Written by Rev. Charles Redfern
Think of it as the gentleman in the tweed cap or the lady in horse riding apparel. The National Association of Evangelicals has emblematized dignity and poise since its 1942 inception. Perhaps its first president, the late Harold Ockenga, branded it with his personality when he — along with Edward J. Carnell, Carl Henry, Daniel Fuller, and others — cracked fundamentalism’s isolationist shell and emerged as the intellectually muscular “new evangelicals,” eager for debate, dialogue, and cultural engagement. Disparate denominations and organizations from Charismatic, Holiness, and Reformed traditions gather in the NAE manor.
Such is the NAE’s noble past, but it now faces a decisive 21st-century test. The gentleman must roll up his sleeves while the lady summons the children. Can they remember Ockenga’s savvy boldness? Will they be brave? Will they risk controversy and do the right thing? Will its board see through the reek of qualms and fears at its October meeting and validate a petition drive “to affirm publicly the reality of human-induced climate change and endorse the responsibility of individuals, churches, and the federal government to act to reduce carbon emissions and protect our natural heritage for our children and grandchildren”?
No doubt some will worry over potential dissensions and withdrawals and accusations of left-wing pandering; others may call for tabling and further study; still others may file the time-honored balk: “We’re not ready yet.” More possible deflections: What about evangelism and spirituality? And prayer? And Bible study? And theology? And youth (shouldn’t we fix a laser-focus on teens?)? And abortion and birth control and government spending and poverty and greed? And more fears of disunity — never risk that vital unity …
Consider: Isn’t truth-evading unity kindred with an identity-robbing computer hacker? Our credibility vaporizes. No one listens. The organization re-seals itself in fundamentalism’s anti-intellectual cave, with its censure of mainline waffling dismissed as hypocrisy: “What’s the difference between you and those supposedly truth-evading theological liberals?” Consider Deborah Fikes’ insight when she interwove youth outreach with the climate change battle. Adolescents face an adulthood of deserts, droughts, rising sea levels, and storms. Ignoring their future in the name of evangelism hardly sounds like “good news.” And consider once more: When, precisely, will we be ready? All other major branches of Christianity — Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and mainline Protestantism — have repudiated denial. We’re at risk of aligning ourselves with outliers and fringe thinkers.