Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: The Hole in Our Gospel

If I were to give an award for the best book I have read in the past year I would have to say that this one would definitely be it.  Everyone needs to read this.  Richard Sterns does a masterful job in critiquing the big mistake of the evangelical church in the late 20th century and how it needs to fix the issue. "The Hole in our Gospel" looks at the need for the church to open its eyes to social justice issues.  This is a huge issue that has be lost over the decades as the importance of personal evangelism seemed to be the driving force in the church.  In fact, in the opening prologue Stearns expresses his concern as he became more aware of the pandemic of AIDS in Africa in stating that:

. . . what sickened me most was this question: where was the Church? Indeed, where were the followers of Jesus Christ in the midst of perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time? . . . How have we missed it so tragically, when even rock stars and Hollywood actors seem to understand? (p. 10-11).

But let me back up and point out that this book is not an indictment against the church.  If anything, Stearns himself exposes his own failings as a Christ follower as he details just how he became the president of WorldVision.  It was not an easy road.  In fact he was doing just fine in the world of business when he got the call to come and head up WorldVision.  That call started a long process of wrestling with God and trying hard to say no despite God's constant pursuit.  In many ways it seemed quite similar to Moses arguing against God at the burning bush.  Eventually Stearns takes on the task of leading WorldVision, but it was his fighting against God that was refreshing to read. It was awesome to see this very human side of a man who had everything he could want with success and now God was calling on him to make a huge career change in a company that is far different than what he was used to.  I am very thankful to see this human side to Stearns and the outcome of finally caving in to God's calling on him.  

Stearns believes that the whole Gospel is not being fully implemented. There is a hole in the gospel.  It is not just about evangelism.  In fact, it is so much more than that.  Stearns claims that: 

Proclaiming the whole gospel, then, means much more than evangelism in the hopes that people will hear and respond to the good news of salvation by faith in Christ. It also encompasses tangible compassion for the sick and the poor, as well as biblical justice, efforts to right the wrongs that are so prevalent in our world. God is concerned about the spiritual, physical, and social dimensions of our being. This whole gospel is truly good news for the poor, and it is the foundation for a social revolution that has the power to change the world. And if this was Jesus' mission, it is also the mission of all who claim to follow Him. It is my mission, it is your mission, and it is the mission of the Church.(p. 22)

     Stearns goes on to elaborate on the concept of the whole gospel by looking at the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  He notices that the difference between the two groups is that:

Christ's criterion for determining the authenticity of someone's profession to follow Him is whether of not he or she tangibly cared for those in need. And now we are told that when we do care for them, we are actually caring for Christ Himself - His identity merged with the least and the last. There is no 'whole gospel' without compassion and justice shown to the poor. It's that simple. (p. 60)

So all throughout the first section of the book, Stearns argues very passionately and convincingly that the whole gospel must include transformation on many different levels if we are to follow the example of Christ.  We are not just waiting around to go to heaven.  We are here to redeem humanity and the world through the power of Christ right now! In the present! Moving forward!  

     The next section in Stearns book focuses on the whole in our world.  In these chapters he lays our the truth about poverty today, in America and internationally.  He also points out how we have the ability to help on multiple levels but we choose not to.  He summerizes the problem by referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan by pointing out that:

Here is the bottom line: if we are aware of the suffering of our distant neighbors - and we are - if we have access to these neighbors, either personally or through aid organizations and charities - and we do - and if we have the ability to make a difference through programs and technologies that work - which is also the case - then we should no more tum our backs on these neighbors of ours than the priest and the Levite should have walked by the bleeding man. (p 104).

On many, many levels we as a church are able to help but we choose not to.  We may get caught up in the drama of our own community but we miss out on the awesome power that is available to us through the Holy Spirit by not seeing the bigger picture of how we can be the hands and feet of Christ in a profound way. 

     One of the things that really challenged me in this section was that Stearns really goes after the myths of what many of us in the middle-to-upper class believe to be the issues related to why a person is in poverty.  He explains that 

Poverty in America is just as real as poverty in Africa, and it is just as damaging to the human spirit. At its root it has the same causes: a defacing of the human spirit and, effectively, a lack of real choices. . . almost all poverty is fundamentally the result of a lack of options. It is not that the poor are lazier, less intelligent, or unwilling to make efforts to change their condition. Rather, it is that they are trapped by circumstances beyond their power to change. (p. 118). 

It ultimately comes down to a lack of options.  They are trapped within a system that offers very little options to ever rise above the situation that they find themselves in.  This is the key issue.  And as a result of this, it is really easy for a person in a situation like this to lose hope.  

     Stearns continues educating the reader by explaining the issues related to contaminated water, tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS/HIV.  These four issues have created a path of devastation and destruction on the poor.  And the fact is that these are issues that are preventable.  We can do something about it.  Poverty also has an impact on the lack of education, war, illiteracy, gender issues and on and on.  Once again, issues that we as Christians have the means to address.  The most disturbing of all is the amount of money we will spend for the military and defense as opposed to assistance for the poorest of the poor.  It made me wonder if the massive emphasis on military spending just perpetuates war whereas if we spent just half of that money on humanitarian efforts could that alone do more to eradicate war in the long run?

     Another major eye-opener for me was when Stearns went on explain the differences between the sins of omission versus commission.   He points out that:

God wants to see the authenticity of our faith put into action, not the emptiness of a faith without deeds. But if we look at the things that God condemns when He looks at the behavior of His followers, once again it seems that sins of omission grieve Him even more than sins of commission, yet it is these on which we tend to be fixated. (p. 185)

I never really saw that in Scripture but Stearns is absolutely right.  Authentic Christianity needs to focus more on doing the right things well as opposed to just making sure we don't sin.  The absence of sin is not my final goal in life.  My goal should be to do all the good I can with the resources God has given me.  As I pursue that calling in my life, ironically spending my time doing good things eliminates sin in my life.  

     Stearns then goes on to point out the whole in our church. He explains that the problem within the American church is that:

. . . we see our American lifestyles as normative, when in fact they are grossly distorted compared to the rest of the world. We don't believe that we are wealthy, so we don't see it as our responsibility to help the poor. We are deceieved. It is important to put the American Church in perspective. Simply stated, it is the wealthiest community of Christians in the history of Christendom. . . . It would take just a little over 1 percent of the income of American Christians to lift the poorest one billion people in the world our of extreme poverty. . . . American Chrisitians, who make up about 5 percent of the Church worldwide, control about half of global Christians wealth; a lack of money is not our problem. (p. 216)

Far from coming across as bashing the church, Stearns goes on to show that we have the talent, finances, resources and abilities to do so much good in this world.  The question is, do we believe that? Do we know that? Do we grasp the potential that we could do as the body of Christ if we followed Christ's example?

     In Stearns' concluding section he tries to attack the issue of how we can try to repair the hole.  He passionately emphasizes that:

Jesus seeks a new world order in which this whole gospel, hallmarked by compassion, justice, and proclamation of the good news, becomes a reality, first in our hearts and minds, and then in the wider world through our influence. This is not to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife. Christ's vision was of a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people - now. To accomplish this, we are to be salt and light in a dark and fallen world, the 'yeast' that leavens the whole loaf of bread (the whole of society). We are the ones God has called to be His Church. It's up to us. We are to be the change. (p. 243-244)

     Stearns goes on in the rest of the book to tell amazing stories of people who faithfully obeyed God and through their obedience they were able to see God do amazing things through them.  It is not about being the best at something more than it is about being faithful and obedient to God's leading and then trusting in Him to use you. 

     This was simply an amazing book.  My hope is that this book would rock the church to its foundation and cause it to do a serious assessment of where we have been and where we need to go to be the body of Christ in the way that would honor God. This book has me so excited about the church in the 21st century. Is it possible that we can boldly live into redeeming this world for Christ believing that He has given us the same power that he used to transform this world?

     If you read any book this year, especially in light of Haiti, you must read this book and internalize its message and raise up your church to see what we have been missing and how we need to get back on track with doing the work of God in the way that most demonstrates what Jesus did in His time here on earth.  

Go! Right now! Pick up the book and enjoy. Let it change your world!

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