The Common Good

The Hole in Our Gospel: Interview with World Vision's Richard Stearns

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As the pastor of a church with a deep desire to love others as Christ would, I've recently been telling folks, "If you only read one book this year, then you must read The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns." And that's saying a lot, given that my own book just came out! I feel that strongly about Stearns' message.

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Stearns, who has been president of World Vision U.S. since 1998, has a love for God and a passion for hurting people that's immediately evident. A former CEO for Parker Brothers and Lenox, Inc., he jettisoned a lucrative career in corporate America to answer God's call to humanitarian ministry. And a decade later, he says he has no regrets. "The world we live in is under siege," he says, before ticking off the severity of our problems -- famine, AIDS, war, ethnic cleansing, terrorism. "Three billion are desperately poor," he continues, "1 billion are hungry, millions are trafficked in human slavery, 10 million children die needlessly each year. And in the midst of this stands the church in America, with resources, knowledge, and tools unequaled in the history of Christendom."

In The Hole in Our Gospel (Thomas Nelson), Stearns offers an unflinching critique of American Christianity and the growing divide between "rich Christians" and the world's poor. For Stearns, the burning question for the church, and the subtitle of his book, is this: What does God expect of us? If we answer that question prayerfully and honestly, Stearns believes it could change our lives -- and the world. I recently chatted with him about the alleged hole in our faith, the work of World Vision, and (of course) jazz.

ROBERT GELINAS: You see a hole in our gospel. What is it, and why is it there?

RICHARD STEARNS: Many people believe that the gospel -- and its message of salvation -- represents a private transaction, almost a "fire insurance policy," between them and God. I contend that Jesus Christ proclaimed a broader, bolder vision of the gospel, a gospel that proclaims Christians are to be "salt and light" in the world. Jesus intended that his followers would be on the vanguard of a social revolution that would change our world. We were to lift up the poor and the downtrodden; care for the sick; fight for the oppressed; challenge injustice; and love our neighbors -- and our enemies -- as ourselves. Our faith was never meant to be only a "fire insurance policy" for our own security. It was meant to change everything in our world.

Your book describes your personal journey that led you to discovering the "hole in your own heart." Does the remedy lie in the individual student being ready to see what is so clear in the scriptures, or do we need to address institutional holes in our churches, seminaries, etc.?

A lot of our churches and seminaries focus too much on believing the right things, rather than doing the right things. Yes, there has long been a debate about faith versus works as the path to salvation. It's not an "either/or," but rather a "both/and." For example, in Luke 6, Jesus admonishes his followers: "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?"

Later, James states clearly and unequivocally that belief is not enough. Faith must be accompanied by actions. In many ways, that is similar to a comment from my former pastor and good friend Gary Gulbranson: "It's not what you believe that counts; it's what you believe enough to do." So, while it is first our individual responsibility to be faithful to the commands of Christ, it is also important that our churches and seminaries preach "the W-H-O-L-E gospel" and not a diminished gospel, one with a H-O-L-E in it.

Your book is being released during difficult economic times. Do you think that this helps or hinders your message?

Perhaps both. Millions of Americans today are facing severe economic problems. They cannot pay monthly bills; they are facing foreclosures on their homes. No doubt these are tough times and not times when giving to help others is easily done. For the first time in decades, many of us are getting doses of what it feels like to be economically vulnerable. And for a lot of Americans, this is scary.

On the other hand, the shared experiences many Americans currently are having may make us more compassionate toward those less fortunate and who may be hurting. Despite the recession, we are seeing at World Vision that our faithful child sponsors who donate $30 per month for their sponsored children continue giving sacrificially. Why? Because they know that no matter the hardships we are facing here, our lives and our lifestyles are much, much better than the poor in the developing world.

You use a powerful metaphor of "100 crashing jetliners" to describe the severity of the issues we face around the world, with more than 26,000 children dying daily from poverty-related causes. In light of that, as followers of Jesus, are we trying to end poverty or is this about something else?

The number of children who die every day -- 26,000 -- is the equivalent of 100 jetliners filled with children, crashing every day, 365 days a year. It is shocking that this is happening and few of us are paying any attention. So, yes, this speaks to the core of our faith and what we believe. Are we, as Christians, okay with this, or are we going to do something about it? Whether we are successful or not in tackling this kind of deadly poverty is secondary. But I don't believe Jesus gave us the option of apathy -- not even trying. First and foremost, as Christians we are commanded to serve the Lord, to be obedient to his calling for our lives. I believe it was Mother Teresa who said, "God does not call us to be successful; he calls us to be obedient."

If we are obedient to God's call, we can make a difference in the world, a world where more than 2 billion people live on less than $2 a day. I've met many of those people. I've been in their homes. I've met their children. And I have witnessed the transformation that occurs when someone shows love and compassion, as well as when they receive education, clean water, and proper health care. We can do this. I've seen it with my own eyes. But we can't do it if we turn our eyes away from the poor.

You were named to President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. What does that entail?

President Obama wants us to make recommendations on how to best engage faith-based and neighborhood organizations in four areas of social service delivery: economic recovery in the U.S., reducing the number of abortions and teen pregnancies, responsible fatherhood, and promoting positive international religious dialogue. I am serving on a sub-group on the role of international development. My duties and those of the other members are to advise President Obama on ways faith-based organizations can assist in pursuing those priorities.

Moreover, there's a "broader tent," if you will, in this advisory group. President Bush's faith-based office, right or wrong, was associated primarily with evangelicals. This council includes not just Christians of many stripes, but also people of other faiths and people of no faith.

How do you feel President Obama has done so far when it comes to the economy, life issues, etc.?

Quite simply, I believe it is too early to tell. But President Obama is taking decisive action to help address the recession. I also believe he has genuine interest in volunteerism and inspiring volunteers to help those who are marginalized, both in the United States and internationally.

Could you talk a bit about the roles and responsibilities of the church and government when it comes to the hole in our gospel? Should it all be up to the church, and the government is just doing our job until we get our act together? In other words, should we embrace partnerships with governments or be wary of them?

As Christians, each of us has a personal responsibility for caring for the most vulnerable, regardless of what the government does or does not do. Churches should always be out front on these issues -- that's part of the essence of the "good news" inherent in this gospel we embrace. But I believe the faith community and the government can work together in meeting the needs of the poor. World Vision has been receiving government grants for more than 25 years for our work in the developing world and, more recently, for our work in the U.S. We receive those funds not because we are Christian, but rather because of the quality of our work. I believe President Obama -- and President George W. Bush before him -- wants organizations of all faiths to have a level playing field when it comes to applying for grants. He has seen the effectiveness of faith-based and community groups in delivering social services in Chicago and sees the positive benefits of the work of those types of organizations.

There's a new book out by Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo called Dead Aid, which argues that foreign aid to Africa is not effective and that it's bad for the continent. How do you answer her concerns?

Ms. Moyo states that her book doesn't address charity-based aid or emergency relief by organizations like World Vision. Rather, she discusses aid payments to governments of developing countries from either other governments or from international institutions like the World Bank.

She does point out some legitimate problems with foreign aid, but Ms. Moyo overstates her case -- both in reference to the seriousness of problems with aid and the best ways to help the economies of African nations become self-sufficient. For example, she writes that "... aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world." That simply isn't true. I know because I've seen it firsthand. While aid has, at times, been ineffective and has done damage in some cases, foreign aid has also saved countless lives. Generalizations about removing all aid aren't helpful -- people will die. But improving aid is certainly an ongoing goal.

As the jazz theologian, I'm obligated to ask you this final question: Do you like jazz music? And if so, who do you listen to?

Sorry, but most of my time in the car is spent listening to audio books. My musical knowledge is pretty pathetic -- something I would like to change. You might say that there's a hole in my listening!


portrait-robert-gelinasRobert Gelinas is the lead pastor at Colorado Community Church in Denver and UrbanFaith.com's resident Jazz Theologian. He blogs at JazzTheologian.com. His book, Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith, is now available. Find out more about Richard Stearns and his book at www.TheHoleInOurGospel.com, or read an excerpt in the March 2009 issue of Sojourners. This article appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

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