Plugging the Hole in Our Gospel: An interview with Rich Stearns
An Interview with Richard Stearns, by Andrew Zimmerman
This interview originally appeared in the September 25, 2014 edition of Plough Magazine
AZ: This year saw publication of your book Unfinished: Filling the Hole in Our Gospel. What is the hole in our gospel?
RS: The gospel is not just good news about personal salvation – it is that, certainly, but it’s so much more! At the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus gave one of his first public statements, he read from Isaiah – something which served as a mission statement for him:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The gospel is about justice and compassion; it’s about the year of jubilee where debts are forgiven and where economic justice is established. If we don’t carry out the whole mission that Christ gave his church, then our gospel has a hole in it.
AZ: Jesus blesses the poor but has stern words for the rich, leading you to write that the gospel involves “killing the American dream.” What kind of poverty do you see among Western Christians, who are rich compared to billions around the world?
RS: Americans who visit World Vision projects in Africa or South Asia are often disarmed and surprised to see how the poor are so often filled with joy. Children who are destitute are happy playing with a soccer ball made of plastic bags, twine, and scrap paper. Meanwhile our own children are sorely disappointed on Christmas morning if they don’t find the iPhone they want under the tree.
The poorest of the poor are often rich in faith – and rich in joy, gratitude, courage, endurance, dependence upon God, and community. Those are the things that we Americans often lack. When you have nothing, God becomes everything. But in North America, God has to compete for our devotion.
AZ: World Vision seeks to combat poverty around the globe. Yet in focusing on world poverty, do we risk overlooking our closest neighbors? Martin Luther King Jr., in a reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan, once quipped that the priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man as he lay by the road to Jericho were probably going to a meeting of the Jericho Road Improvement Association.
RS: There’s a lot of truth to King’s observation. I often notice that we Americans are far more eager to help people in Africa than those in our own country. When the poor are distant from us geographically and culturally, we don’t feel threatened – we can sponsor a child or make a donation, all at a safe remove. It’s different when the poor live right down the street.
Why are we threatened? Perhaps it’s because our comfort is called into question by the disparity in resources and the cultural divide that separates us from our poor neighbors. We’re not sure how to respond to the homeless person holding a sign. In addition, we’re often judgmental, more so than we are toward the poor in the Congo or Angola. If you’re poor in America, it’s assumed that the reason is laziness, bad choices, alcohol, or drugs.
Yet in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus doesn’t tell us why the man was beaten and left by the side of the road. Maybe he was a drug dealer and a deal went bad; maybe he made the ill-advised choice to travel after dark. Jesus just tells us to respond in compassion regardless of why someone is in need.
AZ: You’ve written that Jesus left us three great commandments. The first two are familiar – to love God and to love neighbor. But the third is often forgotten: the Great Commission, where Jesus commands us, to “proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). What does this look like?
RS: To understand the Great Commission, we first have to pose the question: Why did Jesus leave? This is a profound question when you think about it. Jesus gave his disciples an assignment to go into the world and make disciples. He tells them: I will return when the assignment is completed. Every follower of Christ is thus his ambassador to proclaim the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God. By loving God, loving our neighbors, and through our actions we are to show the world a different way to live.
According to the Sermon on the Mount, this means living together in community in a way that is radically different from the rest of the world. Church communities are to be outposts of the kingdom of God.
The earliest churches in the Roman Empire were all fledgling little communities of people whose lives were uniquely different from the culture around them. They cared for the poor, loved one another, and were known for their kindness, gentleness, meekness, joy, self-sacrifice, and compassion. As a result, these communities became attractive, like points of light in a dark world. This is what fueled the growth of the church – people said, “Whatever the Christians have, I want it too.” It should be just the same today.
AZ: What do you say to those who criticize Christian mission as cultural imperialism?
RS: Proclaiming the gospel isn’t imperialism, because our job is not to convert people. We are to invite them to experience the forgiveness of their sins and to join the caring community that is the church. But the choice is up to them. If we go to Pakistan or Indonesia proclaiming the coming of the kingdom, we’re simply offering the people an opportunity to hear and to respond.
AZ: In light of the Great Commission, what is our responsibility as Christians in the public square?
RS: As followers of Jesus, we are called to be salt and light – to form communities that are attractive, winning people to Christ through our lives of love and truth. We’re not called to shake a finger at non-believers or to coerce them to be like us. Paul tells us: “What have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Our task is to be an embassy of the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20). Only when people are won to Christ will they want to live according to Christian principles.
AZ: At times Christians can’t avoid the political, as you experienced during the media firestorm last March when World Vision’s board amended its policies to recognize civil marriages between employees of the same sex. Two days later, your board reversed that decision. What are your reflections on that now?
RS: I’ve thought about it a great deal. First, World Vision never altered its view that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman. In fact, we stated clearly that we were not endorsing same-sex unions. What we attempted to do was find a way to recognize the sad reality of a divided church. As a multi-denominational organization, World Vision includes employees from many different denominations, some of which sanction same-sex relationships as marriage. We drew the analogy that since we don’t disqualify someone from employment at World Vision if he or she gets divorced, the same principle should apply with same-sex unions.
But this was a mistake, one for which we have apologized. Unfortunately, by deferring to a few denominations – which are not the majority of our supporters – we effectively let them publicly define us and our belief about marriage. As a result, we ended up revising our employee-conduct policy in a way that was inconsistent with our deeply held beliefs, and this sent a very confusing message. As soon as we recognized our mistake, within about forty-eight hours, we sought to correct it by reversing the change and reiterating our belief in what scripture teaches about marriage.
This unfortunate series of events caused a great deal of uncertainty about who we were and what we believed. That wasn’t our intent – we were actually trying to find a way to unite as Christians around our mission to serve the poor. But we did it in a clumsy way, and it was not a good decision. We asked for forgiveness and apologized. All of us on the board offered to resign, but were asked to stay on.
AZ: As a result of this controversy, many people cancelled their child sponsorships. Do all the children affected have sponsors again?
RS: When we reversed the decision, it did succeed in stopping the bleeding. In the end, roughly 1.5 percent of our child sponsors walked away from us – not fifty percent, fortunately. Nonetheless, that still means we lost thousands of sponsors for children who can least afford it, and we’re faced with the challenge of making up the difference. We’re moving forward now, continuing to do the work we’ve done for more than sixty years, trusting in God for his help.
AZ: What challenges can you leave us with, especially those of us who can’t go to places of extreme poverty?
RS: First and foremost, every follower of Christ needs to understand clearly why he or she is here. We’re not on this earth just for raising our families and enjoying life. We have a mission and a calling. Every morning when we wake up we should be thinking: How can I serve Christ and his cause today, where I am, with the full commitment of my life?
We are like enlisted soldiers on an assignment, and we can’t go AWOL. Not all of us are called to sell everything we have and move to the Congo to help the poor (though some of us are). But we should all be living faithful and productive lives for Christ right where we’re planted. For some, it might be bringing a meal to a shut-in. For others, it might be visiting a nursing home to read to the elderly or just sit and keep them company. It might be to volunteer at your church. There are so many ways that we can be the hands and feet of Christ in our world.
In my book, I describe this as “spiritual dominoes.” Think of yourself as a domino that Christ has placed strategically with a critical role to play. All he asks is that we’re willing to do the thing we’re called to do where he’s placed us to do it. When we’re faithful in that task, God creates spectacular chain reactions that change the world in really profound ways.
In the 1800s, there lived a man named Ed Kimball. All he did was teach Sunday school to a group of teenage boys every week. One of those boys was Dwight L. Moody, who became the greatest evangelist of the nineteenth century. From Moody, there was a direct domino effect through several other men leading to the conversion of Billy Graham in the late 1930s. It all began because Ed Kimball showed up and taught Sunday school every Sunday. Kimball never did anything spectacular, but God used his faithfulness. And so there is no such thing as an insignificant follower of Christ. What we do – what God has entrusted us with – has the power to change the world.