Hoping to bridge a great divide

SUN JOURNAL

Shift: An umbrella group of evangelical churches moves to California, engaging a society it once shunned in a spiritual dialogue.

January 25, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Between Wheaton, Ill., and Hollywood, Calif., lie 1,724 miles and a cultural divide.

Wheaton is the locale for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Wheaton College, traditionally considered the intellectual center of American evangelical Christianity, earning the town the nickname of "the evangelical Vatican."

For half a century, it was also the home of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization representing 51 denominations, which have 45,000 churches with a membership of about 30 million people.

But the NAE recently moved its headquarters to Southern California, a shift that reflects changes in its outlook and mission.

"Our location sends a huge signal as to what we see NAE becoming," says Kevin W. Mannoia, its energetic president. What it is becoming, says Mannoia, a bishop in the Free Methodist Church of North America, is a group that actively engages a culture and society that is increasingly multiethnic, globalized and urbanized, not one that shuns them as sinful and secular.

Mannoia's approach is generating excitement among fellow evangelicals.

"I had the feeling that in the past, the NAE was in a survival mode, to see if they could raise enough money to keep doors open," says John C. Holmes, director of governmental affairs for the Association of Christian Schools International. "With Dr. Mannoia, the attitude is more, `What can we do to get as many people together as possible, reaching people in new ways, doing ministry in new ways.'"

The NAE includes those churches described as evangelical, which means they emphasize the inerrant authority of Scripture, especially that of the New Testament, and believe that salvation comes through a personal conversion through faith to Jesus.

The membership of 30 million claimed by the NAE, when combined with 15 million Southern Baptists (who are evangelicals but not members of the NAE), nearly equals the 50 million who are affiliated with the National Council of Churches, which includes the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations and the Orthodox churches. There are 61 million members of the Roman Catholic Church in this country.

Mannoia was in Washington recently, where the NAE also has an office, to share his plans with local evangelical leaders.

"The vision that drives us is a vision to see healthy churches moving in unison to transform our culture," Mannoia said as his audience sipped coffee and munched cookies in a hotel in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. "Not to overwhelm culture and not to put our agenda in place of an agenda culture has, but to gradually transform it by being salt and light." Salt and light, a favorite Mannoia refrain, refer to Jesus' urging his disciples to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."

And where could the NAE best influence culture?

Certainly one place is inside the Beltway, and the NAE has had a Washington office with a staff lobbyist for years. The other locale, Mannoia said, is the dream factories of Hollywood.

"The church has not had an advocacy presence in Hollywood since the mid-'60s," Mannoia said. "If we truly want to influence our culture, not through forcing our agenda, but rather by engaging and letting salt and light do its work, then we need to be present."

The NAE - which will have its headquarters in Azusa, a city 24 miles east of Hollywood - is increasing its visibility at a time when many observers have said evangelicals as a movement are taking a step backward and tending toward disengagement.

Witness the tribulations of the Promise Keepers movement, which has drastically cut its staff and reduced the number of stadium events it holds. The Christian Coalition has been wracked by internal leadership difficulties and stung by setbacks about its tax-exempt status stemming from disputed voters guides it issued during the 1996 presidential election. Evangelical opinion leader Cal Thomas suggested last year that it was time to pull back. But Mannoia is having none of that.

"We don't want to secede from culture and occasionally lob hand grenades into the fray," he said. "We are engaging a culture that is different than it was 40 years ago. It is neopagan. We're living in the first generation where the youth don't have a spiritual memory.

"The church becomes irrelevant unless we adjust."

But does he really think Hollywood moguls will answer the door when they find evangelical Christians knocking?

"I rather suspect that evangelicals have a reputation of being a monolithic group that always leans to the right," he said. "I think in all reality some of the recent studies and some of the recent actions have clearly demonstrated that the evangelical movement and evangelicals are no longer that monolithic group.

"How quickly that reputation becomes known in Hollywood, I don't know," he said. "But I don't think we'll be a threat. I hope not. I certainly don't want to have a presence that is a threat. All we want to do is talk. All we want to do is be there."

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