World Vision Helped Evangelicals Become Social Activists—Within Limits

A new history tracks the uneasy alliance between the organization and its core supporters.

When World Vision responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, it didn’t tell supporters. The work wasn’t secret, exactly, but the organization also didn’t publicize what it was doing. It didn’t know how to publicize it, how to get evangelical donors to care about this particular crisis, AIDS in Africa. AIDS meant sex. AIDS was icky. It was associated with homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, and drug use, and to talk about AIDS, you had to talk about needles and condoms.

“We’re a G-rated ministry,” the marketing team told Rich Stearns when he became president of World Vision US in 1998, “involved in an R-rated issue.”

AIDS education and prevention also reminded evangelicals of liberal social programs. It made them suspicious that the gospel message was being replaced with social action. This was always the challenge for World Vision, the small missionary agency that grew to be the largest Christian humanitarian aid organization in the world: How do you convince evangelicals that caring about social issues is part of the gospel? How do you persuade them that tending the sick and caring for the poor isn’t in conflict with sharing the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection?

The answer is the subject of God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, an insightful new book by David P. King, who directs the Lake Institute of Faith & Giving and teaches at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. King argues that the organization shows how American evangelicals came to understand themselves in a global context in the 20th century. Historians have been very interested in this subject in the last few years, …

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