Winnie Bartel, a member of Shafter (Calif.) MB Church, has represented the U.S. Conference to the National Association of Evangelicals for many years and is currently secretary of the NAE executive committee. The organization held an Evangelical Leaders Forum Oct. 8-9 in Washington DC, and Bartel submitted this report of the event.
Christian Justice in Difficult Times
by Winnie Bartel
The day of the Evangelical seems to again have resurfaced. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Leith Anderson reported to the Board of Directors at their fall board meeting that there has been a definite resurgence of interest in the work of NAE. This is coming from all across the spectrum in religious circles: youth, mainline churches, various ethnic groups as well as secular organizations. Even in the political realm, the NAE Washington DC office is being sought out more and more for input, assistance and information.
This past year, NAE has sought to clarify its focus and recapture its purpose with greater clarity and function. Anderson reported to the board that he and his staff have worked diligently to center their work around two main goals:
- Assisting, supporting, serving, and unifying denominational leaders and ministry leaders – ultimately making them and the church strong and effective.
- Gathering the many voices of evangelicals together for the purpose of influencing our government and society for righteousness and justice.
For the past several years, NAE has sponsored a denominational leaders retreat, gathering these leaders spiritual encouragement, sharing information and offering assistance in many ways. Our U.S. Mennonite Brethren executive director, Ed Boschman, participated in this year’s event. He stated that it was worth his time to attend and sees the benefits of this type of meeting in the future. NAE is focusing much of its efforts on ways to strengthen the church by focusing on it’s leaders. The 2009 forum was organized around two NAE documents.
Several years ago, NAE made public their document, “For the Health of the Nation: an Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” It was adopted by the Board of Directors in 2004. NAE believes this document clearly defines for the church what our responsibility is towards our government and our society. Quoting from the Preamble, “…Never before has God given American evangelicals such an awesome opportunity to shape public policy in ways that could contribute to the well-being of the entire world. Disengagement is not an option. We must seek God’s face for biblical faithfulness and abundant wisdom to rise to this unique challenge…” In short, its purpose is to give us a plum-line to instruct believers on their biblical duty to engage government and society in general on moral values.
Here are the seven principles of Christian political engagement:
1. We work to protect religious freedom and liberty of conscience.
2. We work to nurture family life and protect children.
3. We work to protect the sanctity of human life and to safeguard its nature.
4. We seek justice and compassion for the poor and vulnerable.
5. We work to protect human rights.
6. We seek peace and work to restrain violence.
7. We labor to protect God’s creation.
To begin this forum, NAE, together with staff and Board of Directors, went to the nations capitol and held a press conference to announce their “Resolution on Immigration.” This document has been widely anticipated by various political groups as well as numerous relief organizations and missions groups. It is widely supported by many NAE Denominational leaders and affiliate groups. I had the privilege of being part of the final drafting of this document and can attest to the work put into it and the scrutiny it has gone through.
As a Mennonite Brethren member all my life, I feel very confident that these documents (For the Health of a Nation and Resolution on Immigration) both clearly state what our Mennonite heritage has taught us. I am proud to have been a part of NAE in the formation of these two documents. They clearly state our clarion call for peace and the restraining of violence. It calls for justice and compassion for the poor and the protection of human life and human rights.
One of the many incredible forum speakers was Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He spoke on, “The Changing American Religious Landscape.” Their findings left us inspired as well as challenged. Many things in his report caught my attention. Let me name a few:
1. The United States is overwhelmingly a Christian country. Protestants make up 51.3%.
2. However, there is a growing segment (36%) which the Pew Forum labeled the "religious unaffiliated.” They want to be called "spiritual" but not "religious." They are "ope"’ but not committed yet. They "believe" but don’t "belong."
3. Lugo stated that pluralism, not secularism, is the problem in our modern world.
4. The United States stands by itself when it comes to wealth and religious commitment.
5. Immigration to the United States is overwhelmingly Christian, including Arabic Christians.
6. Religious people have more children.
7. Eighty percent (80%) of the U.S. growth over the next 10 years will be Hispanic.
One of the most fascinating new interests for me is stated as the seventh principle in the For the Health of the Nation document: We labor to protect God’s creation. What amazes
me is that this new interest is being trumpeted by today’s youth. It was absolutely amazing to see so many young men and women share about this passion. They are truly at the forefront of calling the church to start caring about God’s creation. They are extremely passionate about this matter. Their passion was felt by all of those attending and it became obvious rather quickly that they mean business.
I was approached by the leader, Ben Lowe, a young graduate who is president of this newly formed youth organization called RENEWAL, asking for information on whom to contact at Fresno Pacific University and Tabor College. He had tried to make a connection with them but was unable to find a contact person. These youth believe that God is calling their generation to renewal of creation.
Their goal is to evangelize:
1. Evangelicals to creation care.
2. Secular world – to creation care – then to Christianity.
There passion was infectious! They are planning an event in Washington DC on May 25, 2010 calling it the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care.
Michael Gerson, President G.W. Bush’s speech writer and now a columnist for the Washington Post as well as Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement, enlightened us with rich information for all Christians today. Here are several of his comments that to me were very pertinent – they are in no particular order:
1. It is a struggle today to understand all the changes going on in our world.
2. The younger generations are truly interested in social justice.
3. There is a recovery of scriptural words to social issues.
4. There are 1 ½ million people in the U.S. today on short term missions.
5. One of the problems today with the religious right is that they have taken the way of the world and have become known as being hard-headed and rude. The Christian community and the secular community each watch "their" media interests and basically listen to individuals that fuel their bent. That’s how we get our information. Christians have got to stop this and again become respectful and respected.
6. Society is judged by how it treats its poor, weak and vulnerable.
7. The U.S. needs cultural humility, Gerson said in closing.
The last track I participated in was, “The Urgent Need to Strengthen Marriage” sponsored by the Marriage Commission. What’s new in the marriage movement? Everything! The opening statistics were mind boggling. Let me share a couple:
1. The cost of divorce and unwed childbearing to the U.S. taxpayer today is at least $112 billion a year with many figures pointing to $170 billion.
2. In the state of Georgia, two-thirds of the cases heard in court are around divorce.
Two statements that were made are truly food for thought:
1. “The churches health is determined by healthy marriages”.
2. “We must recognize that democracy cannot stand without marriage.”
The cry coming from all presenters was a plea to all leaders that the church work on saving marriages. The church must tackle this issue in more ways than just good preaching. The church has to become again the model on how to make marriage and family work. We must get involved in our communities. February 7-14, 2010 is now being called, “National Marriage Week USA: Let’s strengthen marriage!”
To learn more information on all of the above, please visit the National Association of Evangelicals website, www.nae.net.
Winnie’s personal response
Now, what does all this mean to me and to the Mennonite Brethren churches in the U.S. My mind has churned over this thought for several weeks now. I must begin by saying that I came away from this Evangelical Leaders Forum inspired. The reason? The information given clearly states that things are not all bad in the church in America. The results of the research conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life clearly shows that there is still a lot great Christian work and presence here in the U.S. We do not hear that enough in too many venues.
I believe we must begin sharing this good news again, beginning with encouragement to the church that our nation is not going to hell in a hand-basket. The church needs to know that their efforts are making a difference and that wonderful things are happening all over America. Out of the difficulties facing our churches, far more positive and wonderful things are coming forth:
• More churches are being planted than ever before.
• More Christian relief work is being done than ever before.
• More money is being given for religious and relief efforts than ever in the history of the church in America.
• The young people have never been as interested in Christianity as they are today.
• More short term mission work is being done now than ever before.
• More and more believers from mainline denominations want to be part of the evangelical persuasion than ever before.
I could go on and on because the picture painted by this forum was one of encouragement—that things are still happening and lots of good is going on. Yes, we are not denying that evil exists and in an ever increasing manner. But because or in spite of it, more and more good is happening. We as Mennonite Brethren must become more vocal about telling the good news – not only the Good News of the Gospel, but the good news happening all around.
I believe there are several things we as Mennonite Brethren must take notice of and seek to address. To begin with, the necessity of working to save marriages and help families must become uppermost in our work and in our churches today. If ever we need help, it’s working with marriages and families. Intentional teaching, training and resourcing must be given pastors and church leaders.
Second, we as Mennonite Brethren must take notice of the younger generations and their interests: truth and social justice, including creation care. It was clear, that our younger generations desire that truth be taught and lived out. They see the fallacy of their forefathers and feel our nation today is so over focused on individualism, materialism, and consumerism. They want truth spoken, and they want to see truth lived out.
And how they want it lived out is two-fold: getting involved in social issues such as taking care of the poor and underprivileged as well as becoming concerned and make efforts to take care of God’s creation. When churches begin to focus on these issues, the young will sit up and take notice. They are already at the forefront of these interests in many ways.
A last comment: The future growth in the U.S. Evangelical church looks like will be in great part coming from Hispanic people. What are our future plans for this growth?
In closing I would like to draw attention to the article written by Mark Galli, titled "In the Beginning, Grace" in the October 2009Christianity Today magazine. This came up in some of our discussion. I am quoting from CT, "One of the most promising developments in contemporary evangelicalism has been the re-emergence of spiritual formation…the new emphasis on kingdom theology – an eschatological vision that will drive our concerns for social justice – is a helpful vertical (our relationship with God) correction."
I believe Galli’s article is worthy of our attention as a denomination. He clearly states that the way forward for the church today is to stop focusing on all the horizontal doings, and return to the vertical focus. He writes, “…the scandal is not that we are just like other people but that we are not more like Jesus…the word of the Cross …calls us not to do more but to cease worshiping idols.”