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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.
As Christians, we too are tempted to see our world that way. We can start thinking that our job is to invite a few fortunate others into the theme park, away from the troubles outside. But our job isn't to increase the attendance at Disneyland; it's to tear down the walls and transform the world outside.
I find the most effective way of getting people's minds outside the Magic Kingdom is to get their bodies into one of our development communities. There is no better way to be stirred with compassion than to work with children and families in desperate need.
Often, despite their need, the generosity and empathy the poor have toward one another puts to shame the visitor who has material abundance.
For Keith Stewart, senior pastor of Springcreek Church in Dallas, it was a World Vision trip to Nairobi that broke down the walls of the Magic Kingdom. Visiting a slum in Kenya's capital, Keith met an 18-year-old orphan who had learned shop-keeping skills to earn an income. That young man had taken a boy under his wing, sharing the profits of his cell phone retail shop with another orphan and beginning to teach him the business. It was this encounter with the generosity of an orphan that changed Keith's life.
When we travel beyond the walls of the Magic Kingdom, we discover a new reality, a Tragic Kingdom in need of the transforming gospel, a kingdom that will make us anything but comfortable.
In the Tragic Kingdom, a billion people are going to bed hungry every night, and nearly a billion have no clean water to drink. This is a world where 2.4 billion live on less than $2 a day. In the Tragic Kingdom, there are 59 million orphaned children in Africa. Around the world today, 21,000 children died of mostly preventable causes. The same thing will happen again tomorrow.
One small way we encourage young people to leave the comfort of the Magic Kingdom is The 30 Hour Famine. Teens and young adults learn the spiritual discipline of fasting. They also experience a twinge of the pain the billion people who suffer from hunger feel each day. Such events allow American young people to begin seeing their lives in light of the experience of their peers around the world.
Much of the world doesn't have to be a Tragic Kingdom. This is preventable hunger, preventable disease, and preventable deaths. They only exist because we don't care enough to prevent them.
If I were a doctor signing the death certificates of the thousands who die needlessly, I wouldn't write "measles" or "malaria" or "AIDS." I would write one word as the cause of death: "Lethargy." It's our most deadly disease.
Hold Up God's Truth
What does it take to lead people outside the Magic Kingdom? The Old Testament prophets were constantly holding up the standard of God's truth in front of God's people. They made it clear what God's expectations were, and they let God's people know where they fell short.
God says to the prophet Isaiah: "Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins" (Isa. 58:1).
The passage goes on to describe the ways in which Israel believes it is following God's will. "They seem eager for God to come near them" (v. 2). And yet the reality was different. Yes, they fasted, but they exploited their workers. Sure, they prayed to God, yet hit one another with their fists.
To expose their sinful behavior, Isaiah holds up God's truth. It is not abstaining from food that God cares about, but sharing it with the hungry and giving shelter to the poor. True fasting, he says is "to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free" (v. 3-7).
Isaiah is a great example for leaders. We need to challenge our communities with God's truth and compare it to the way we are living. We need to help people along the path of seeing their own lives in the reflection of God's truth. This is the start of discipleship.
At World Vision, we lift up God's truth in every way we can. In our weekly chapels, we repeat the same message, rallying our staff around our mission.
Recently, a suburban mom told us how she became an activist based out of her kitchen.
A theologian spoke about how our Christian identity and programs will look different around the world based on the local needs and cultures.
A volunteer church leader discussed how she reaches out to schools and children in the Seattle area using our after school programs.
The themes are different but the message is the same: we exist to help children and their families and communities experience the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.
For both employees and our supporters, we offer service opportunities, worship and preaching, trips to the field, and church-based programs that hold up God's truth. Contrasting our consumerist desires with the truth of God's Word has a way of replacing lethargy with passion.
We have to communicate God's truth and expectation constantly. We cannot be timid about confronting people with the expectations of Scripture and to embrace the full cost of discipleship to Jesus. Our goal is to form passionate followers of Christ.
Lead a Revolution
Leading people out of the Magic Kingdom and communicating God's truth are necessary steps to move people beyond complacency. But as leaders, we need to take one step further. We are called to lead a revolution.
Every year, Bruxy Cavey, the teaching pastor of The Meeting House in Toronto, preaches what he calls a "Purge Sunday." Cavey gets up in front of the congregation and gives them the (sometimes brutal) truth: "If you're not giving, leave. If you're not serving the poor, leave. If you're not a fully dedicated and committed follower of Christ, you need to find another church."
Cavey's approach may not be right for every leader, but we could all be a little braver about calling people to radical commitment.
Cavey's approach has an interesting effect. "Every year," he told me, "I do this and 10 to 15 percent leave. The next week we're a smaller congregation. But a year later, we've grown again, and even some of the people who left have come back."
Cavey has a vision, but it isn't about the institution. He is leading a revolution in Toronto. He's able to avoid being caught up in all the consumerist attractions that could make his church a bigger and more lethargic institution—at the expense of the revolution.
Too often, we give priority to the institution over the revolution. Jesus intends for us to lead boot camps, sending people, armed with the gospel, into the world. There is always a temptation to turn our boot camps into theme parks. It's the leader's job to be the chief revolutionary.
When World Vision partners with a church, the first thing we like to do is take the senior pastor on a trip. We've learned that if the senior pastor doesn't embrace the vision, the church isn't likely to respond. On the other hand, when a pastor catches a vision and shares it with his congregation, lives are transformed. It starts with the leader.
The pressures to build and protect the institution are significant on any leader. But we won't overcome lethargy if our message is simply one of comfort. Our goal is to make the revolution a part of the fabric of our ministries.
Today's Christians need revolutionaries. They need leaders willing to boldly lead them to serve the poor and feed the hungry in Jesus' name, and thus spread the gospel.
Yes, we have a revolution to lead. Get leading!
Richard Stearns is president of World Vision US and author of The Hole in Our Gospel.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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