Imagine you're a pastor in Africa in the mid-1990s. It's the height of the AIDS pandemic and the adult population is dying off. What would you do?
Every day it seems there are more orphans in your community. Surely your church would rise up to this humanitarian crisis. You would have done something as millions died, as families disintegrated, as the coffin-making business boomed.
When I visited Uganda during the worst of the AIDS crisis, it wasn't seen as a problem that required extraordinary action.
Yes, some people were taking in orphans. Everyone knew a terrible illness was spreading. But the response was hardly sufficient.
"During that time, all we preached was judgment," says Pastor Joseph Senyonga, of Kasangombe, Uganda. The disease was viewed as a well-deserved consequence of immoral behavior. "There was little talk of love or compassion."
Attendance at Joseph's church dwindled as people in the community died. Yet, he didn't know what to do.
"As pastors, we were worried and scared," Joseph recalls.
World Vision began helping those affected by the crisis, but like most aid groups and churches, our response was slow. Pastors and local World Vision staffers had grown up with the situation as it gradually expanded during the 1980s and early 1990s. More and more people were getting sick and eventually dying.
We all were like the proverbial frog in the kettle. The water was gradually heated to the boiling point, but we couldn't seem to move.
It was my own outsider ignorance about the issue that helped jumpstart World Vision's response to this crisis. While the heat was rising, I'd been outside the humanitarian aid world (I had been selling dishes as president of Lenox). When I arrived at World Vision, and not knowing any better, I noticed the scope of the AIDS epidemic and started to ask questions. As a result, we partnered with local churches in Uganda to help. It took someone from outside the bubble of international aid to sense the level of the heat on this issue.
In the American church, we are sitting in our own slowly-heating kettles, whether the issue is poverty, addictions, immigration, or other issues. And church leaders face a similar problem. How do we overcome lethargy among those we lead? How do we preach the whole gospel? How do we make disciples when people are pretty comfortable in their pews?
I consider being a pastor the hardest job in the world. One of the toughest tasks—which I can fully appreciate in my role as president of World Vision—is to lead people toward a more faithful Christian life, to disciple Christians to live out the faith they profess. And we must persist with that message over and over again, year after year. We have to fight complacency both in those we lead and in ourselves!
Here are a few strategies I have developed to help people live out their Christian beliefs and values.
Magic or Tragic Kingdom?
When I talk with World Vision staff or when I'm speaking at a church, I try to alter the way they see the world.
The predicament of the American church is that we live in a kind of Magic Kingdom. Like going to Disneyland, you buy your ticket, and once you are inside the gates, everything you experience is controlled. The rides, the food, the shows are all there to entertain and amuse you. All you have to do is be there and observe.
Yet just beyond the walls of Disneyland is Anaheim and the rest of Los Angeles, including the rough streets of Compton. This is the real world with real problems: pollution and congestion, drugs and violence, islands of upscale neighborhoods surrounded by slums. Inside the Magic Kingdom, the outside world is almost inconceivable.