It's not surprising that the president of World Vision thinks Christians should help the poor. What may surprise some, however, is the degree to which Richard Stearns sees American Christians' limits in doing so as a sinful compromise of the gospel.
Stearns details his journey from the corporate world to the child-focused relief agency in The Hole in Our Gospel, published by Thomas Nelson earlier this year. Senior managing editor Mark Galli interviewed him shortly before its publication.
So what is the hole in the gospel?
We look at the gospel as almost a transaction between God and us. We say our prayer and our sins are forgiven. We get the fire insurance policy and we put it in our drawer.
Meanwhile, we are retreating behind the walls of our churches. Our church bulletins read like the table of contents for Psychology Today: support groups for pornography addictions and eating disorders, Taekwondo aerobics, and on and on. Our churches are increasingly meeting all of our needs but decreasingly going out to change the world.
The gospel was meant to be a social revolution. It began with a transaction between man and God. It began with this exchange we call atonement. But it wasn't meant to end there. It was meant to send us out as the vanguards of the social revolution, the salt and light that Jesus talked about that would transform the world. And my conclusion, after all of my experiences in 23 years in the corporate world, 10 years at World Vision, and visiting 50 countries, is that we've fallen short.
Do you think that's particularly an American problem?
I don't think it's uniquely American. I think what is unique about the American church is the incredible wealth and resources that we possess and control.
While we're going into our huge megacathedrals in the United States, African churches are suffering greatly. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are meeting under trees. They are dying of HIV and AIDS. Their children are dying because of unsanitary water, lack of health care, and lack of nutrition. This disparity in the body of Christ alone is appalling. I am sure it breaks the heart of God that Christians aren't even taking care of Christians as we could, let alone taking care of non-Christians.
It's not that churches are doing nothing. Obviously we all know churches that are doing wonderful things. Most of our churches have missions programs and programs focused on things like Darfur.
The United States is still the greatest missions-sending country in the world.
Most of it is evangelism. It's not poverty reduction. It's not justice. Many missionaries get involved in those other things in the course of their work, but we are doing little internationally. We are not a poor nation. But we don't tithe, so money is always scarce for this work.
What is the most compelling statistic that haunts you?
About 26,000 children under the age of 5 die every day of causes related to their poverty.
That is the equivalent of 100 planes filled with children crashing every day. If one jet liner crashes in America, it makes world headlines. There is an immediate flurry of activity: Why did it happen? What does the "black box" say? Is there a safety issue with the airplane? Was it a pilot error? And we start to learn about the lives of the people that died.
But where are the headlines? Where are the hearings, the acts of Congress, the things that would happen if a hundred jet liners were crashing every day?
If you looked at the death certificates of those children you would probably read words like starvation, respiratory infection, malaria, maybe HIV/AIDS. But you could easily cross that out and write apathy as the cause of death. The deaths were largely preventable, but those who could have prevented the deaths chose not to. I know that's harsh but I've seen and I know that it is possible to change the equation. It's the sin of our generation. The sin of my parents' generation in the United States was racism. The sin of our generation will be apathy.
Some of our readers would say there are a lot of fervent Christians who are involved in issues like abortion, sex trafficking, and religious freedom. Are you arguing that poverty should be a higher priority for them?
As Christians we have to have a list of priorities. Sometimes I think we get our priorities turned upside down. If Jesus were living today and tithing, what would his check register say? I am pretty sure [his money] wouldn't be going to the symphony. I am pretty sure it wouldn't be going to his alma mater as a first priority. I think it would be going to the least of these.
I think abortion is on that list. I think it breaks his heart. But how can you care about abortion and not care about the 26,000 children that die every day of preventable causes? It dwarfs the abortion problem in America. Five times as many children die around the world of preventable causes than die in abortions.
We are told we have the mind of Christ. It is hard to know the mind of Christ. But it would certainly be compassion for the sick and the lame and the broken and the poor, and I think you could argue that Jesus put them above all else in his concern.
John Green runs a ministry in Chicago for male prostitutes. And he offers them a variety of social services to help them move out of that lifestyle—job counseling, psychological counseling. Still he says that the greatest injustice he could practice would be to fail to tell them about Jesus. What do you think about that?
I agree. You could argue the mainline churches have been all about works whereas the evangelical churches have been all about faith and belief. Another way to frame the faith-and-works debate is truth and love. Truth is about what we believe is the right thing and love is about what we are doing about it. If you have love without truth, it's misguided love. If you have truth without love, what good is truth? I once had a pastor that said it's not what you believe that counts. It's what you believe enough to do.
I say within World Vision, if we offer bread but don't offer the Bread of Life, if we offer water but don't offer Living Water, then we are no better than the ones that we might criticize who offer only words.
Are you at liberty to do that when you are on the field for World Vision?
It varies a great deal by context. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is overtly Christian, and we have Bible schools and Bible-based AIDS curriculum. But in Mauritania or Banda Aceh or parts of China, we have to be very guarded about expressing our faith. In Mauritania the penalty for proselytism is death. So we plant seeds, we try to love people. As you probably know, in a place like Mauritania we hire Muslims. Our leadership is Christian but we have mostly Muslim staff. We try to witness to the staff through our lives and deeds and words. When I look at places like that, where Christian missionaries can't go or can't go freely, I think we are preparing the ground for a future day by showing them (hopefully) the face of Christ in human form so that they have a different understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
How do you deal with people who say, "You're right. Poverty is a huge problem. It is very discouraging. But it's just way too big for me to make any difference."
Poverty is big. It's ugly, it is difficult to address. But it is not hopeless because God doesn't ask you to save the whole world. He just asks you to do that which you can do, to put your piece of the puzzle in the jigsaw puzzle.
Imagine that your child is one that is going to die of starvation this month. Then imagine an American family saying, "Oh, it is hopeless. Poverty is too big. Hunger is too big. We are going back to our bridge club." If that's your child that their intervention could have saved, it means everything to you.
There's that Stalin quote: "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." And he understood that so well as he exterminated millions. But we have to see the one death as a tragedy. And we have to say, I can prevent maybe one tragedy, maybe two, maybe five. If I can prevent five tragedies, my life will have been worth living.
Here is the irony: The people that give us a dollar a day to sponsor a child, it's one of the last things they will cut because there is a little girl or a little boy at the other end of that dollar. And they'll cut out a lot of things before they'll cut the legs out from underneath that child they sponsor. Ironically, many of the millionaires who give us gifts of $100,000 a year can't give this year because their $20 million fortune is only worth $10 million. The irony of the widow's mite is that the people that can't really afford it keep giving and the people who could afford it feel like they can't.
You say in one chapter that the church has always been on the wrong side of the great social issues. On the other hand, you say we're in the middle of the greatest humanitarian crisis of all time and you wrote a book obviously thinking you could help to change that. What gives you hope that the church can get it right this time?
The church has done a great deal of good in the world and continues to do a great deal of good in the world. If all Christian ministries were removed from the world, all the salt from the meat, our world would be a far worse place than it is. If you look at the hospitals and the homeless shelters, the drug rehabilitation programs, the divorce recovery programs, the feeding programs around the world and ask who's doing that, it's mostly Christians. Our share of doing good is probably pretty high. I hate to be controversial, but I think we're doing more good than the other world religions in terms of our social conscience and our social action. To say it a little crassly, we may be the smart kid in the dumb class.
But are we doing that which we are capable of? Are we living up to our ability to change the world as Jesus kind of envisioned? We are getting a C in a course that we ought to be getting an A in.
You have to believe in the inherent goodness of the church, that when confronted with the right facts in the right way, it has great capacity for good. When I speak on issues like HIV or poverty, I never have anybody come up afterwards and say, "This is all bogus. You guys got it all wrong." I always have people coming up and saying, "We need to do more. What can we do?" Have faith that when confronted with the truth, true followers of Christ, will usually do the right thing. Or at least be motivated to do the right thing. Sometimes it is a lack of knowledge and awareness of the truth.
If I volunteer to help coach my kids' soccer team, or if I volunteered to be a docent at the art museum, it sounds like you wouldn't be happy about that. But such activities are helping the community in other ways—they're just not helping the poor as such.
It gets back to priority. There are certain things that really are not optional. We are not commanded to be a docent in the art museum. We are commanded to love the poor. To bind up the brokenhearted, to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Those are pretty strong commands in the Bible. So you almost have to do those first.
It could be maybe you are a great writer and so you write about these things. It could be that you're a talented musician; we have these artist associates that go around for World Vision and use their music as a way to attract people to a ministry to the poor.
It's a balance thing. You can say, "Well, Rich what are you doing about abortion?" Well, I'm not doing much, frankly. I've given to crisis pregnancy centers over the years, but my thing is what World Vision is all about. I do think that God calls us to different things. Someone else might be called more to evangelism. But there are some things that all Christians have some responsibility to do. Evangelism would be one. Caring for the poor would be another. We are all called to love God, we are all called to love our neighbor, and we are all called to the Great Commission. We are not all called to be a docent, but that's a worthwhile thing to do. But not if it excludes the other things.
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Hole in Our Gospel is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers. The book has its own website and blog.
Stearns was part of Christianity Today's "What is the gospel" panel at the Christian Book Expo (video, audio).
Christianity Today has interviewed Stearns several times: about his journey from the corporate world, the Global Fund, post-9/11 giving, and other issues.
See also our March 2005 cover story on World Vision, "The Colossus of Care."
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