An Interview with Rich Stearns
CLA President and CEO Tami Heim interviews Rich Stearns, President and CEO of World Vision, U.S.
Driven by his passion to raise awareness and support for poverty and justice issues, Stearns authored The Hole in Our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2010), Unfinished (Thomas Nelson, 2013), and a new 90-day devotional book co-authored with his wife Renee’ — He Walks Among Us (Thomas Nelson, 2013).
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization engaged in nearly 100 nations worldwide and dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision is a Founders Council member of Christian Leadership Alliance (CLA).
From your book Unfinished, what do you urge Christian leaders to finish in our world today?
A couple of years back a very simple but profound question came to my mind as I was reading Scripture. It was: “Why did Jesus leave?”
We Christians often speculate about when Jesus might return, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pastor preach on the question of why Jesus left to begin with.
Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus had the most amazing three-year run of ministry. He had a growing following of disciples. There was a great messianic expectation that he would lead the Jewish people out of captivity, restore the nation of Israel, and sit on David’s throne.
And then of course we all know the story of the Passion, the Crucifixion, the brutal death. His dead body is put in a cold stone tomb. It’s pretty much game over for the disciples and the movement around what Christ was preaching.
Then the greatest turnabout in history, the Resurrection, snatches victory from the jaws of defeat! Surely the Roman Empire can’t be a big challenge after you’ve defeated death. But instead of building his movement, assuming the throne of David (in an earthly sense), and leading the Jews to reestablish the nation of Israel, Jesus hangs around for 40 days, asks his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses throughout the world, and then he leaves!
So, why did Jesus leave? And, why were we left behind? The answers are the key to the meaning of our lives and the purpose of the church and every Christian ministry today.
Jesus left because he intended the church to do something critical. In Matthew 24:14 Jesus says: And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come. That is the task he gave to us as believers.
In my book, I unpack “the gospel of the kingdom,” because, yes, it is the Great Commission, but it is much more. Jesus’ vision of a new kind of kingdom coming on earth was stunning. It was a vision of a totally changed world where his disciples, living under his rule and authority, would go into the world and take it by storm like revolutionaries. They would work in every dimension of human life, and go to the broken and bleeding edges of the world to care for the poorest of the poor, stand up for justice, and live with integrity. In short, they would exhibit a different way to live. It would be so attractive that the church would grow, and this revolution would change the world. When that happened to his satisfaction, Jesus said he would return.
This is the big vision of my book — the unfinished task!
It’s time to finish the job!
How do you see nonprofit ministries fitting into that mission?
Christ’s assignment to his disciples involved nothing less than reclaiming, restoring, and rebuilding every dimension of human life. That includes every field of endeavor: business, education, government, diplomacy, law, media, et cetera. They would go into each walk of life with his revolutionary value system, and transform it.
Christ’s followers would transform human relationships, the management of our planet, marriage, sexuality, the family — all reclaimed in a biblical framework. It’s such a big assignment that we need to break it into thousands of smaller tasks. Every ministry has a role to play whether you are Campus Crusade, Focus on the Family, World Vision, a Christian college or university, or another kingdom-minded organization.
I love the book of Nehemiah. In rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, Nehemiah took a massive task and broke it into smaller, manageable, tasks. As every person rebuilt their portion of the wall, the bigger vision was accomplished.
In the kingdom of God, we each have an assignment, and if we do it faithfully and effectively we’ll complete the whole job. We’re sent into the world to reclaim it, to be healers and peacemakers. We’re sent on mission to restore the poorest of the poor, to rescue human lives, but more importantly human souls. That’s at the center of our missions as Christian organizations.
Unfinished is a call to rediscover that simple, yet profound, assignment. I hope nonprofit leaders will use it to refocus their ministries. As leaders, without a compelling ministry vision you get off course and wander in unfruitful directions. It’s easy for ministries to get distracted. A church can get distracted on something as simple as growing attendance. The goal is not growing attendance. The goal is building the kingdom of God. If attendance growth is the best means to that end — and you can demonstrate that — then fine, grow attendance. But, we must tie every program and initiative back to the central mission; otherwise it’s superfluous and can be eliminated.
How would you encourage ministry leaders focused on the “unfinished” work today?
One of the ideas that I put forth in Unfinished is that if we think of God as the author of life, writing the big story of the universe, it means there’s a creator writing this narrative. Here’s the thing. Authors create characters for a reason. God has written you and me into his story. He created us as characters. He’s written us into a specific place for such a time as this. We each have a crucial role to play in the big story.
God has given us gifts and talents. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us. So my charge to the other CLA leaders is to take seriously your God-given role. Let’s give him our best. Let’s be bold. Knowing that God has written us into the story, let’s take risks and believe that God intends to use us to change the world and to finish the job.
Our biggest problem is that sometimes we just don’t believe that God really intends to use us to change the world. God has written you into his story to be a world changer. That should keep us focused on finishing the work he has called us to do.
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