibly. If we are not supported by resolutions, we speak as individuals. If we are supported by resolutions, we speak on behalf of the organization. Resolutions don’t cover every situation, but they provide the parameters within which our staff can function.
What is your own relationship to NAE?
I have been involved in NAE for about 26 years, and became executive director 15 years ago this past summer. As a pastor studying the Scriptures, I was impressed with its teaching about the oneness of the body, and kept saying, “I believe that.” But the Lord kept saying, “Well, what are you doing about it?” I had no answer. Then I went to Buffalo, New York, to represent my denomination on NAE’S chaplain’s commission. I knew then I had found the answer to my quest for a practical expression of my oneness with all believers. A few years later, I was called to serve as executive secretary of my denomination, but continued my involvement with NAE, serving on the board of administration and eventually on the executive committee.
After nine years as a denominational official, I received a call to direct the NAE. That was one of the toughest decisions in my entire life, but I accepted because I sensed God’s guidance, and I really believe in what NAE stands for.
What is your biggest problem?
Money! It’s a constant challenge and battle.
How much money does NAE have to raise each year?
A million dollars just for NAE, not including any subsidiary or related organizations. Most of this comes through membership fees from denominations, churches, and individual members. The balance is met by gifts from churches and interested people.
What are your dreams for NAE?
I’m convinced the best days for NAE are still ahead. The battle in Washington is going to get rougher. There is a growing tendency for government to probe into churches and into nonprofit organizations. That means control. The family comes under increasing attack.
But that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re sponsoring a Save the Family Month this month. That’s why we created a task force to work on family concerns. That’s why we set up a Washington office. That’s why NAE. We want to help local churches carry on their witness and ministry for Christ. That’s where the action is.
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