Recently a young man sat in my office enthusiastically telling me how God had called him to a new level of ministry in a well-known evangelical denomination. In recalling his journey, he said, "I was raised to know well what I was against, but really never knew what I was for." This discovery was for him a moment of freedom when he experienced God's maturing work in his life.

Clearly this is not everyone's experience. Too many evangelical organizations have been defined by a negative mindset that was forged at its birth when the rallying point was to "oppose" or "correct" the extremes of another group, creating an environment in which we define ourselves against the faulty beliefs or behaviors of "the other guy." As a result, our identity has too often been shaped by the position of others rather than by the center of biblical revelation.

Recently the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) decided to alter its longstanding position that a denomination could not be a member of both the NAE and the National Council of Churches (NCC). This decision, we believe, marks a milestone in the development of the evangelical movement and demonstrates the commitment to be a strong evangelical witness that stands on its own.

In American culture, the evangelical movement in general and the NAE in particular have served the church well with their clarion call to a soundly scriptural witness. Yet as the culture and organizations change, the points of reference also change. While the NAE was formed largely in response to the theologically liberal NCC, the landscape today is different. Likewise, the evangelical movement has matured. Not only have we grown in the confidence of our scriptural identity and witness, but the groups against which we pitted ourselves are crumbling. To continue defining ourselves in opposition to the liberal groups not only validates their importance but ties our identity to a dying cause.

Instead of defining what we are not, we must focus on what we are. We can draw a circle and define ourselves by the perimeter (by exclusion) or by the centerpoint (by declaration). In both there are exclusions, since those not consistent with our centerpoint are naturally and automatically excluded. But the difference is where we place our energy.

Not long ago, as I helped my daughter learn to drive, we took particular care in navigating the cloverleaf ramps to get on and off the freeways. I told her, "If you look at the outside edge of the curve and try to stay away from it, you'll always be jerking the wheel to keep away. But you can focus your eyes on the inside of the curve and decide to stay near it. The natural result is not only a smooth curve, but you'll find that staying away from the outside edge is the natural result."

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In a postmodern and relativistic era, the absolutes of what we stand for are more important than ever. We dare not, will not abandon biblical truth. But our neighbors are not as interested in how we oppose liberal, oldline Protestantism as they are in the compelling and transformational message of Christ. We must be known as the people who are so committed to the transcendence of God, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the power of his Holy Spirit, and the full authority of biblical revelation that anything contrary is by definition excluded. At the same time, people will be drawn to the beauty of God's message conveyed through his church. The force that drives us, then, is centripetal, drawing us to be "center-seeking," focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These are very important and strategic days in the life of the church. It truly is the day of evangelicals. Evangelical churches represent the fastest-growing segment of the church worldwide and hold in trust a significant measure of influence for shaping our society. Now is not the time to fight secondary battles with a diminishing adversary. Now is the time when God is calling us to stand on our own, preaching and living the whole gospel for the whole world. Let us not be frightened that someone will "contaminate" or impinge upon our ministry. Let us boldly articulate what we are for and move forward undaunted in our mission.

The faithful persons on whose shoulders we stand have brought us naturally to this point and, in God's power, our culture requires this kind of leadership for a new day. Never have we been so needed. By his power and grace we can navigate the transition, keeping our unity in Jesus Christ and our eyes on the goal of making him known.

Kevin W. Mannoia is also a bishop of the Free Methodist Church.

Related Elsewhere

Earlier Christianity Today articles about the NAE's relationship with the NCC—and the National Religious Broadcasters' reaction to it—include:
Breaking Up Isn't Hard to Do | Religious broadcasters quietly cut historic link to National Association of Evangelicals. (Mar. 21, 2001)

DiIulio Pitches Charitable Choice to Cautious NAE Delegates | Meanwhile, group suggests religious broadcasters reconsider severing ties. (Mar. 21, 2001)

Weblog: Why Did the National Religious Broadcasters Split from the National Association of Evangelicals? (Feb. 15, 2001)

More Talk, Less Static | Broadcasters resist low-power FM licenses due to listening-quality concerns. (Aug. 30, 2000)

Time to Kiss and Make Up? | The financially strapped NCC reaches out to evangelicals and Roman Catholics. (July 18, 2000)

Untying the Knot | NCC withdraws endorsement of 'one-man, one-woman' marriage statement. (Jan. 23, 2001)

Power in Unity | President of NAE embraces new strategy. (Mar. 28, 2000)

Breakthrough Talks | Top evangelical addresses NCC (Jan. 6, 1997)
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The NRB's brief statement about its disaffiliation is available on its Web site.

The NAE's Web site is not updated very often, but has information about the organization.

A recent issue of Modern Reformation magazine looked at the battles over defining evangelicalism. Editor Michael Horton has also written on the topic for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture, which regularly examines the term.

Other publications' articles on the NAE's relationships between the NCC, and NRB include:

A no-fault divorce? | Misunderstandings led an important affiliate to break with the National Association of Evangelicals — World (Mar 10, 2001)

Evangelical group to reconsider inclusive stance | Conservative Presbyterian church behind review of NAE's opening to NCC membership cites concerns over "doctrinal integrity." — Religion News Service (Mar. 6, 2001)

Religious broadcasters group cuts ties with evangelicalsFort Worth Star-Telegram (Feb. 13, 2001)

Religious broadcaster cut ties with NAE, but still seek cooperative ventures — Evangelical Press

Reformed Church to seek dual membership in NAE, NCC | The move is a sign of increased ecumenical relations between evangelical and mainline churches — Religion News Service (June 15, 2000)

As ecumenical relations mature, so may the NCC | Will the 50-year-old ecumenical body shut down—only to reappear in an expanded form including Catholics, evangelicals and more? — Religion News Service (May 29, 2000)

NCC attempts outreach to other Christian groups | The goal is to include all major branches of U.S. Christianity in one group. But major theological problems stand in the way — Associated Press (May 23, 2000)

Relations warm between National Association of Evangelicals and National Council of Churches — Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (Mar. 20, 2000, Feb. 17, 2001)

Uncommon cause | Why did the NAE rescue the NCC from irrelevance? — R. Albert Mohler, World (Mar. 25, 2000)

Transforming itself to transform the culture | The National Association of Evangelicals has a new California home, a more inclusive and multicultural focus—-and the same goal. — Religion News Service (Mar. 9, 2000)

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