Where Is Evangelicalism Headed?

Thursday, July 5th 2007
Jan/Feb 2000

One of the essential evangelical institutions, the National Association of Evangelicals, has a new president. As such, we thought it might be useful to speak with Kevin Mannoia about the diverse coalition that he helps lead. We wanted to see if we could arrive at greater clarity about what an "evangelical" is, and where the evangelical movement is headed in the twenty-first century. -EDS.

MR: Tell us a bit about your background, and what now brings you to NAE.
KWM: Born into a strong Christian home, I have enjoyed the blessings of protective grace throughout my life. After seeing the Gospel of Jesus manifest in the lives of my parents, my own decision was the start of exploring the depths of what they had exemplified.

At age six, I moved with my family to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where my father assumed the presidency of the Free Methodist seminary. For eight years, I was shaped by the Brazilian culture and more importantly by the trans-cultural nature of the Kingdom of God. While attending camp in Illinois at age eleven, I made a public decision to accept Christ. Although no dramatic life change occurred as a result, I mark that as the point where my journey with him began.

During my sophomore year of college, I made the decision to serve through full-time ministry. Having laid out clearly defined plans for myself, God began the painful process of shaping my identity as his servant, motivated not by my personal agenda and plans but by the deep desire to know him. Though I have never sought any role in which I have served since-planter, pastor, superintendent, bishop (in the Free Methodist Church)-I have always felt confirmed in each as God has deepened my love for him and broadened my passion for his Kingdom.

Lately my soul has been captured by the mystery and simplicity of that Kingdom. As I move from culture to culture around the world, I increasingly see the "leveling place" of the Kingdom. Why are so many children born in abject poverty while mine were born into comfort? Why do many women live in bondage to a cultural position, while in other places they are free to teach, preach, and lead? Why are so many deprived of the knowledge of God only because of geographic location?

The only place I have been able to find answers is the culture of the Kingdom. Attempting to reconcile the issues on earthly terms is woefully inadequate. So I am propelled, now more than ever, not only to embrace but to declare the Kingdom-to the world and to the Church. For as the Church understands its unique role as trustee of the Kingdom, it will become healthy, whole, and one in making known to all people God's call to wholeness, through forgiveness and holiness in Jesus Christ.

MR: This issue of MR is devoted to our "wish list" for Evangelicalism in the twenty-first century. Give us your assessment of and dreams for Evangelicalism.
KWM: We stand on the threshold of a new millennium that invites us to look back with appreciation on our past and to look forward to our future with the confidence provided by our forbearers. It seems that today more than ever, everyone is evaluating their effectiveness and is willing to put everything on the table of scrutiny. Openness to change is unprecedented and honest dialogue regarding the effectiveness of the Church is plentiful. In this environment of openness, evangelicals seem agreed that our impact for Christ on our culture could be vastly expanded. It is the fact that we are so open which makes us receptive to God's call to new levels of obedience and change. Our history, if we are true to it, compels us to change to meet the call. To cling to our past devalues the spirit and faithfulness of those who created it. All those who have gone before us lived and ministered for this moment.

Needless to say, there are many reasons for joy. Still there remains concern for the sluggishness of the U.S. Church. Together evangelicals feel the burden. Yet we should not be discouraged. Let us commit to new and aggressive movement in a post-modern, secularized culture. The Church is adopting new thinking and new actions as an apostolic movement which have implications for our structures and our ministries. This will require the most from the key leaders in the Church. It will require that we pray and seek the face of God for Spirit-anointed change. It will require that we hold loosely to methods and release personal agendas. It will require high trust as we embrace the future with all its opportunities.

God is placing upon the Church, and especially upon its key leaders, a call to enter a new era, characterized by health and transformational influence that are apostolic. The times in which we live require this. Leaders must lead. Performance must increase in multiplication of disciples, groups, leaders, and churches. We must show flexibility on methods and a steel resolve on purpose and values.

MR: What is the NAE's role in all of this evangelical change? And what is the relationship between the NAE and particular churches?
KWM: Responding to the coming moves of God is first a matter of obedience and surrender to him. Cross-bearing belongs to all of us. But it is also an issue of stewardship. Consider the massive resources within the evangelical movement. We cannot squander them or the time God has given us to do his work. God himself will hold us accountable for our investment of these resources in doing his mission.

The National Association of Evangelicals is strategically placed on the forefront of this new day. As we lean into the future under God we assume a servant role in empowering the Church to become a movement again to transform the culture. We must become a unifying platform of mission and values on which the diverse churches and ministry partners can be validated in the evangelical community and given broad influence for increased effectiveness. To describe it another way, the NAE will become the "plasma" which carries the life-giving "cells" of churches and ministries in fulfilling their mission.

MR: Give us some particulars. What does the NAE exist to do?
KWM: Let me articulate briefly the vision and ministry platform shaping the future of the NAE. As we have sought the face of God and discerned the wave which the Holy Spirit is creating in us, we set our wills to following him and doing what he is blessing. Out of this resolve emerges a God-given flow of power that cascades from one step to the next in a natural crescendo of energy, which results in Kingdom growth. This is not a program. It is not a slogan. It is not a gimmick. It is merely a description of a biblical pattern of thought and influence, which engages us as we influence the Church into God's promise.

At NAE, we often talk about this "cascading flow" as five levels: purpose, mission, values, strategic priority, and outcomes. Then built on this ministry platform, we have three particular roles.

First, this cascading flow begins with the core convictions and foundations of purpose. We exist to know God. This is the "to die for" level of our identity. Although our core identity is rooted in God, we are shaped by our heritage, our theology, and our character. Here we grapple with the question, "Who are we?" This results in our conviction that a life lived in the presence of God will be holy as he is holy. We bear the cross of Christ and die to self that we may live to God. Here in the top pool of the cascade we anchor ourselves to the heart of God. This sense of purpose is hammered out on the downward journey of brokenness, surrender, and emptying ourselves after the pattern of Christ. Without this everything else is simply a program. Here we find the well, the source, and the passion of our calling. Our nature is transformed by his.

Second, out of the overflow of our purpose of Knowing God, we pour over into mission. Anchored with an identity that is rooted in God, from within us wells up the need to know, "What are we here to do?" With a nature transformed by God, our priorities then begin to be reordered as well. What is important to him now becomes important to us. His priorities become ours. We see through his eyes. That which broke his heart and impelled him to the cross now drives us in mission-to Make Him Known. We act not out of coercion or embarrassment but because we see what the Father sees. Through mission-driven resolve we cover the world in our reach to all people, we cover the sin by the blood of Christ and we uncover the Church as the Body of Christ.

Third, in boldly pursuing our God-given mission, there are values that serve as the glue holding us together. This represents the next natural "pool" into which our thinking cascades as we overflow in desire to fulfill the mission. These values define our efforts and help us understand, "What binds us together as we move toward our mission?" At least ten of these values are relevant here:

  1. We are connectional. We are "mutually submitted to one another as unto the Lord." This is a relational connectedness. Certainly there are organizational and financial results, but they are secondary to the relational foundation. It means something relationally to be part of the Kingdom. It means something relationally to be part of the evangelical movement. It means something relationally to be part of the NAE.

  1. We are mission-driven. We will "make known the wonderful deeds of him who called us out of darkness into light." Just as every wheel has a hub with many spokes emanating from the center, so also all activities in which we engage must flow out of the hub of our mission.

  1. We are diverse. "Though there are many parts, there is one Body." We believe that diversity strengthens the Church. Hence we value the myriad worship styles, ethnic ministries, programs and operational patterns which characterize our family across the nation. It is not a matter of tolerating the worship style that is different than ours; it's a matter of celebrating the authenticity represented therein. It is not a matter of putting up with the theological differences among us; it's a matter of rejoicing that our God is large enough to welcome us all into his fellowship. Though we have clear boundaries under God, there is great freedom in the variety which characterizes the Church.

  1. We are culturally relevant. We "become all things to all people that some might be saved." Our society largely believes the Church does not connect with them. At the dawn of a new day, we are committed to taking the Gospel to the people in ways that make sense-to them.

  1. We are inclusive. We "bring them in from the highways and byways." We must operate from the mindset that welcomes anyone into our circle. All are candidates for God's grace. Even though they may look or behave differently than we, we include them and allow God's grace to use us in shaping them as he wills. Not to be confused with doctrinal pluralism, we cannot afford to fight the battles of selected issues while drawing lines which delimit the Kingdom Christ himself desires to establish among broken people. No matter how heinous the habit, by God's grace we become his hands of compassion and love for the person.

  1. We value cell communities. We are the Church-the Body of Christ, in which believers are gifted to minister for the "edification of the Body." Small groups of people manifesting the principles of the Kingdom in relationship with one another are the backbone of community. Church is not about maintaining an organization or preserving the icons. It is the dynamic presence of Christ working through those close around us in life-changing relationships of accountability and support. Through this personal intimacy the Holy Spirit can shape the deepest recesses of our lives.

  1. We are culturally engaged. We are "in the world yet not of the world." While we gladly embrace the holiness which results from an identity rooted in a holy God, we must commit to being in society, among the people as salt and light, transforming communities through the ministry of presence. Being set apart means nothing if it results in a segregated attitude. We must invade our communities, not with a holy war mindset, but with a servant spirit.

  1. We are a movement. We "run the race" and rejoice as the "Church grows and spreads throughout the land." We are aggressive in moving forward on our mission. This movement is more important than self-preservation. A ship does not fulfill its purpose until it heads out of the harbor into the seas toward its goal. Likewise the Church cannot remain safely in port thereby denying the very reason for which is was instituted.

  1. We are scripture principled. We will follow the Word, which is "a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path." Everything we do is based upon the Word of God and principles drawn from it. We value reason, tradition, and experience as sources of truth but all truth is submitted to the bar of Scripture. In our efforts to engage other segments of society and the Church, this value will be most threatened. Some may ask us to compromise for the sake of unity. Yet unity without truth is merely relativism. The role of Scripture remains unchallenged as the fulcrum of our message. On this we must not compromise.

  1. We value transformed living. If Christ is "in us the hope of glory," our lives will be different. Today, more than ever, people clamor for a life-changing message that makes sense. Living in the presence of a holy God results in a transformed life.

Fourth, with our values clear, the logical next question is, "How can we most effectively fulfill our mission?" The answer is the strategic priority of leadership upon which the Church will rise or fall. Certainly there are many things which assist in the fulfillment of the evangelical mission. Programs, budgets, and facilities all serve as tools in mission activity. But more important than all of this is the leadership which influences and shapes the work of the Church. Our commitment, then, should be to pray for, identify, invest in and deploy godly, competent leaders.

Last in the cascading flow are the outcomes. Ultimately we ask, "What are the results we expect in fulfilling our mission?" This defines a healthy church. Pastors and ministry leaders should have high permission and flexibility in using their gifts to creatively fulfill these outcomes. We want them to take initiative in manifesting these outcomes through their group's ethos and community. We affirm them as they do. Rather than an environment of rewarding tenure, maintenance, and the absence of conflict, let's systemically affirm those leaders and churches among us who are bold, faith venturing, and competent in seeing these outcomes manifested in their churches.

Now, with this ministry platform firmly in place, I can comment more particularly on the three main roles of the NAE: The first is prophetic. Casting a compelling vision for the missional future of the Church. Signaling the need for the Church to aggressively engage with culture in the name of God and in response to the Spirit's call to a new day of Kingdom expansion.

The second relates to empowerment. For unity and effectiveness in expanding the Kingdom. Validating the specialized effectiveness of the myriad ministry groups and denominations by establishing a common platform which expands the influence and exposure of each.

The third role is about representation. To society, governments, and one another for godly witness. We aim to speak on behalf of the many evangelical Christians who wish their voice of righteousness to be heard in the key influence centers of our culture.

MR: You have talked a lot about the need for diversity and inclusiveness within Evangelicalism-yet you have said that we cannot compromise on truth for the sake of unity. But then you say that we cannot fight theological battles. Can you help us understand where the important lines are?
KWM: It is very tempting to overlook context in the pursuit of simple and clarifying statements to define ourselves. When we take various statements out of context it is easy for them to sound paradoxical. The nature of the Kingdom of God is often broader and more diverse than we are comfortable with. In fact, it is seldom concerned with our comfort-it creates a broad and diverse unity under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. But this unity is not created on battlefields of whatever kind among ourselves, only within the boundaries of God's truth. Let me rehearse the context of my remark.

We celebrate the diversity of the Body of Christ and allow it to point us to a God who is above all and in whom such diversity can find meaning. Rather than assuming that theological diversity within the Body is something which must be expunged or combated in order to allow a particular position to prevail, can we not accept the reality of a God who accommodates all our various differences while we remain rooted in his Word and daily pursue his heart? Suddenly our God becomes larger than any of us can conceive. Our celebration becomes centered in him and his greatness rather than our ability to outmaneuver or overwhelm our theological opponent. Such diversity within orthodox Christianity is of great value to understanding the mysteries of the Kingdom.

Implicit within this appreciation of our theological diversity is the belief that we pursue our distinctives with passion. Such belief assumes that theological examination helps us know God more fully both by what we discover and by the very journey of discovery. Hence to conclude that acceptance of diversity within the Church is a static condition demanding mere acknowledgment is naive and counterproductive. Rather it should compel us to explore with great zeal our unique family values, theological distinctives, and historic paths.

The danger of secondary issues becoming primary in theological debates is avoided when these issues are kept from becoming the litmus test for unity and inclusion. Let's not allow predetermined patterns of behavior or thought of secondary import to delimit a priori how our dying world sees the pearl of the Kingdom.

In calling the Church to celebrate diversity among us as a reflection of the greatness of God I am not suggesting the end of theological inquiry or debate but rather that it be clearly framed within a context of pursuing God, the unity of his Body, the foundation of biblical truth and a deeper understanding of his ability to accommodate our tendency to delimit his Kingdom on our own terms.

Related to your question regarding compromise on truth, let me reiterate my earlier comments, which really dealt with the role of Scripture. On the preeminence of Scripture we cannot compromise. Other segments of the religious community will ask us to compromise on our high view of Scripture as a means to achieve agreement and, in their opinion, unity. Scripture is the infallible, authoritative Word of God on which we stand and to which we submit ourselves individually and corporately. On this there can be no equivocation.

In a sense, the call to diversity is a call to celebration among ourselves. The call to be scripturally principled is a reaffirmation of our foundation vis-a-vis the encroachment of the world and a larger religious community.

MR: What do you think is the heart of evangelical theology? What are the three or four central tenets? Or, put another way, what would place a professing evangelical outside the bounds of the tradition, as far as you are concerned?
KWM: Because the evangelical movement exists to reinfuse the Church with its missional calling, its definition is tied on the one hand to its identity but on the other, to its cultural context. How we manifest our evangelical foundations may, therefore, differ from generation to generation as we attempt to remain obedient to our calling to be a relevant message of redemption to the ever-changing world around us. Our activity is not static but dynamic in the effort to fulfill mission. Our identity, though, certainly must remain fixed in the immutable nature of God and his mission for the world. His mission for the world is in direct response to the sinfulness of mankind. Hence to reframe or euphemistically overlook the issue of sin would lead to a devaluing of his action in our behalf. Further, that action is his uncompromising effort to reach his lost creation through the revelation of himself and his grace in creation, his written Word and the Living Word of Jesus Christ. Finally, failure to recognize the Church as the Body of Christ in community and in mission negates the primary ongoing manifestation of God's grace. Within the Church, unity in identity and mission testifies to the character of God himself.

MR: Because of all of this theological diversity in Evangelicalism-or, put another way, because of the lack of clarity on many important matters-some confessional Lutherans, confessional Presbyterians, confessional Baptists, etc. are not sure that they are "evangelicals" at all. What would you say to them?
KWM: Ideally, being an evangelical means being a classic Christian. None of us is the arbiter of who is "in" and who is "out." It is God who determines the "rules." He will determine compliance. Yet for our need of assurance, there must be some points of confidence to which we can cling. Rather than attempting to define the edges, and then examine who is "over the line" or not, it seems a much more appropriate effort to focus on the center allowing the "edges" to take care of themselves under God's grace. "Evangelical" is a term used for the sake of our human need to recapture the scriptural commitment and missional emphasis of the Church. We must never forget that first and foremost, we bear the name of Christ. His character and priority should be ours.

The NAE is an association, which, as with any organization, provides a basic framework in a statement of faith and a ministry platform to describe our ethos. To a significant degree this provides a description of the larger evangelical movement in its effort to be classic Christians and a healthy manifestation of the Body of Christ.

Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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