Yesterday I posted the first part of my interview with historian David King, in which he discussed the origins of World Vision and its child sponsorship program. In today’s conclusion to that interview I asked David to talk about World Vision’s relationship to evangelicalism, and then the international character of World Vision, an aspect of the story that seemed almost completely lost in last week’s furor over the U.S. chapter’s decision to employ those in same-sex marriages (and then to reverse that decision two days later).
Last week it seemed like critics and supporters alike wanted to use the World Vision decision (then its reversal) to make claims about the future of evangelicalism. Is World Vision an “evangelical” organization? If so, how significant or influential is it within evangelicalism?
Is World Vision an evangelical organization? That’s a great question, but not an easy one to answer. In many ways, my research of World Vision points to the difficulty of defining “evangelical.” World Vision U.S. purposefully defines itself as a Christian organization. World Vision staff will tell me they are clearly aware that “evangelical” can be a divisive label, and most often World Vision seeks to stay out of culture war debates that have often served to pigeon-hole evangelicals in the minds of the general public.
In some ways, the label Christian is more accurate than evangelical. As Rich Stearns said in his initial statement to Christianity Today last week, “World Vision now has staff from more than 50 denominations.” That includes everyone from Catholics to Presbyterians, Lutherans to Assemblies of God. While originally World Vision had adopted the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith (affirming the infallibility of Scripture among other points), now World Vision only requires affirming the Apostles’ Creed but no further faith statement. If you define evangelical by denominational families or theological distinctives, then World Vision U.S. is broader than that dentition.
However, if evangelical serves more as a cultural category, then World Vision U.S. clearly still fits as evangelical. First, it was born out of the revival of neo-evangelicals in the wake of World War II. World Vision’s history makes little sense without the context of fellow evangelical institutions like Fuller Seminary, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, National Association of Evangelicals, Campus Crusade alongside other like church growth institutes, the Lausanne Movement, or Sojourners. World Vision defined itself in different ways to these various groups, but always with a keen grasp to the evangelical subculture.
(See Steven Miller’s forthcoming book, The Age of Evangelicalism, for a helpful critique of subculture as the right term. He uses “evangelical age” instead.)
World Vision’s leaders were well networked within evangelicalism, and its supporters were overwhelmingly “born-again Christians.” Whether using Gallup’s broader “born-again” label or Barna’s more stringent definition, the overwhelming percentage of World Vision’s individual donor base are evangelical Christians. In the U.S., World Vision still speaks in an evangelical idiom. It advertises in Christianity Today, has saturated the Contemporary Christian Music industry with child sponsorship appeals, partners with leading pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, and is ubiquitous on evangelical college campuses alongside groups like International Justice Mission and InterVarsity. If anything, World Vision U.S. has come back to refocus even more on the local church over the last decade, as American evangelicals have grown more engaged on international issues.
So, officially, World Vision defines itself as a Christian organization, but in the U.S., I still label it as evangelical. Its history and current context, language, networks, and culture demonstrate that its operates out of an evangelical ethos.
And as an evangelical organization, I find it highly influential. As New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof has written, World Vision exemplifies a generation of young evangelicals he calls “new internationalists.” These evangelicals are interested in partnering with any agency or government out of their faith commitments to fight global poverty, curb sex trafficking, or halt the AIDS epidemic in Africa. World Vision has popular cachet among this generation of millennials for its work (precisely because it is willing to partner as a leader in faith-based relief, development, and advocacy). And that shift is not only among millennials but includes older evangelicals as well. When Rich Stearns published his first book, The Hole in Our Gospel, several years ago, he hit a nerve in the evangelical community – convincing many that the gospel was not only about evangelism and individual salvation but a holistic gospel that included physical as well as spiritual needs. Its message is finding resonance among many evangelicals that have allowed World Vision to break down many of the cultural, theological, and political divisions that have served to divide evangelicals from other religious and non-religious constituencies in the past.
I have written that World Vision’s influence in uniting a number of evangelicals around these global issues demonstrates a shift in focus for many American evangelicals to engaging a global church, moving out of a strict subculture, and creating a potentially vibrant practical ecumenism. Yet, maybe I (and World Vision too) underestimated the powerful voices still within evangelicalism (particularly through the networks of social media) that are beholden to debates over same-sex marriage as the defining issue. World Vision has a history of trying to stay out of issues that have divided camps of American Christians. (Its argument that it is a “parachurch” organization and not a denomination or church is worth exploring a bit deeper at another time). But in trying to maintain its broad coalition of support last week, I believe it felt an amended hiring policy allowed it to maintain neutrality on the issue of same-sex marriage alongside its Christian identity. The barrage of voices on both sides of the issue demonstrated that neutrality on same-sex marriage may not yet remain an option for an organization with an influential public voice and a large evangelical constituency, no matter what its primary mission may be.
As I understood it, last week’s change in policy (and the ensuing reversal) came from World Vision U.S., not World Vision International or other national chapters, correct? When and why did WV “internationalize”? Does the U.S. chapter remain particularly influential? (Do you have any sense how last week’s controversy was received beyond these shores?)
Chris, this is a very important point and has been largely lost in the commentary around World Vision these past two weeks. World Vision U.S. (WVUS) is one branch of a much larger World Vision International (WVI). As a federated organization, each country’s office has its own board, leadership, and constitution. Representatives from the various countries and regions come together to govern the larger World Vision International, but funding, program initiatives, and governance of each office is distinct, and World Vision offices can look very different depending on the political and cultural context of each country. WVUS is by far the largest, and still remains extremely influential within WVI, but it represents no more than half of WVI’s annual revenue and does not nor cannot dictate policy for WVI .
This shared governance dates back to the 1970s. In 1978, World Vision “internationalized” by creating an overarching World Vision International entity that shared leadership among western donor countries (such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia). It was one of the first NGOs to internationalize, and World Vision traces its motives to what it was hearing from its field offices and global evangelical partners. Organizationally but also theologically, it understood that western money could not dictate what was happening in its work in the Global South. As a global organization, World Vision was conscious of the negative perceptions of American intervention in places like Southeast Asia. It was also conscious theologically of sharing leadership and empowering global voices. This shift toward internationalization took decades. Rhetoric and good intentions sometimes outpaced actual practice, but World Vision ultimately succeeded in truly internationalizing.
An important point to mention is that World Vision’s religious makeup is quite different in different countries. While it used to hire only evangelicals, now it hires an indigenous workforce. In some Latin American countries or the Philippines, that might mean a predominantly Catholic staff. In Eastern Europe, a majority may be Orthodox. In some African country offices, the staff is overwhelmingly Pentecostal. In some more secularized western countries such as Australia or the U.K., the faith component may be less explicit among staff. This diversity and global context has an impact on World Vision U.S. too. WVUS is not only responding to its context in America, but it is in touch with the broader diversity of World Vision internationally as it works among other humanitarian organizations and among local communities.
WVUS’ policy last week also created publicity headaches for other World Vision offices. A number of other World Vision offices – particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K. all released statements distancing themselves from WVUS’ policy.
Among these western countries, U.S. law is unique in allowing religious, humanitarian organizations to make faith commitment a job requirement. Several years ago, World Vision served as the test case in winning an appeal in federal court that allowed them to maintain what they termed as the “freedom of religious-based hiring.” Alignment with World Vision’s Christian identity (belief as well as lifestyle) is a test for employment. WVUS has taken a clear stand on this issue, but other World Vision offices have not. Canada and Australia, for instance, have laws that do not allow discrimination in terms of religious commitment or sexual orientation. WV Australia went on record to be clear they do not ask questions about sexual orientation or marriage status in interviews. While they remain Christian organizations, the way they see their Christian identity shaping their work and their office culture may be quite different. Again, this question of how religious identity shapes an organization is a fascinating question that looks quite different in various contexts.
In this case, World Vision U.S. serves as the exception among other western countries, and its strong evangelical U.S. donor base plays an important role, but WVUS may also find important allies among other World Vision offices in Africa, for instance, in contrast to fellow western countries. To me, World Vision International serves as a microcosm in many ways of the shifts in the global church that world Christianity scholars like Lamin Sanneh and Philip Jenkins have been describing to us for decades now.
World Vision is a highly influential organization that gives us insight into how Christians engage global need. Particularly among American evangelicals, it is at the leading edge of shaping popular culture and professional practice of religiously-based relief and development. Last week’s episode demonstrates that evangelical fault lines remain deep, but World Vision points to a number of other shifting dynamics as well.
Thanks again to David King for taking the time to answer our questions!