Delegates in Florida also call for ministry to homeless, elderly, children.
Religious freedom, particularly in China, was a major focus of the 1998 Evangelical Summit and the 56th annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), held March 2-4 in Orlando, Florida.
In the opening session, NAE President Don Argue shared his experiences as a member of a U.S. clergy team sent to examine religious freedom in China. Argue met with Chinese government officials in six cities just days before the convention, sharing concerns for religious freedom in China.
“We observed for the ‘registered’ church there is freedom within the parameters of ‘normal religious activity’ as defined by the government,” Argue said. “For example, those churches operating under the auspices of China’s official religious organizations can worship and teach the faithful in places designated for such activities. They also can publish some religious writing, carry out works of compassion and social service. But for the ‘unregistered’ [house] churches – which includes most evangelicals – those same freedoms do not exist. Those outside the official sphere are subject to pressure, harassment, even detention or imprisonment for their beliefs, although treatment by local officials varies widely from place to place.”
Participants in the historic Feb. 8-28 trip to open dialogue with high-ranking Chinese officials about religious freedom included Argue, Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of New Jersey, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the New York-based Appeal to Conscience Foundation.
“We learned in our meetings with the highest government officials, including China’s President Jiang Zemin, that they realize any Sino-U.S. talks must include discussions about religious freedom,” Argue added. “That is a step which we are happy for, but we know that we cannot let up on the issue because millions of our brothers and sisters still cannot worship freely in China. Without progress in resolving these difficult issues of religious freedom, there will not be the improvement in relations with China that we hope for. The NAE will continue to speak out against persecution of Christians and other religious believers and take action on their behalf.”
President Clinton sent a letter to the convention commending Argue’s representation of the United States on the trip to discuss religious freedom: “We live in challenging times,” Clinton wrote, “As you meet this year, you can take pride in knowing that your spiritual leadership has uplifted your communities, strengthened our nation, and set an example of faith for peoples around the world.”
This is Argue’s last convention as president of NAE. He announced earlier this year that he would accept a new role as president of Northwest College near Seattle, effective May 15. Newly elected NAE Chairman Lamar Vest announced a search for NAE’s next president. “This is an ideal opportunity for NAE to connect its past with the future. It is a bright opportunity for us to take us to that next level, building on the good work of Don Argue’s past three years, Billy Melvin and others’ ministries before,” Vest said. “We are looking forward to a grand future for NAE.”
Meanwhile, Argue “will continue to be very much involved in the ministry of NAE,” Vest added. Argue will represent NAE on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad and as co-chair of the subcommittee on religious persecution. NAE’s ministry will be guided by Vest, the officers, and David L. Melvin, NAE vice president, who will serve as director of operations until the search is completed.
During the convention NAE members approved resolutions calling for:
- Action by NAE’s 49 member denominations to help stop pornography. Members also called upon local leaders, members of the Christian community and parents to protect youth from pornographic materials and urged local state and federal agencies to “prosecute aggressively” those who produce pornography.
- More aggressive ministries to senior adults to reach them for both salvation and spiritual growth. The senior adult population in the United States of America is growing three times more rapidly than the national population rate. NAE members called for local church-based ministries for seniors; spiritually-based care for senior adults and appropriate ministry opportunities for senior adults.
- Evangelicals to help provide housing to the 25 percent of the world’s population lacking adequate shelter. NAE challenged its members to pray for those who need shelter; participate in the International Day of Prayer and Action for Human Habitat on the third Sunday in September of each year; and provide funds and labor in working with organization’s like NAE’s World Relief.
- Support for a declaration for public education, offered by the Christian Education Association, calling for prayer for children and educators in public school; responsible relationship-building in public schools with teachers, administrators and students – without compromising or questioning the value of private Christian education.
Speakers during the conference urged evangelicals to:
- Offer a “new song of hope” to people struggling for meaning in the USA. “We live in a depressed culture …one in four people have been treated for depression,” said Paul Walker, general overseer for the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) and pastor of a 12,000-member church in Atlanta. In that environment, Walker encouraged leaders to make sure that our churches are having an impact – “not by what we say, but what we do.”
- Consider why there are so many Christians in the United States whose faith has little impact on the culture, challenged Os Guinness of the think-tank Trinity Forum and author of the soon-to-be-released book, The Call. Guinness urged evangelicals to avoid pandering to popular opinions and trends. Instead, he called on them to remember Christians solely serve an audience of one: God. When they are concerned only about serving God, then, they will have an impact on their world, he said.
- Recognize what actions in Christians’ lives are significant to God. Haddon Robinson, once hailed as one of the best preachers in the world, said his own accomplishments would not be what God considered worthy. Instead, “The things I hardly notice will matter to Him,” Robinson told members of NAE in a third of a series of Bible studies (this one on Matthew 25) at the Evangelical Summit. “Nothing on our vitae will matter much to Him.”
- Utilize the association’s network of 49 denominations to speak with a united voice on current issues; engage in racial reconciliation; contribute to works of mercy beyond the local church; offer an effective voice to the U.S. government; obtain information specific to evangelical churches and denominations. Leonard J. Hofman, retiring chairman of NAE’s board, challenged members to “fulfill the mandate our Lord has given …to go, teaching whatever he has commanded, being confident of His presence while we engage in His work.”
- Employ new methods to reach 70 percent of the U.S. population born after 1945 – people who are primarily unchurched. “This is a culture in search of its soul,” said Carol Childress, a demographic expert from the Leadership Network. She described the world in which the church is to minister as one in great transition. This time of rapid change requires evangelicals to reach out to younger generations as if they were a mission field.
Several well-known Christians also were honored for their long years of service in caring for others and sharing the gospel:
- Harold Myra, president and CEO of Christianity Today, Inc., received the James DeForest Murch Award for excellence in evangelical publishing. He has helped create and shape some of the leading Christian periodicals of the day, including Christianity Today.
- Larry Ward, founder and president emeritus of Food for the Hungry, received the J. Elwin Wright Award for promoting evangelical cooperation through international and national efforts. He has helped bring lifesaving aid to millions of needy people and helped rescue thousands of refugees in Asia.
- Evelyn Christenson, author and Christian leader, who has helped mobilize millions to pray in the USA and countries around the world, received NAE’s Layperson of the Year for her lifelong compassion for the lost. She has shared her love for God through her speaking and writing. She is the author of several books, including What Happens When Women Pray, Lord Change Me, and Gaining Through Losing.
- Rev. Clarence Hilliard and Bishop B.E. Underwood received the NAE’s second annual Racial Reconciliation Award. Rev. Clarence Hilliard has served as a leader in the NAE and National Black Evangelical Association, most recently heading up a joint NBEA/NAE effort to rebuild African-American churches burned by racist arsonists in the South. Bishop B.E. Underwood, then head of the Pentecostal Holiness denomination, helped provide leadership during the 1994 Memphis Miracle where members of the 46-year-old Pentecostal Fellowship of North America repented of racism and dissolved their organization, rebuilding by including top bishops from the largest African-American Pentecostal denomination in the USA, the Church of God in Christ. Underwood said at the historic meeting: “Racism in the Pentecostal-charismatic community must be eradicated. What a difference it would have made during the civil rights movement in America if all the children of the Pentecostal revival had stood together!