Author Interview: Rich Stearns Discusses "Unfinished"
Unfinished, the new book by Rich Stearns, president of World Vision USA, asks the question, “What do you do after you believe?” We caught up with Rich and chatted about what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the 21st Century.
Q: Why did you feel the need to write a second book after your first [The Hole in Our Gospel]? What was “unfinished”?
Rich Stearns: I think because the first book was so widely accepted it really encouraged me that I had an audience out there and a platform to say more. Of course the second book is very different. I like to think of the first book as Global Poverty 101; it’s a really good introduction to the issues and what the Bible says about Christians and poverty and justice. The second book, Unfinished, you could say is Discipleship 101. It’s an unpacking of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the 21st century. It answers the question “Now that I’ve become a Christian, now what?”
Q: How have your ideas about religion evolved over the course of writing these two books?
RS: When I came to World Vision in 1998, I was certainly an evangelical Christian, and my faith was very important to me. But my experiences with World Vision made me see the world through different lenses and really required me to dismantle my faith one brick at a time, all the way down to the foundation and then rebuild it again. As I saw the global church, and I began to understand issues of poverty and justice in a more profound way, I started to read the Bible differently, and I understood passages in the scripture that I didn’t before. And those two books are sharing my own rebuilding process for people who might not be able to have the same kinds of experiences I had.
Q: When you talk about dismantling and rebuilding your faith, was there one moment in particular that was the catalyst for that process?
RS: My very first trip to Africa, which I talk about in the prologue to A Hole in Our Gospel was when I was taken to ground zero for the AIDS pandemic, and I met children in these child-headed households who had lost both their parents to AIDS. It wrecked me emotionally. And I realized for the first time how insulated I had been from the real tragedy and pain in the world. I lived in a bubble, in a comfort zone that didn’t have room in it for children living without parents in Africa. I realized that I could not turn my back to those issues. This was the world that Christ died for and if he was willing to die for it then I ought to be willing to do something to make a difference.
Q: In your second book, you focus a lot on finding God’s plan for each of us. What is the first step people can take to find out what God’s plan is for them?
RS: I believe that God has a calling for each one of us. God is the author of life, and authors don’t create meaningless characters. Every character is created for a purpose…The question is how do we find that [purpose]. The first step is that you can’t expect God to reveal your calling until you’ve made a real and true commitment to him. It sounds pretty fundamental, but I really believe that many Christians haven’t made that commitment. Many of us are holding back and saying, ‘I’m committed, BUT…” We often put conditions on our commitment.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is when Jesus is calling the disciples and he calls Andrew and Peter and says, “Come and follow me.” There’s no discussion. There are no excuses. All we’re told is that immediately they left their nets. Here’s what Peter didn’t say. He didn’t say “Well it’s not really a good time for us, Jesus. The fishing business is just about to take off; we just bought four boats; and Andrew has a second mortgage on his house. It’s really an inconvenient time for us to drop our nets and follow you. Could you come back in a few years?” They didn’t say any of that. They just left their nets and followed him.
Q: One of my favorite chapters from your book was the comparison of the Magic Kingdom, that most of us live in, and the Tragic Kingdom that is a lot of the rest of the world. Why is the disconnect so serious and what can we do, as members of the Magic Kingdom, to fix it?
RS: We are all products of our culture and our environment. If you were born inside the walls of Disney World and you came to adulthood never having seen the outside world, imagine how warped your world view would be.
Of course, what I’m suggesting is, if you were born in America and never traveled to the developing world … you’ve been born in this theme-park world where everything is at your fingertips, everything is available to you as long as you have enough money to buy the admission ticket. So, is it any wonder that our world view would be so distorted? People who live in the Tragic Kingdom also have a very limited view of the world because all they’ve ever known is poverty and suffering…
God looks down on both of these worlds and we have to learn to see the world the way God sees it. We are called as Christians to love what Jesus loves, to treasure what Jesus treasures, to value what Jesus values—and in order to do that we have to see the world through his eyes.
Q: Do you feel that advocacy has a place at World Vision?
RS: It absolutely has a place, and I do think many of us underestimate the power of our voice and our influence. As Bread for the World knows well, 50 calls to a Senator’s office about an important piece of legislation can make a huge difference. Influencing a few key legislators can release millions and even billions of dollars that go toward helping the poor and vulnerable. It’s very important for Christians to understand that they have this ability to use their voice. But the old expression, "put your money where your mouth is," can be reversed to “put your mouth where your money is.” So if you’re passionate about helping the hungry, put your mouth behind it, but also you need to put money there. It’s not either-or, it’s both.
Q: As a signatory of the Circle of Protection, how would you respond to Christians who are critical of it and feel that it’s creating more dependence on government?
RS: The government has a responsibility to reflect the values of its citizens. I also think governments have a responsibility to create a safety net for the most vulnerable … I don’t think a lot of people want to create programs that create dependency generation to generation, but a lot of programs don’t create dependency, they give a hand-up instead of a handout. I think we have a responsibility to be the conscience of our government. Government budgets are moral documents, and if we’re going to spend half a trillion dollars or more a year on the military, we also have to allocate some money to the most vulnerable people in our world and our country.