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Defining the ‘Faith’ in Faith-Based Organizations

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In his new book, God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, David P. King takes a case-in-point look at the humanitarian work of one non-governmental organization, World Vision. Though it springs from the evangelical family of Christianity, and though Dr. King focuses on a faith-based organization rather than a congregation, I think his work offers those of us in congregational stewardship, as stewards of the congregation’s mission, an interesting frame for our work. 

My first call was to an inner-city congregation that hosted an overnight shelter for the homeless, ran an English-language school for new refugees, and hosted an after-school program for the kids in the neighborhood. All of these were vital and inspiring responses to Jesus’ call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. Every day, however, we were in the thick of these questions: 

  • What’s the right balance between doing church with each other, internally, and extending our faith to serve the neighbor, especially when resources like time and money are limited? 
  • Do we wear faith on our shirt-sleeves? (For example, if you are our guest, must you pray with us before you eat?)
  • How do we engage with both competence and compassion? Are there others who could do this work better, who have more skills and know the territory better?
  • And, how does this work change us and the way we talk about our faith?


Catherine Malotky, Center for Stewardship Leaders

Writing the History of Religious Humanitarianism

By David P. King

Over the past seventy years, World Vision has grown from a small missionary agency to the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world. It maintains 40,000 employees, offices in nearly one hundred countries, and has an annual budget of over $2 billion. While founder Bob Pierce was an evangelist with street smarts, the most recent World Vision U.S. presidents move with ease between megachurches, the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies, and the corridors of Capitol Hill. 

Though the organization has remained decidedly Christian, it has earned the reputation of an elite international nongovernmental organization (NGO) managed efficiently by professional experts fluent in the language of both marketing and development working alongside secular and interreligious coalitions.

In God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism, I chronicle World Vision’s transformation from 1950 to the present as a lens through which to explore shifts within post-World War II American evangelicalism as well as the complexities of faith-based humanitarianism.

At one level, World Vision’s story takes us outside the narrow evangelical subculture often linked to domestic politics dictated by the Religious Right. Instead, among NGO leaders and broad-based donors, interactions and images abroad often led to evolving identities at home that expanded traditional narratives to make sense of the current explosion of evangelical interest in global social engagement.

Alongside World Vision, other similar agencies such as Compassion International, Samaritan’s Purse, MAP International, and Food for the Poor are among the top 25 largest U.S. charities with annual budgets averaging over three-quarters of a billion dollars. While politics fill most new cycles, it is now the case that American evangelicals donate $12 to international missions, relief, and development for every $1 they spend on political causes. In highlighting other actors, we might see a different glimpse of religion and public life in contemporary America.

Yet, beyond World Vision’s own story and their part in transforming a burgeoning field of Christian relief and development agencies, God’s Internationalists also addresses a broader question that affects so many faith-based organizations: How does religion actually function in religiously motivated organizations? Too often, many are content to label something as either religious or secular segregating the two into separate spheres with little common practice or purpose. Of course, religious and religious agencies are much too complex to be pigeonholed.

On the other hand, more recently fields such as international development, foreign relations, and professional philanthropy have come to appreciate the role of religion as an asset and key cultural factor in local communities. Faith-based agencies are seen as fruitful dialogue partners in articulating notions of the common good, yet too often foundations or think tanks might merely use religion as an instrumental addition to their current agenda. If they already presume they know the solutions to diversity, equity, and inclusion or renewed civic engagement, then religious communities could be utilized without being fully engaged and taken seriously as dynamic and diverse communities.

What we know in practice is that that religious identity is rarely static.

For instance, throughout the history of World Vision, it was precisely the re-articulation of its religious identity through its theology as well as its operational practices, public rhetoric, and organizational structure that contributed in surprising ways to the evolving self-definition of the organization. The question then is not whether World Vision as a development organization is Christian, but how it is Christian. 

The religious identity of a faith-based organization is not distinct and isolated but often intertwined with the structural shifts the organization undergoes over time, the tensions it encounters from both internal and external pressures, and the practices and production of its work.

The same general question applies for most faith-based organizations.

Beyond generic labels—whether faith based or secular; Jewish or Muslim; Protestant or Catholic; Lutheran, Baptist, or Presbyterian—how does the religious identity of your organization guide your actual programs? On your website, what does the “About Us” tab, brief history, or mission statement communicate to donors? What culture does that religious identity shape for staff, board, and grantees? And how has this identity evolved over time?

Telling the stories of our own organizations are vital. Setting them in broader contexts is equally important. God’s Internationalists seeks to serve as a first step, situating World Vision’s story in the broader context of faith-based international relief and development. But there is a need for multiple stories highlighting the past, present, and future networks within faith-based philanthropy.

This article originally published in Lake Institute’s Insights newsletter (reprinted with permission).

About the Author:

David P. King is the Karen Lake Buttrey Director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Author information was updated as of the article’s post date. Author profiles may not reflect author’s current employment or location.

Image credit: Photo by Chungkuk Bae on Unsplash

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Center for Stewardship Leaders

The Center for Stewardship Leaders seeks to shape a faithful, multidimensional culture of stewardship in congregations, households, and society. The center strives to consider the full spectrum of stewardship practice and theology, including financial stewardship, holistic stewardship, and leadership. See all posts from CSL.

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