25 March 2014

World Vision Between a Rock and a Hard Place: When "Christian" Nonprofits end up between "The Church" and The Scriptures

 A lot of people are talking right now about a recent statement on policy change by World Vision, whose board voted to allow hiring Christians in same sex marriages, and I don't like what most of them are saying or the way they are saying it.

Essentially, if you've missed it, the World Vision U.S. board voted to allow the hiring of people who claim to be Christians united in same sex marriages. The rationale is that World Vision receives support (donations) and potential workers from a broad range of church denominations and WV would rather fall in line with what churches believe instead of requiring that churches bow to their policies. On one hand, I believe it's a great philosophy. I believe too many para-church organizations end up dictating to churches what they should believe and how they should serve instead of the other way around. On the other hand, it highlights one of the biggest challenges I've encountered in all my years working for Christian nonprofit organizations. How do you faithfully serve churches when they are all so divided among themselves? Choosing to appease some of them, often means alienating others. You will never be able to please everyone. The result is more division. A group of denominations or churches will end up supporting an organization that most closely aligns with their own theology, and those para-church organizations become the very theological arms of denominations that World Vision claims it is trying to avoid becoming.

Russell Moore seems to think that the whole gospel is at stake over the issue. Rachel Held Evans thinks you should be able to work with people who call themselves gay Christians, as long as you are working together to do some other good thing that God commands. She also blames conservative evangelicals like Trevin Wax, who pointed out that this whole battle hurts the children more than anything, because she thinks we should be able to help the children without caring about other things that God says are also important to Him. I don't even want to spend anymore time reading what everyone else says. I worked in the Christian non-profit relief and development community for ten years and I know it better than all of them. Their shouting matches and debates rarely move us any closer to making any kind of real progress in alleviating poverty or bringing about real unity.

Before we go any further, let's go back in time to the late 1940's and early 1950's. The world had just emerged from the Second World War, and everywhere we looked we could see children suffering the effects of war. A movement of Christians decided to start organizations that could draw support from churches to send relief to widows and orphans. Primarily, it was Christians who felt the responsibility to care them.

As the organizations continued to grow, they saw the need not only for relief but for development, to rebuild communities and strengthen them for the future, and to provide structures in which children could grow and thrive. We learned about all kinds of suffering in the world. As the organizations grew, churches also grew and changed. The culture changed. Everything changed.

Many of the organizations stopped equipping local churches to do the work, and started doing it themselves. New organization were formed to bring emphasis back on serving local churches, but they soon learned many of the same lessons that the older organizations had already learned: that churches are often restricted in many nations and that you can get a lot more done, more effectively when you allow experts to do the work instead of giving the responsibilities to uneducated, untrained, and unprepared church workers.

Now we are in a situation where everyone is starting to question whether we are even going about this whole thing in the best ways possible. Could it be that these organizations have run their course? Why is it that every single organization that started with a specific mission ends up changing it's mission over time? Why aren't any of them bringing about lasting changes, that would allow them to actually complete their work?

This is the problem every nonprofit has: If you have a mission that is attainable, you will eventually have to close down your organization. And if your operation is dependent on the donations of others, you will have to make those others happy if you want to continue receiving their support.

One of two things happens: you continue to make supporters happy and continue to receive support, or you make them unhappy and you lose their support. Most organizations cease to exist, not because they have accomplished their mission, but because they loose focus on their mission and begin to focus the majority of their efforts on maintaining their existence.

In it's latest decision, World Vision has made a lot of people happy and a lot of other people unhappy. They will maintain the support of those who are happy and lose the support of those who are unhappy. They will also gain the support of a lot of new people who affirm their recent decision.

One of the saddest things about the whole situation is that poor children are getting caught in the middle of adult wars once again. This time it's not a physical war, it's a spiritual war. It's a war between groups of people fighting over what they believe is most pleasing to God. So many churches are at war with each other and at war with God, and refuse to yield to His wisdom.

You want to know what I think you should all do if you are supporting a child through World Vision. Stop sending your money through World Vision, where more than 15% of it goes to administrative and fundraising costs. And I'm not even saying you should do this particularly in response to their recent policy change. You should do the work yourself. Find out where widows and orphans live and visit them yourself.

The command in the bible did not say that pure and undefiled religion is to give money to someone else to care for widows and orphans in their distress. James says that "pure and undefiled religion in the site of our God and father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

As long as we want to keep personally avoiding what Jesus commanded instead of doing the work ourselves, we will continue having to choose which organization to pay to do the work for us. And we will continue to leave children in the middle, wondering who God the Father is and why his kids can't stop fighting each other.


  1. Great post, David. Just a clarifying question: when you say "world vision seems to think it's okay to keep half the command," do you mean that they're disregarding the "keep oneself unstained by the world" part or that they're neglecting the responsibility to "visit" (i.e., for oneself)?

  2. Thanks, Mark. I must have deleted the rest of that paragraph while I was editing. I would say it's the second half of the command. That's the part most people ignore whenever I hear that verse quoted, and I think that's the part they are most guilty of breaking. Their policy is in alignment with the law of the land, but as far as I can tell, it opposes God's design for human sexuality and relationships. I would add that I think much of the "conservative" church is often guilty of ignoring the first part, while focusing heavily on the second. I think too many people justify themselves by claiming the part they keep is somehow more important than the other.

  3. That's a great verse to bring into this discussion. If we could just keep both sides of this one verse, imagine how effective we could be?

  4. Some good thoughts Dave ....although I am not sure where the thoughts lead. Celia and I have been donating to World Vision for almost twenty years. Speaking personally I don't think I am "at war with God" or refusing to "yield to His wisdom" by opposing World Vision's decision....nor do I think I am "fighting" anyone. I do plan to follow what you say regarding "Stop sending your money through World Vision...".
    What about your suggestion to "do the work yourself" ? Remember that some of us have vocations where we spend 40 to 50 hours per week at work so it is not easy for us to provide the type of long term specialized care that many poor or troubled people need. In my old Shepherd Group I had an impoverished alcoholic named Luis Ferrell. I tried to help him in every way I knew how. He ended up dying in a gutter while he was part of my Shepherd group. It still troubles me deeply to this day. Due in part to my lack of knowledge or specialized training I could not help him. This is where para-church ministries can be important. They have specialized training and resources which I don't have. At the Children's Hunger Fund training I attended they told us that our food packs would be delivered to a family for only about three or four months. At the end of that time we were told to move on if the family had not responded to the gospel.....so your suggestion to "do it yourself", as well intentioned as it is, is not really very well thought out. We should do it ourselves to some extent just for our own spiritual growth but this is no solution for deeply entrenched poverty or addiction. This is why biblically faithful para-church ministries are a blessing.

    The tragedy that happened at World Vision is not over some non-fundamental issue. It does not take a theologian to realize that scripture paints a picture of God's plan for marriage as being between a man and a woman. This is true from Genesis to Revelation. It is not a position derived solely from Leviticus or Romans ...although that would be enough. As for me I will look for another faithful para-church ministry to support.


This is my blog. Please stick to the topic, keep your comments and responses respectful, and feel free to agree, disagree or give helpful suggestions. Thanks for dropping in, and happy reading!