The Jazz Theologian

Hole in Our Gospel Cover Image(I interviewed Mr. Stearns on behalf of  Also appearing at Sojourners online)

Richard Stearns Head Shot 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's message.

who has been the 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, “one 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. (Interviewed on behalf of

You see a hole in our gospel; what is it, and why is it there?

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 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 to
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?

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 that is 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 “one hundred 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 healthcare. 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,

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 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?

(here’s an article from Newsweek:

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 listing 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!

Find out more about Richard Stearns and his book at

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