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Posted: 9/5/03

New NAE president Ted Haggard
hopes to enhance evangelicals' image

By Steve Rabey

Religion News Service

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (RNS)–Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says most evangelical Christians are humble, kind and godly folks, but that's not how they're always perceived.

“For many people, the stereotypical image of an evangelical is a very serious old man with an expensive suit who is against whatever is happening that day,” said Haggard, a relaxed and smiling 47-year-old who could easily pass for 37. He was named NAE president in March.

Ted Haggard, pastor of the 9,200-member New Life Church, became president of the National Association of Evangelicals earlier this year. Haggard says he wants to break down the stereotypical images of evangelicals. (Colorado Springs Gazette/RNS Photo)

Haggard admits enhancing the image of evangelicals, those theologically conservative Christians who often are socially and politically conservative to boot, will be a big challenge. But he rarely thinks small.

New Life Church, the independent charismatic congregation he founded in his Colorado Springs basement in 1985, now has 9,200 members and plans to break ground on a 12,000-seat worship center next year. The church also is home to the World Prayer Center, a support base for missionary activities, and the Association of Life-Giving Churches, a network of 250 mostly Pentecostal and charismatic congregations.

Haggard, who spoke to Religion News Service at his home in early July, is trying to gain respect for evangelicals nationwide in much the same way he has helped his congregation grow–by focusing on essentials like salvation, Jesus and the Bible instead of divisive side issues, and by trying to love people into heaven rather than scaring the hell out of them.

“Evangelicals are in a period of transition,” says Haggard, who will serve as NAE president until he is voted out. “We're moving from being defined by what we're against to being defined by what we're for.

“We support civil liberties, personal freedom, women's rights, the dignity of the individual, representative government and other ideas that came out of Christian theology 400 years ago. Now we have to articulate those values again as we face struggles with Islamic culture.”

The NAE is in a period of transition as well. Since 2000, the organization has lost some of its key members, such as the National Religious Broadcasters; seen a downturn in funding; and endured the resignation of former President Kevin Mannoia. But membership and funding are up this year.

“We're resurrecting the organization,” Haggard said.

Haggard debuted his kinder and gentler evangelicalism at a May 7 forum on Islam that was co-sponsored by the NAE, an organization that represents 51 denominations with 43,000 congregations and 250 para-church organizations.

While reaffirming evangelicals' belief in the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ, the forum broke new ground by calling on evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham to tone down their inflammatory anti-Islam rhetoric.

“The impression one gets is that Ted Haggard, in his theology and his tactfulness, is more the son of Billy Graham than Billy Graham's son is,” said Martin Marty, a leading church historian from the University of Chicago, referring to Franklin.

Haggard himself invokes the image of Graham, the globe-trotting evangelist who first gained national attention with his 1949 Los Angeles crusades and remains many Americans' favorite evangelical.

“My dad was a liberal Presbyterian who served the church all his life but never heard the gospel message until he heard Billy Graham on the television,” Haggard explained. “If Billy Graham had started by talking about the evils of liberalism in the Presbyterian church, my dad never would have heard the gospel. But instead, Billy Graham explained how wonderful it is to be born again.”

Haggard grew up in Indiana and graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., before serving as a youth pastor at a Baptist church in Baton Rouge, La. In 1984, he and his wife, Gayle, visited Colorado Springs, where Haggard spent three days praying and fasting. He says God told him to start a church where people could freely worship, whether that meant dancing, jumping, banging on a tambourine or standing silently with eyes closed. Today New Life is the largest congregation in Colorado and one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States.

Haggard is winsome, but he's not wishy-washy. And he's less concerned about being popular than he is about carrying out Christ's command in Matthew to “make disciples of all nations.”

“I am not a peace-at-any-cost guy,” he said. “I have core convictions. I am an activist and an advocate for the things I believe. But I am absolutely convinced ours is the first generation that has a realistic opportunity to fulfill the Great Commission. And the only way that can happen is if we do it together. Which is why I have great hope and enthusiasm for the future of the National Association of Evangelicals. I know Christians cannot successfully fulfill the assignment given to this generation if we're separated from one another.”

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