ARLINGTON, Va. March 9 (RNS)--For Bishop Kevin Mannoia, who likes water analogies, the term "sea change" is an appropriate description for the transformation occurring in the National Association of Evangelicals.

As he travels across the country and meets with members and prospective members, the new president of the organization is reiterating his vision for the evangelical umbrella organization that has been struggling with its identity.

"We are healthy churches moving in unity to transform our culture," he told denominational and ministry leaders gathered in this Washington suburb for the group's annual meeting, which ended Wednesday.

But as the NAE seeks to transform others, it more immediately is attempting to transform itself.

The board of directors Monday approved a path-breaking change in the organization's bylaws, allowing denominations that are members of other ecclesiastical groups to have dual membership with the NAE. Last fall, the NAE moved its headquarters from the traditional evangelical center of Wheaton, Ill., to the Los Angeles area.

And this year's convention was held jointly with AMEN, a Hispanic evangelical organization whose acronymn stands for Alianza de Ministerios Evangelicos Nacionales (Alliance of National Evangelical Ministries).

Mannoia called the new membership rule "a fairly major change" that can make the organization more inclusive by allowing denominations that will commit themselves to NAE's statement of faith and mission--even if they also belong to members of more liberal groups like the National Council of Churches.

"This is not a statement of weakness, of capitulation or of dilution," Mannoia, a bishop of the Free Methodist Church of North America, said in an interview. "This is a statement of maturity and strength as represented in the NAE. We have come to a point where we don't have to define ourselves in terms of being relative to anyone else."

The move from the Midwest to the West Coast also fits into the organization's new identity, he said.

Mannoia believes it's important for the NAE to be in Los Angeles County, an area he says represents the urbanization, globalization and multiethnic nature of modern America.

"Wheaton has served us well to this point, but it has the potential of giving an image that we are somehow theologically exclusive," he said. "It's a positive emphasis of saying we want to be in a place that is a reflection of what America is becoming."

Speaking to NAE members, Mannoia stressed the need to be open to those with differences in worship styles and theology.

"It's beyond tolerance," he said. "It's an embracing of the wholeness of the body of Christ."

The NAE, which has some Pentecostal members, gained its 52nd denominational member at the meeting, the charismatic Association of Vineyard Churches.

Mannoia, who succeeded the Rev. Don Argue in July, was pleased to have a joint meeting with Hispanic evangelicals. "It's an accurate reflection of the nature of the kingdom of God, which is not a segregated kingdom," he said.

Mannoia said the organization also hopes for closer ties with the National Black Evangelical Association.

"We are anxious to maintain a very close relationship with NBEA and even beyond the NBEA, with African-American denominations throughout the country," he said.

Both the Rev. Jesse Miranda, president of AMEN, and the Rev. Aaron Hamlin, executive director of NBEA, spoke of being in "partnership" with the NAE but said their groups intend to maintain their independence.

Beyond embracing more of those within the church, Mannoia said NAE members need "to roll up our sleeves and to get our hands dirty in the culture."

While continuing its work in Washington, the political center of the country, Mannoia said he also wants to turn his organization's attention to Hollywood, the cultural center now in the back yard of NAE's headquarters. Now located in temporary space in Glendora, Calif., he plans to move it to permanent space in the neighboring community of Azusa.

The Rev. Edward Foggs, the NAE's first African-American chairman of the board, said leaders are keeping in mind the organization's 58-year history and the influence of its senior members while forging ahead in new ways.

"It...across the years has come to be viewed as too male, too white and too aging," said Foggs, minister at large for interchurch relations for the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.).

"There's nothing wrong with being male. There's nothing wrong with being white and there's nothing wrong with aging. We all do it. But if that becomes the primary basis by which an organization gets identified, it obviously becomes problematic."

Foggs said NAE will join with the Convoy of Hope relief organization to help distribute groceries, job information and evangelistic information to inner-city Washington during the weekend after the meeting--a first related to the NAE annual gathering.

"We are trying to help NAE to be more intentional in its missional focus," he said. "It's important that we not just come to town and say we had a good time but we come to be partners in the areas where we come."

Despite the expectant tones of NAE's leaders, they admit there are some practical challenges ahead.

Only about 300 people attended the annual meeting, down from last year's total of about 350.

Foggs said the numbers reflect the time of transition, the lack of an early-registration discount this year and the fact that the Washington area is not a "central location" for many members.

And while the AMEN attendees took part in the general sessions of the NAE meeting--with Miranda, the group's president, addressing the closing banquet--there remained only a handful of black evangelicals in attendance.

"I don't think it represents animosity," said Foggs.

Rather he thinks practical reasons influenced the low attendance of African-Americans, such as the upcoming NBEA meeting later this month in the Baltimore area, just up the highway from the Washington region.

But attendees raved about the changes they could see--the more diverse NAE staff and more contemporary worship style of the meeting. Performers over the course of the meeting included gospel artists Andrae and Sandra Crouch, who received racial reconciliation awards, and a hip-hop choir.

Miranda, president of AMEN, praised the opening night's worship rally during his speech at the closing banquet: "Inclusive worship, diverse people from the city, from the suburb, the black, the brown, the white. We were all worshipping God--a glimpse of heaven, of what it will be like when Jesus comes again."

But for 85-year-old Eunice Posset of Beaver Falls, Pa., the worship style was going to take a bit of an adjustment.

"This is different from previous conventions that we attended," said Posset, who with her husband, John, attends a Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America congregation that only sings Psalms a cappella. "Personally, the noise, the constant instrumental music during prayer time is foreign to me."

Yet she remains confident the NAE will find its way because "the message is the same."

Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude as they watch the organization evolve with a new generation of leaders. "To me, NAE's a huge battleship," said the Rev. Terry Powell, a district superintendent over Indiana and Michigan congregations of the Missionary Church, an Indiana-based denomination with 440 U.S. churches. "It's going to take a while to get it turned around and go in another direction...I think the best days of NAE may well be just ahead."

Without the changes it has made, some NAE officials say they might not have remained involved. Foggs said he twice declined offers to hold the NAE's office of secretary before agreeing to become second vice chairman.

"I was favorably impressed by what I perceived to be a direction that NAE was trying to head and saw an opportunity to help influence NAE in that direction, which was a direction of reconciliation, a direction of inclusiveness," he said.

Diane Knippers, president of the conservative Institute on Religion & Democracy, said she, too, was not convinced when she began attending NAE meetings five or six years ago that she would continue to participate.

"There were some younger leaders of NAE that persuaded me to come. There were moments of `Why are we bothering to do that?'" she said. "I do not feel that way right now."

Knippers, 48, is now the second vice chairman of NAE, a position that usually leads to a term as chairman. If she were to follow that pattern, she would be NAE's first woman leader.

"The funny thing is I'm not a young person, but in this crowd I'm a young person," she said. "I really can feel like in good conscience that I can talk to...people younger than I am and say this is worth taking a look at. This has got some potential."

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