There are few people less qualified to speak at a Princeton University conference in Austria than me. Even prestigious universities make mistakes, however, and they certainly did by sending me an invitation. In the pre-conference packet, lofty bios filled whole pages. It became strikingly evident that my title looked akin to a computer programmer at a bodybuilding convention. My bio followed a former US ambassador’s. But sure, I wasn’t intimidated in the least to put my bachelor’s degree in sport management and 2.5 years of professional experience to work.
The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (or TWWSOPAIAAPU for short) hosted the conference on the topic, “Faith and International Development.” They convened leaders from international organizations (like mine) as well as policy-makers and academics. We hailed from many faith and non-faith persuasions and enjoyed a week of Austrian culture together. And we debated amicably. There was only one guy there who rankled me. And he also happened to be the only other representative of a Christian faith-based organization.
His offered an irksome commentary on a subject I care about deeply. The crux of his message? Christian evangelism is dangerous, paternalistic and wildly inappropriate. He argued the sanctuary is the only venue where Jesus-talk is permissible, castigating international organizations with the audacity to claim otherwise. And I couldn’t disagree more. To this guy and those who think like him, evangelism (or, as he labeled it, proselytism) encroaches on modern sensibilities. Talking publicly about faith, he stated, is wrong. And he’s not alone. His views resound through the chambers of the elite and educated. Together, they dance to the inclusive harmonies of tolerance and diversity.
But my comrade fell into the very trap he lectured us to avoid. He advocated we sanitize our religious views from our work and lives. He reasoned matters of faith are personal, not public, and demanded we keep our religious opinions to ourselves. But all the while, he wasn’t offering some impartial perspective. He wasn’t living above the spiritual fray. He advocated for neutered convictions …as if he held no convictions at all?
Skeptics believe that any exclusive claims to a superior knowledge of spiritual reality cannot be true. But this objection is itself a religious belief…It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. – Tim Keller, Senior Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church
I believe in civility and playing nice. This isn’t about ramming faith down throats or threatening fire-and-brimstone. I’m fighting for honesty. When we demand faith be bleached-out from our work, we commit the sin we scold against. My conference colleague tossed grenades at proselytism while attempting to convert me to his position.
[Proselytism] is virtually unavoidable: Almost everyone is a proselytizer on behalf of something… It may be possible for those almost or entirely without connection to others (hermits, those at the far end of autism or Alzheimer’s, long-term coma patients, and so on) to avoid proselytism completely; but otherwise we are all proselytizers. – Paul Griffiths, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois
I’m grateful my conference peer held such passionate positions. I will advocate for his right to share them. But it is self-defeating to demand some impossible form of sanitized society that inhibits religious discussion, as if the common man might somehow be duped into conversion. I believe in the life and promises of Jesus of Nazareth. And our world suffers if anti-evangelism evangelizers stifle me from sharing it.
Breakout sessions typically make me want to break out my smartphone or break out of the room. Rarely does the side stage stack up with the main act. But at a recent conference for human resources professionals, one breakout session was full of fireworks about a controversial subject—what it means to be a faith-based organization. What the speaker shared, however, left me disheartened.
There is no more imprecise label than faith-based. It holds a hundred meanings, each of them different than the next. For nonprofit organizations that wear this label, our interpretation of its implications varies even more. And these differences became clear in the session.
The presenter—let’s call her Sharon—hailed from a widely-known faith-based organization, one of the largest in the world. Her organization is consistently platformed at major evangelical churches and conferences across the country as an organization fulfilling Christ’s call to bring hope to the least and the lost. Sharon directed their global hiring efforts across 50 countries. As a member of the executive team and as “final say” on all senior leadership positions, her stamp carried significant credence. Sharon led a breakout session on recruitment and hiring, her domains of expertise.
She flipped through PowerPoint slides with ease, articulating how she screened job candidates and recruited for positions in remote countries. Sharon concluded her talk, and the audience thanked her with a round of gentle applause. And that’s when things got interesting.
The conference included folks of a swath of religious beliefs—apathetics, atheists, evangelicals, Muslims and everyone in between. One questioner, based on his tone, was likely a practicing antagonist, if you can call that a religion. I remember their exchange vividly.
Antagonist: You say you’re a Christian faith-based organization. Does that mean you only hire Christians?
Sharon: Well, we hire Christians for our senior leadership positions in the countries where we work, but let me state with absolute clarity: We have a strict non-evangelism policy and hire people of all faiths for entry and mid-level positions. We’re about helping people, not about telling them what they should believe.
Antagonist: So you do discriminate in your leadership roles. Well, how do you know if someone is a Christian?
Sharon: We don’t discriminate. When I say “Christian,” I mean we aim to hire leaders that exhibit the Golden Rule—that love their neighbors like themselves. Good people that exhibit kindness and humility. We look for those traits in interviewees.
Antagonist: OK, so say you do hire a Muslim or Hindu for a mid-level position: Could that person be promoted to a senior leadership role?
Sharon: Absolutely. We have numerous Muslims and Hindus, in fact, that serve as country directors for us across the globe.
The conversation continued for some time, the Antagonist and Sharon each feeling each other out, like boxers at the weigh-in ceremony. After their brief exchange, I replayed Sharon’s responses over and over again, attempting to reconcile what she said with the assumptions I had about her organization. Some might read that exchange and be encouraged by it. I felt betrayed.
I was certain she wouldn’t have repeated this to the Christian churches that support her organization. In fact, I’ve consistently heard a message from her colleagues that sharply contrasted it. But there she was, one of the organization’s senior leaders, castigating evangelism and repudiating efforts of other faith-based organizations that place importance on the beliefs of those they hire.
What I expected would be a blah breakout session became a personal watershed moment. The “faith-based” label was not one size fits all. Our world is better because of Sharon’s organization, but they are not who I thought they were. And they are not who they set out to be. In our pluralist culture, the gravitational pull of secularism can feel irresistible. But there is fresh momentum building among many faith-based organizations that believe it’s not.
This fresh momentum surfaces in surprising places. Even an adamant atheist pleaded for faith-based organizations to remain anchored to our faith. To hold fast to our foundation. Though many disagree with the message of Jesus, we all agree that a light under a basket is no light at all.
My wife and I often visit our friends in Breckenridge, Colorado. We love the beauty of the mountains and enjoy our friends immensely. Their 8-year old son, Nathan, is a terrific source of entertainment. During a recent dinner conversation, Nathan informed us about his Little League baseball season. He rattled off the scores of his team’s last few games. His parents quickly stopped him, interjecting that the league and coaches don’t actually keep track of scores.
Nathan retorted, “We all keep score anyway. We always keep score.”
I smiled, thinking back to my own youth baseball experience when I did the exact same thing. Sure there were no scoreboards, but every single kid on the diamond knew the score. Why? Because we want to know how we’re doing. It’s more than just winning and losing. We want a tangible measure of our performance. Are we succeeding? Are we catching up? How bad is it? Keeping score answers those questions.
In working with the poor, many times it’s easy to justify not keeping score. After all, we’re trying to help people. Isn’t that enough? I’m not sure it is. I think we need to keep score. It’s not about knowing if we’re winning. Even if the score illuminates we are losing, at least we have a gauge of how we’re doing.
It is particularly challenging to measure spiritual impact. At HOPE, it is straightforward to track financial metrics. We measure repayment rates, savings balances, client retention and a slew of other data points. It is much more challenging to gauge whether our work impacts the spiritual climate of the communities and families we serve. It’s hard and it’s also controversial to suggest we can measure spiritual impact when we know that only God sees the heart.
This month, a conference with a bold title—Spiritual Metrics—is gathering to discuss these issues. I believe it is possible and critical that we measure our spiritual impact. While we can only “see in a mirror dimly,” dimly is better than not at all.
We aren’t perfect in our measurement, but at least we know how many clients have been given a copy of God’s word, how consistently our staff gathers for devotions, and how many churches we actively partner with. It takes creativity, but per the old management axiom, what gets measured gets done. We need to keep score to remain accountable to what we are uniquely positioned to do as Christian organizations. Just like Nathan’s baseball team, we need to keep score.
The New York Times published a disturbing report. They were clear on the “what” but silent on the “why.” They described an impending disaster, but did not prescribe any solutions. The man is freefalling without a parachute, they figuratively said, but they don’t know why he jumped or how to get him a parachute. They just know he’s falling. Fast.
The disaster is this: Eight million Indian girls were eliminated over the past 30 years because parents preferred boys to girls. Eight million people live in the state of Virginia. Eight million people inhabit Switzerland. Eight million Indian girls never reached their first birthday because they were girls. The fuel for this killing machine? Prosperity.
India’s increasing wealth and improving literacy are apparently contributing to a national crisis of “missing girls,” with the number of sex-selective abortions up sharply among more affluent, educated families during the past two decades, according to a new study…women from higher-income, better-educated families were far more likely than poorer women to abort a girl.
Incomes are increasing dramatically! …and parents can now afford ultrasounds to abort their girls. More Indian parents can read! …and their daughters will never reach kindergarten. People are educated! …and the world will never know the names of eight million girls.
We throw huge concerts to help the poor. We buy fair trade jewelry from global artisans. We petition our lawmakers to preserve foreign aid budgets. We travel to Africa on mission trips. We help the unfortunate to prosper. And for what? For this? Eight million silenced girls? Is this the goal of our attempts to help the vulnerable? To see them prosper and then choose to kill off the babies who lost the gender lottery?
We solve the problems of poverty and introduce the problems of prosperity. The New York Times lacked answers. They broke the news, but the story ends depressingly: “The problem has accelerated.” Apparently, this tragedy is at its genesis.
We need to fill hungry bellies and create jobs. We need to build houses and teach phonics. We are commanded to drill wells and bandage the wounded. However.
Jesus does not want us to stop there. You can own the whole world yet still have nothing, he said. These actions alone are not enough. Apart from the saving grace of Christ, prosperity produces new types of pain. Increased incomes means eight million less Indian girls. You won’t read it in the New York Times, but without Christ, our “giving back” is incomplete. If hearts don’t change; we create new disasters while we solve others.
The study estimated that 4-12 million girls (I used 8 as an estimate) have been aborted in India over the past 30 years. A different global study estimates that 163 million female babies have been aborted over the past 30 years by parents seeking sons.
“Moonshine or the Kids?” Nicholas Kristof, writer for the New York Times, stimulated much uneasiness with this question in his recent column on global poverty. He said:
“There’s an ugly secret of global poverty, one rarely acknowledged by aid groups or U.N. reports. It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous: It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.”
Kristof went on to cite some clear data to highlight this disturbing “ugly secret.” At the same time I read this article, I heard a radio report about the rising prices of vodka in Russia. In the report, they interviewed an unemployed man who was frustrated by the rising prices. He said, “I just so desperately need to find a job so I can afford to buy more vodka.” The comment stuck with me. We work in Russia and I wondered if this man had ever attempted to start a business through HOPE to “grow his family’s income.”
It’s easy to romanticize the decision-making of poor people. Of course they’ll choose to send their kids to school over sending for a prostitute. Of course they’ll choose to feed their kids breakfast before feeding their alcohol addiction. But what makes us think that? What makes us wrongly assume that they don’t deal with the same brokenness that we do? This article and radio report made me uncomfortable as I contemplated whether HOPE’s work had ever helped poor Russians buy more vodka.
I’m more convinced than ever that helping people materially is not enough. Helping is enabling. My friend, Dr. Rob Gailey, articulated it more clearly. He said that “economic development is about increasing people’s choices.” If we help an alcoholic poor person – and there is no heart change – we will simply enable him to buy higher qualities and quantities of alcohol. Without heart change, as the BBC reported, helping families in India might actually be enabling them to perform sex-selection abortions, a problem which “prosperity is actually aggravating.”
In a sense, we could be enabling the oppressed to become the oppressors if we do not speak to more than business decisions. True change happens when we promote biblical values, boldly communicating the truth of the Gospel. Income growth is important, but it is only when hearts and minds are transformed that we will we see true change happen. When I hear stories like that of Mama Flores (video below), a salon owner who has trained and employed over 15 orphans through her business success, I am energized that our approach answers the unsettling questions which Kristof asks.
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/8338439 w=500&h=300]