As the evangelical label becomes more contentious and political polarization challenges the future of the movement, the namesake organization for evangelical Christians in the US has appointed a new leader.
Walter Kim, a Presbyterian pastor with a background as a scholar and chaplain in the Ivy Leagues, was elected president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) at a board meeting Thursday.
He’ll assume the new role in January, succeeding Leith Anderson, who is retiring after 13 years at the helm of the interdenominational network.
Over the past few years, the NAE—which connects dozens of denominations, schools, and nonprofits and represents a constituency of millions of US churchgoers—has sought to remain a center ground for American evangelicals. Anderson and others have tried to keep the movement’s name from being hijacked as merely a political marker. It hasn’t been an easy job.
Now Kim takes on these challenges, which have intensified during Donald Trump’s presidency. Christians are increasingly and explicitly asking what it means to be an evangelical today, with recent releases like Who Is an Evangelical? and Still Evangelical?, both brandishing giant red question marks on their covers.
“The sheer number of books and articles on evangelicals and evangelicalism reveals that this movement is confronting an identity crisis. Yet, in this crisis there is genuine hope,” said Kim, who is also a board member for Christianity Today. “The NAE is uniquely positioned to draw people together, and I am eager to guide this labor. We seek a Spirit-filled renewal that demonstrates a winsome, thoughtful evangelicalism showcasing the truth and beauty of the gospel.”
And Kim—at age 51, a younger leader than Anderson and the first person of color to serve as president—is also in a unique position to bridge NAE’s history with the challenges of the present.
He spent 15 years as a minister at Park Street Church in Boston, the storied congregation once led by the NAE’s cofounder and first president, Harold Ockenga. Kim moved to his current role as pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Charlottesville in 2017, just as the Virginia college town became ground zero for racial and ideological clashes led by white nationalists.
Growing up as a person of color from an immigrant family made learning how to bridge cultural divides “a necessity rather than a luxury,” he told CT. “My experience of America reflects the diversity of the country with its tensions and promise, and I believe this experience will be an asset to the NAE in a time of polarization.”
A Korean American, Kim spoke on an NAE podcast in 2016 on race, critiquing the American church’s inclination to either divide into congregations along ethnic lines or to form racially diverse congregations where minorities become subjugated to a dominant culture.
“I think the harder work of reconciliation is learning how to live together in close proximity, learning how to love the other in close proximity. This is what the early church sought to do,” he said. “How we pull that off now? There are myriads of approaches we should attempt, but I say we should not be satisfied with anything less than the full notion of the gospel calling us to reconciliation, to do the hard work of loving the other.”
Like previous presidents, Walter served on the NAE’s 100-plus member board of directors before being elected to lead the organization. To ensure diverse representation, the NAE keeps an expansive board, which offers a standing spot for each evangelical denomination with 5,000 or more members. More than 40 denominations are included.
NAE board member Johnnie Moore, an evangelical minister and consultant, called Kim “a respected and thoughtful Christian leader who defies evangelical stereotypes.”
Kim’s appointment reflects the influx of diverse leadership at the top of major evangelical organizations, as groups including World Vision, Compassion International, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship have named Asian American and Latino presidents over the past several years.
Board chair Roy Taylor said in a statement, “As a proven pastor, scholar, and thought leader, Walter brings an incredible combination of skills to lead the National Association of Evangelicals into the next decade.”
Over the past several years, following its own financial crisis in the early 2000s and a sex scandal involving its one-time president Ted Haggard, the NAE has rallied evangelical leaders around shared convictions, particularly poverty relief, prison reform, and immigration, which it addresses through its humanitarian arm, World Relief.
Even as Trump administration policies have challenged the work of World Relief’s refugee resettlement and restricted some of their programming, outgoing president Anderson has remained committed to the issue and his involvement in the Evangelical Immigration Table.
Some members of Kim’s own denomination suggested withdrawing from the NAE this year, saying the PCA has “has no need of the benefits of membership in the NAE, especially of having a voice in Washington championing political concerns,” but the proposal was voted down at the General Assembly in June.
Anderson told CT upon his retirement that his prayer was for evangelicals to “be the best representatives of Jesus, glorifying God and caring for others. He said in today’s announcement that his successor’s “passion to see the gospel impact lives, transform communities, and change culture is contagious.”
Kim will maintain his position at Trinity Charlottesville, a prominent PCA congregation with over 1,000 members, noting the bivocational precedent for the presidency, as past leaders have also continued their roles in their local churches.
“Throughout this process, my prayer has been that if I trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding, he would make my path straight (Prov. 3:5-6),” said Kim, who is married with two teenage kids. “I’m also grateful for the godly counsel of family, dear friends both old and new, and a discernment committee at Trinity. These resulted in a growing conviction to accept this appointment—knowing that even though I am a jar of clay, the all-surpassing power is from God (2 Cor. 4:7).”
Prior to Trinity Charlottesville and Park Street, Kim served as a chaplain at Yale University, and taught at Boston College and Harvard University, where he received his PhD in Near Eastern languages and civilizations. He has previously described being raised in a loosely Christian home and “backing into evangelicalism” as his faith affirmations and experience grew deeper.
“The Lord is so creative,” he said in remarks to CT. “He used a conversation in a parking lot after watching Star Wars to plant the seeds of the gospel. Then a couple of years later at a Christian conference for Korean American youth, those seeds bore fruit in an unexpected and powerful charismatic experience of forgiveness in Christ.”
The NAE also elected a new board chair and vice chair: John Jenkins, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, a 11,000-member megachurch in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent and ambassador of The Wesleyan Church.