For several years, National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) leaders have recognized they must appeal to a broader constituency. But now, with the imminent departure of president Don Argue, the organization is poised for additional restructuring in order to maintain its focus and vitality.
At its annual meeting last month in Orlando, leaders underscored the importance of this transition period.
"The NAE can't move into the new millennium as just another parachurch ministry," Argue declared. "The paradigms have changed." He says the Carol Stream, Illinois-based organization needs to become a network resource center and technological data base for evangelical ministries—but he is not the person to oversee such a realignment.
"I haven't accomplished everything I wanted to, but the NAE needs someone with gifts that are different than mine," Argue, 58, told CT.
Argue has raised the profile of NAE, climaxed by meetings with religious and government leaders in China (CT, April 6, 1998, p. 26). In his three years at the NAE helm, Argue has become cochair of the State Department's Subcommittee on Religious Freedom and Persecution Abroad, a post in which he will continue. He will become president of Northwest College in Kirkland, Washington, on June 1 (CT, Feb. 9, 1998, p. 92).
AGING CONSTITUENCY: While the evangelical movement has changed dramatically in the past 40 years, the NAE has not. The average age of NAE direct-mail donors is now over 70.
"Large denominations, parachurch ministries, and colleges are now doing their own thing," Argue told CT. "A new compelling motivation to work together must be discovered."
At the meeting, Carol S. Childress, information broker with the Dallas-based Leadership Network, cautioned that younger Christians are not as loyal to institutions as older believers are.
"To those under 50, real-life ministry is not meeting inside church walls," says Childress, 49. "Few are giving to sustain ongoing organizations." Rather, Childress says, they tend to form ad hoc alliances that are dissolved once a particular mission is accomplished.
"Most members of NAE have been shaped by hierarchical structures," Childress told CT. "But that's not the world we're living in today."
RESHAPING THE MOLD: Part of NAE's concerns stem from its success. The organization has spun off several ministries that have their own boards and agendas, such as National Religious Broadcasters. While the 49 member denominations include some as large as Argue's own 2.5 million-member Assemblies of God, the NAE includes many tiny groups, such as the Evangelical Methodist Church and the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church. Many are members in order to have a lobbying link to Washington, D.C., via the NAE's government-affairs office.
R. Lamar Vest, who started a two-year term as NAE chair last month, sees denominational diversity as the organization's largest asset. "There is still a common mission."
Vest is first assistant general overseer for the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee. He concurs with Argue's goals of making NAE more inclusive for minorities, women, and younger people.
"The life and vibrancy of any movement depends on how broad a participation can be brought on board," Vest, 57, told CT. "Some dramatic changes are going to have to be made."
STOPGAP MOVES: The search for a new president could take a year. In the interim, David L. Melvin, 39, has been named director of operations. He has been with NAE for a decade, including three years as vice president. Melvin, an ordained Reformed Church in America minister, will be a candidate for the president's post.
"Evangelicalism as it is perceived across America seems to be getting broader," Melvin says. "NAE must establish what makes us the National Association of Evangelicals."
That broadening needs to reach those who historically have not played a large role in the NAE, according to Leonard Hofman, who completed a two-year term as chair. "NAE must obviously be more gender-inclusive," says Hofman, a 70-year-old former executive of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Currently, the 15-member NAE executive board includes only two women.
RACIAL RECONCILIATION: Nonetheless, the NAE is trying to be more inclusive. For example, 20 percent of the executive board is African American. Next January, 200 evangelical leaders will gather in Atlanta for a joint summit of the NAE and National Black Evangelical Association, which has been a separate entity for 35 years. Leaders hope to emerge with a plan of action on common strategies, rather than merely asking questions.
"Racism and reconciliation are not on the radar screen of most white evangelicals, because we don't deal with it daily," Argue says. "Racism is always on the agenda at black evangelical meetings because they deal with it every day."
Edward L. Foggs, an African American, is next in line for the NAE chair in 2000. He is general secretary of the Leadership Council for the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana.
"NAE is trying to be a strong advocate for racial reconciliation, which has not always been its strongest suit," Foggs says. "Positive change is taking place."
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