World Vision and Evangelicalism: An Interview with David King

World Vision logoLast week the U.S. chapter of the international Christian humanitarian organization World Vision made headlines: first when president Rich Stearns confirmed to Christianity Today last Monday that the organization would employ Christians in same-sex marriages, only to reverse the decision two days later, in the wake of torrents of criticism from conservatives, some of whom threatened to withdraw their financial support from World Vision and its well-known child sponsorship program. Yesterday a Google executive resigned from the board of World Vision U.S. in protest, and Rachel Held Evans likely spoke for many progressive evangelicals when she wrote, “The response to World Vision revealed some major fault lines in the Church, and many of us who grew up evangelical interpreted all the gleeful ‘farewelling’ from evangelical leaders as our final kick out the door.”

As much coverage as the controversy received, I quickly realized just how little I actually knew about World Vision’s history, mission, programs, and religious identity. In case that’s true of our readers, I’m happy to have had the chance to interview David King, assistant professor of church history at Memphis Theological Seminary and an expert on religious humanitarianism and the rise of evangelical relief and development NGOs. This summer, David will join the faculty at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy as assistant professor of Philanthropic and Religious Studies as well as serve as the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. His current book project, stemming from his doctoral dissertation at Emory University, is entitled Seeking to Save the World: The Evolution of World Vision, American Evangelicalism, and Global Humanitarianism; you can sample his work by reading his 2012 article in the journal Religions, “The New Internationalists: World Vision and the Revival of American Evangelical Humanitarianism, 1950–2010.”

David P. King
David P. King – Memphis Theological Seminary

In part one of this interview, David summarizes World Vision’s origins, the history of the child sponsorship program that was for many the emotional center of last week’s controversy, and how the organization has changed over time. Tomorrow he’ll consider World Vision in relationship to evangelicalism, and explain why much of the coverage last week missed one key dimension of the story of World Vision.


Chris, first let me say thanks to you for inviting me into a conversation on World Vision. I’ve spent a number of years studying their history and interviewing many leaders within the organization. Not only does the size and reach of the organization make it worth exploring, but I think it also can offer important insights into the recent history of American evangelicalism.


My pleasure, David. Thanks for doing this! First off, could you give us a quick history of World Vision: What are its origins? How has its leadership, mission, activities, etc. changed over time?


World Vision was born out of the heart of a single evangelist, Bob Pierce. Pierce joined a number of young American evangelicals intent on saving the world through Youth for Christ (YFC), the same organization that launched the careers of Billy Graham and a number of post World War II neo-evangelical leaders. Pierce globe-trotted across the world – most often in the hot-spots of the Cold War. First to China, and then when it closed to westerners in 1949, he headed to Korea with the outbreak of war. That same year in 1950 he established World Vision to raise funds for missionaries and orphans in war-torn Korea and attained celebrity among evangelicals by publicizing suffering abroad. With little infrastructure, Pierce gave whatever money he raised directly to western missionaries in Korea to meet the physical and spiritual needs of those he encountered and he would preach to South Korean and American troops on the frontlines of the conflict. Pierce was most unique in bringing images of the world’s suffering directly to American Christians. He filmed the poverty he encountered overseas and produced early films shown in local churches. He pioneered child sponsorship programs. World Vision separated itself in Pierce’s ability to connect American evangelicals emotionally to the world.

Billy Graham and Bob Pierce, 1947
Billy Graham (c.) with Bob Pierce (r.) in 1947 – Wheaton College

From its founding, World Vision was an evangelical organization. Pierce was a popular evangelical personality personally connected with the developing evangelical establishment (organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals, Campus Crusade, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association). But his entrepreneurial spirit always made World Vision a bit of a wildcard. Pierce rarely walked lockstep with traditional missionary agencies. He was less concerned with doctrinal boundary lines that oftentimes distinguished the first generation of postwar evangelicals. Overseas, he worked with any missionary he felt was doing good work, whether evangelical, fundamentalist, or mainline Protestant. He had little patience for debates dividing missions into those focused on evangelism and those engaged in social action. Instead, Pierce was a revivalist who also felt compelled to meet the immediate physical needs of the world’s poor in Jesus name.

World Vision slowly grew along with Pierce’s popularity into the 1960s. A firm believer in American Christians’ mission to fight godless communism, Pierce moved into Vietnam to provide support to missionaries and local Christians even before U.S. involvement escalated. World Vision defined itself as a missionary agency, but for the first time, Pierce began to accept limited government subsidies. He rubbed shoulders with the leading religious humanitarian agencies such as Church World Service and the Mennonite Central Committee. Ultimately, as World Vision grew too big to be managed by a singular personality — and Pierce was a larger than life personality — Pierce resigned in 1967. He would later start a new agency, Samaritan’s Purse, and upon his death in 1978, Pierce passed the organization to Franklin Graham, whom he taken under his tutelage.

The 1970s led World Vision beyond its founder’s vision and into significant growth (its annual income grew from 4.5 to 100 million dollars over the 1970s). One key change was the discovery of television. As one of the first religious agencies on network television, World Vision melded images of starving children with subsequent financial appeals for child sponsorship in hour-long television specials to sear a picture of global need into Americans’ hearts. While still speaking in an evangelical idiom, World Vision began to temper a language of missions with a more generic Christian humanitarianism. It bypassed denominations, local churches, and mission agencies to reach a broader American public.

Yet, at the same time its marketing shifted to television and its revenues skyrocketed, World Vision’s leadership began to reflect upon its identity in light of changing contexts. As Two-Thirds World evangelicals raised their voice on the need for evangelical social action on prominent platforms such as the 1974 Lausanne Congress, World Vision felt that it was in the mainstream of a new global evangelicalism. World Vision found itself with relative support across the theological spectrum, avoiding the developing “culture wars” by resisting labels as a part of the evangelical left (Ron Sider, Jim Wallis) as well from the developing Christian Right (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson). They felt they could achieve consensus around evangelicals’ willingness to support individual children in need.

In the 1980s and 1990s, World Vision’s support in the United States continued to grow at a rapid pace. Prominent journalistic coverage of natural disasters and the blanket appeals of humanitarian agencies in the wake of famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, and wars led to widespread support. At the same time, World Vision had moved from supporting local missionaries to establishing its own large-scale programs, adapting professional relief and development practice, and accepting millions of dollars in federal and international government support. By the 2000s, World Vision had become the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world.

Stearns, The Hole in Our GospelToday, World Vision International maintains offices in ninety-seven countries with 45,000 employees and an annual budget over 2.6 billion dollars. Gone are the days of evangelistic crusades and orphanages. It is now an efficient international NGO undertaking emergency relief, large-scale community development, and advocacy work. While founder Pierce was an evangelist with street smarts, current World Vision U.S. President Rich Stearns is a former Fortune 500 CEO and now a widely respected NGO leader who tells World Vision’s story not only in megachurches but also in the boardrooms of corporate donors, in front of the United Nations, and on Capitol Hill.


Most people probably know World Vision best for its child sponsorship program… Has that always been a centerpiece of the organization’s mission? What other projects has it engaged in?


Child sponsorship, in many ways, has always been the centerpiece for World Vision’s success. Most of the other leading faith-based NGOs are dependent on government grants (ex: Catholic Charities, Lutheran World Relief, even fellow evangelical agency World Relief) and are therefore at the whim of evolving program priorities and grant cycles. While World Vision receives millions in federal funding (and that does have an impact on shaping the organization), the agency is quite proud that the majority of their funds come from individuals (those that give $35 a month to sponsor a child).

That being said, many within the organization are aware of the tensions inherent in child sponsorship. For years, critics have raised important questions of how child sponsorship perpetuates a western gaze on an impoverished “other.” It may tug on donors’ heartstrings to raise more funds, but could it be detrimental long-term to understanding important questions of structural poverty? Does it assuage western donors’ guilt without any need to change their own consumption and other daily practices to make real change? These questions are not only raised by child sponsorship critics, but they have been hotly debated within World Vision. For a few years in the 1980s, under pressure from its own staff in the field, World Vision U.S. tinkered with its child sponsorship approach – taking away the one-to-one donor-to-child relationship to educate donors on its actual practices of development. But funding dropped dramatically, and child sponsorship was reinstated. Today, World Vision is clear that sponsors’ funds never go directly to individual children, rather they are pooled to help that child’s entire community through things from school fees, nutrition, clean water, and community development. While World Vision never hides this fact, many donors still see their money going to “their” individual child. That emotional bond is the key to child sponsorship’s success.

2005 issue of WV Australia magazine
2005 issue of the World Vision Australia magazine – Creative Commons (WV Australia)

So while World Vision is still dependent on child sponsorship, I think it is really a misstatement to see it primarily as a “child sponsorship agency.” Like I mentioned above, it is the world’s largest Christian humanitarian agency, and one of the ten largest international NGOs of any kind in the world. Since the late 1970s, it began to adopt the language of relief and development. Throughout the 1980s, it struggled to move its programs from small scale community projects and traditional relief programs to adopt the rhetoric and practice of development. This was a time of professionalizing. World Vision became proficient in the language and skills of development that allowed it to become an insider into the humanitarian community and available to receive large government grants. Some see the move toward professionalization as a slippery slope toward secularization. World Vision’s history shows that the story is much more complex. A number of evangelical humanitarian and missionary agencies were debating these questions theologically at the same time. World Vision was one of those. In recent years, even “secular” development has rediscovered the value religion has for many local communities in shaping community development.

I find these questions about how an organization’s religious identity affects its public perception as well as its practice are extremely important to ask. In many ways, I think they are underneath much of the public debates of the last few week over World Vision’s policy pronouncements. What does it mean to be a Christian or evangelical humanitarian agency?

Over the last decade or so, World Vision has also included “justice and advocacy” as a part of its work alongside relief and development. For years, it felt that its mission was to meet needs but stay out of policy debates. Many evangelicals felt advocacy was something that mainline Protestants and other groups entangled in partisan politics did. But World Vision came to understand that its relief and development work fell short unless it could address larger structural questions. In the last decade, it has served as a leading advocate on addressing such issues as AIDS in Africa, rehabilitating child soldiers after the Rwandan genocide, and funding the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Stop back tomorrow for the conclusion of my interview with David.

Read the conclusion of this interview>>

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