Rich Stearns knows a thing or two about following God’s call.
He was right in the middle of a successful business career when he felt God calling him to World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization.
He obeyed, giving up his position as CEO of a lucrative business, and has now served as the president of World Vision for over 15 years, guiding the organization in addressing poverty and injustice all over the world.
We talked with Stearns about his story, his latest book, Unfinished, and how to live out the Great Commission.
Q: Tell us about your latest book, Unfinished, where did the concept come from?
A: Jesus talked for three years constantly about the Kingdom of God. Basically what the Kingdom of God was was a charge for the Church to go into the world and show the world a different way to live based on God’s values, God’s laws, putting God as our king. And showing a different way to live horizontally with one another, loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, being people of integrity, people who are forgiving, people of grace.
He sent us into the whole world to make disciples of all nations and create these communities we call churches. He basically said “I will return when the job is done.” Well 2,000 years have passed and the job is not done, it’s unfinished. Many of us have kind of lost the trail. We’ve gotten sidetracked and distracted into 1,000 other things.
The second meaning of the word “unfinished” is that as followers of Christ, we too are incomplete if we haven’t found our place serving within God’s Kingdom. We were all created for a purpose, we were created uniquely by God to play a role in building His Kingdom. And if we haven’t found that, if we haven’t leaned into that, there’s something unfinished about us.
I talk to a lot of young people, and I talk to a lot of older people who feel that something’s missing from their lives. They have faith, they go to church, they’re in Bible studies, but there’s something missing. They’re longing to feel that sense of meaning and purpose in their lives that we can only find in God. They’re looking for the coach to put them in the game, if you will.
I really think it’s this joining of the Kingdom mission, and kind of merging our life and our story with the big story that God is writing—that’s where we find our deepest purpose and meaning in life. And when we find that thing, it can be an amazing experience as a human being to be in the zone with God, serving Him as we were created to do.
Q: So what would you give us as the next right steps in engaging our communities in taking those steps toward finishing?
A: I think we have to first ask the question, as individuals or within our churches “why are we here to begin with?”
I had a curious thought a few years ago of “why did Jesus leave?” I read the Bible all the time and sometimes we’re so close to it we don’t even see the meaning in it. It dawned on me one day that here was the messiah, the son of God, who performed all these amazing miracles. He was crucified, dead and buried, and He literally came back from the dead, rolled back the stone and appeared to the disciples. It’s probably the most climactic moment in any story that’s ever been written.
So the son of God conquers death itself, and then 40 days later He leaves? That’s it? That’s how the story ends? Why would Jesus actually leave after all the drama of the three preceding years and the resurrection from the dead?
Of course, the corollary of that question is “why were we left behind?” We were left behind for one purpose only: to be those bearers of God’s Kingdom, to go into the world and show the world a different way of living and to attract as many people as we could into that new way of living. In other words, to take the world by storm for Christ, to redeem, restore, reform, repair all the brokenness in our world. And to go to the broken places, and to go where people are hurting and to be ambassadors for this incredible love that Christ showed for us.
So I would urge pastors and individuals—it starts with reframing and rebooting your basic understanding of why we’re here to begin with. And once you put that new foundation in, it has all kinds of implications for your life, for your work, for your family, for your money. But it starts with a rebooting and a reframing.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your story? After school, what was your movement through the marketplace that led you to World Vision?
A: Well it’s kind of a crazy story, and it’s maybe proof that God does use the foolish things of this world, as he says in 1 Corinthians.
I became a Christian in graduate school. My goal at that time in life was to get a good job and make a lot of money. Right in the middle of that I became a Christian, and so my goal was to serve the Lord through my business career and to be effective in my tithing and involved with my church.
When I speak to young people, I often say “If you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, I could be your poster boy.” I’ve had an ADD career, if you will.
Coming to World Vision was such a preposterous idea, when you think about it. In 1998, a headhunter called me and I was at Lenox, which sells fine china and crystal to the wealthy. Imagine being on the board of World Vision and saying “Where are we going to find the next leader who’s going to really lead our organization in caring for the poorest of the poor in the name of Christ? Let’s go to the luxury goods industry and find some guy who knows nothing about poverty.”
But that’s the beauty of the way God works. God sees our qualifications much differently than our resume might indicate. God’s looking for some willing people with open hands who are ready to serve. He can do amazing things with pretty ordinary people.
The board had decided they needed someone with business experience, that’s why they called me. I won’t tell the whole story, but I was not interested. I was living the American Dream. There was no way I wanted to quit my job.
But at the end of the day, more out of sheer obedience than joy, I accepted the job. It’s now been 15 years and it’s been the most exciting 15 years of my life.
So the moral of the story is if we’re really willing to obey and lay down our lives before the Lord, He can do amazing things, and will do amazing things in our lives. But you’ve got to kind of let go and close your eyes and jump, or at least be willing to do that, if the Lord’s going to use you in that way.