Interview: NAE President Leith Anderson on Leadership, Evangelicalism

The president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, spoke to The Christian Post last week during the Evangelical Leaders Forum.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

CP: You keep a pretty low-profile considering you're the head of an organization that represents 30-million members. What is your philosophy on leadership, especially Christian leadership?

Anderson: Well actually I wrote a book on that (laughs). My philosophy is basically a leader is responsible for figuring out what needs to be done and make sure that it gets done. But it's not about the leader, it's not about me. It is about the message and the task.

CP: What changes or evolution do you see in the evangelical movement in America? There is a rising younger generation that is quite different in some aspects from their predecessors.

Anderson: Some of that is generational sociology independent of being evangelicals. We have a 20-something generation that is highly relational, team-oriented, and that is strongly being reflected in evangelical churches.

Specifically, it means that younger evangelicals are increasingly engaged in social justice issue and care for the poor. But it tends to be a hands on engagement more than an advocacy engagement. And it is less individualistic and more team and cooperation.

The example would be a group of 20-something that would get together and have a ministry to the homeless. They would do it together. And part of it is because it is a whole generation that grew up playing soccer together and doing a lot of things together.

CP: The NAE has been criticized by some conservative Christian groups for abandoning the core issues of the sanctity of human life and marriage to take up issues viewed as more progressive such as climate change and immigration. How do you respond to these criticisms?  

Anderson: Well I would say those are primary issues to us that we are engaged in and have staff members that work significantly in these areas. Often what happens is that certain issues are focused upon and the issues that we are highly engaged in are neglected. But the reality is that we are very much committed to the issues of the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.

For example, we have two tracks here today that are on those two topics.

CP: What is the main goal of NAE in this coming year? What would the organization like to see happen in America?

Anderson: Well first of all the NAE is not about changing everything in America, nor primarily about political issues. We are primarily an association of denominations and other organizations. So we are focused on the strengthening the health of our denominations which represent a significant number of evangelicals in America.

The governmental affairs office is one part of the overall agenda and ministry of the NAE.

If anything I would say we are doing more and stronger on our denominational members than probably ever before in NAE history since 1942.

CP: Is there any issue among the denominations that you would like to see strengthened in this coming year?

Anderson: Well denominations are facing a lot of interesting challenges. Denominations are facing financial crunches in the recession. That is very much a subject of conversation and concern. Many of our denominations have the largest number of large churches they ever had that are pastured by aging baby boomers. And there is going to be a generational leadership change and executives are concern about that and how that is going to go. And another reality is the growing edge of evangelicalism is an immigrant population. We have denominations where a third to upward towards a half of the churches are ethnic churches.

So those are huge changes from where we were 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago.

CP: How does NAE help the denominations with these areas of concern?

Anderson: There are a number of things we do, but let me give you one specific example. I lead a retreat each year that brings together the CEOs of the denominations. I paused there because it is a bishop in one place, it is a president in another and it's a superintendent, the terminology is just all over the map. But they come together and share their concern and ideas.

We are doing something also with the board at our gatherings that's new to us. Next March, we will meet in Springfield, Mo. , which is the headquarters of the Assemblies of God. Next October we will meet in Los Angeles at the headquarters of the Foursquare Church. What we are doing is to bring these denominational leaders together so they are learning from each other, and that's the primary value of their meeting because this information is not readily available from anybody else.

CP: You've been known to be a proponent of the Bible Literacy Project's curriculum. How do you feel about Texas requiring public schools to offer courses on the Bible? Does this violate separation of church and state in your opinion?

Anderson: Well on the lowest common denominator level, the Bible is literature that is important to America and to our history. We have expressions all throughout our English language that is biblically based - quotes from Jesus, quotes from Moses. So an educated person needs to know what our heritage and what the Bible teaches. I would also contend that there are spiritual values and moral values within the Bible that are not denominationally or sectarian in nature, but that everyone should know. If it is appropriately done, we can teach the Bible in public schools that does not violate the constitution.

CP: How is your relationship with Richard Cizik these days? Do you two still keep in contact?

Anderson: We don't as much as when we worked together, but we still have a good relationship. We've been friends for almost 30 years; we went to the same school. One of my mentors was one of his mentors. So I would say we have a great relationship, but it is more talking on the telephone than seeing each other. We do occasionally get together for dinner when I'm in the district (Washington, D.C.).

CP: Is there anything else you want to add?
Anderson: These are good days for the NAE. It is a positive time and it is an honor to work for the organization.