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NAE’s first minority president to focus on reconciliation amid evangelical identity crisis

We are a spiritual, not political, movement

Walter Kim
National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim speaks at his inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2020. |

The National Association of Evangelicals inaugurated Virginia pastor Walter Kim as its first-ever minority president last week as he hopes to foster “reconciliation” and “spiritual renewal” for the 45,000-church network amid what he believes is an “identity crisis” in a politically divisive culture.

“By identity crisis, I certainly mean this discourse that seems to be happening right now and our inability to engage meaningfully and charitably in conversation with one another,” Kim, who was inaugurated in a ceremony held in Washington, D.C. last Thursday, told The Christian Post. 

“It's an opportunity for us to remember the essentials of the Good News to come together in our belief that we as evangelicals are not a political movement. We're not a social movement. We are a spiritual movement. In the public discourse right now, that often is forgotten, where evangelicalism is often presented as a political movement or a cultural enclave.”

Kim replaces the association’s longtime president Leith Anderson, who announced his retirement last year after serving as the NAE head since 2006. NAE is an association of churches from over 40 denominations with millions of constituents along with dozens of schools and nonprofits worldwide.

Kim was born in New York City to a Korean immigrant family. But throughout his life, he has moved around to various places such as Western Pennsylvania, Chicago and Vancouver. 

He spent about 20 years of his life in Boston where he served as the pastor of Boston’s historic Park Street Church, a church that played an influential role in the NAE’s conception during the first half of the 20th century. 

But for the past three years, Kim has served as the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, a congregation of about 1,500. He has served on the NAE board since 2013.

He told CP that as the new head of the NAE, he wants to focus on “spiritual renewal” and “reconciliation” because he is concerned about today’s politically “polarized society” where people on opposite sides of the spectrum find it increasingly difficult to engage with each other in meaningful ways even if they are fellow Christians.  

“So that work of reconciliation, it could be in polarized discourse,” he explained. 

Amid a growing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States and within evangelicalism, he wants to focus on ways to “build bridges” between various "communities of color in the network that NAE represents.” 

“We are at a point of distrust,” he said. “That distrust makes us dismissive of people who are different from us, who may approach the issues differently but ironically have the deepest core convictions about faith in Jesus. So that dismissiveness is very challenging at this particular point.

“We're so prone to want to talk and explain our position and justify and advance our position and a lot of times the first instinct that we need to have is the instinct of curiosity and humble listening to the concerns of others. Even within the evangelical community, there's just not enough of that mutual engagement within the various facets of evangelicalism.”

As evangelicalism is growing in places like Asia, Latin America and Africa, immigrants across the world are planting their own churches. As a result, cultural diversity in the NAE has grown over the years.  

But Kim said that “there is definitely a barrier.” 

“That's been demonstrated through sociological studies that have shown the increasing divide between communities that actually don't even have meaningful relational connections anymore,” he said. “This is precisely what Christianity had to deal with in the early years of its existence: How to bring the Greek and Jewish communities of the faith together. And so the Gospel of Christ has always been about that work of reconciliation.”

Kim is hopeful that things will get better.

“The Gospel was introduced in a world of great chaos when Jesus came. The modern evangelical movement when it arose in Britain and in America in the 18th century, there was also tremendous upheaval. And in all those moments since then, certainly in American evangelicalism, every time that there was a period of tremendous upheaval, where it seemed like evangelicalism might be seeing its final days, there was a resurgence that saw God work in fresh ways. And I'm expecting that again.”

As media attention has been so heavily focused in recent years on conservative evangelical support for President Donald Trump, many in today’s culture are being misled as to what the true theological definition of evangelicalism is. 

For many, the term "evangelical" has taken on the connotation of white conservatives who support Trump despite the realities of evangelism’s increasing diversity. 

In 2015, the National Association of Evangelicals created a four-pronged theological definition explaining exactly what evangelicals believe regarding the Bible, Jesus, salvation and outreach. 

“I think it's less about [evangelicalism] being reclaimed, and for us to maintain fidelity and focus on that,” Kim said. “If you go to churches throughout the country and hear what’s being preached in a pulpit and are engaged in the work of communities being transformed by the proclamation of the Gospel. There's a lot of spiritual vitality in evangelical churches.”

Right now in the U.S., although there is a decline in the overall population of Christianity in America, that decline seems to be more related to declines in mainline churches, he pointed out.

“Many evangelical churches and denominations are experiencing some growth or are certainly maintaining their growth,” he said. 

“When you look at the vitality of immigrant churches, the African-American church, Hispanic church, Asian-American churches, many of them may not in terms of their name say that they are evangelicals. But they are theologically evangelical. They actually represent a very strong vitality of the evangelical movement. And I would hope that as the NAE continues its work of bridge-building with those communities that the evangelical church more broadly will benefit.”

Kim believes that evangelical churches are faring better than their mainline counterparts for two reasons. 

The first reason, he said, is that evangelical churches are missional-minded and take seriously the challenge to present the Gospel in fresh ways and a fresh context.

“I think evangelicals recognize that the American context has changed,” he said. “So we want the Gospel to be presented in a new way. And If the new America is becoming more and more diverse ethnically, then the Gospel and churches need to reflect that.” 

The second reason is that evangelicals are “eager as a grassroots movement” to do effective things. 

“When there is a sense that God is on the move in certain areas of His Kingdom, we want to participate in that,” he stressed. “So it is both a missional mindset and a practical mindset that evangelicals are inclined toward this work of growth and diversity.”

Kim plans to stay on as pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church and will serve as NAE president bi-vocationally. 

“Certainly, there have been many presidents of the NAE in the past that have held the position bi-vocationally and I see the tremendous benefits,” he explained. “By being involved in a local church, I keep myself very much in touch with what followers of Jesus are struggling with or concerned about and how local churches are dealing with various issues. That really helps inform what I do at the leadership level of the NAE.” 

NAE also inaugurated the Rev. John Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Maryland, as its new board chair and longtime Wesleyan Church leader Jo Anne Lyon as NAE vice-chair. 

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