Picture credit: Bible Society / Mark Woods
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, made a powerful plea at the African Biblical Leadership Initiative (ABLI) for the Church to help change the world.
Held in Kigali, Rwanda, the conference drew together leaders from the worlds of politics, the Church and civil society.
Warren – a dual-nationality Rwandan citizen who has been committed to the country for many years – spoke of the enormous resources the Church has at its disposal because of its size and almost universal geographical presence.
After an encounter with a pastor in South Africa whose church was helping children orphaned by AIDS, he had reflected on what God was calling him to do and identified five 'global Goliaths' that needed to be slain – conflict, corruption, poverty, poor health and lack of opportunity. 'These problems are so big that no one has solved them – not the EU, not the US, not the UN,' he said. 'The only thing big enough is the church of Jesus Christ.'
He said that while Christians would never all agree on all minor points of doctrine, but they could all agree on the purpose and mission of the Church.
'We're the only thing that's truly global on this planet. The Church speaks more languages than the UN. Outside the capitals of many nations, the Church is the community structure. They may not have a post office, a school or a fire department, but they have a church.
'The Church is bigger than China and Europe and the US put together. We have the largest army in the world. Hundreds of millions of people volunteer in church every day as an army of love.
No government, no army comes close to the power, talent and resources that are in one out of every three people on the planet.'
Saddleback Church's PEACE plan aims to: Plant churches that preach reconciliation, Equip ethical servant leaders, Assist the poor, Care for the sick and Educate the next generation.
Warren spoke of these solutions as grounded in the ministry of Jesus. The Church, he said, was the agent of peace in the world, bringing reconciliation. Jesus modelled equipping ethical servant leaders: 'He loved everyone. He fed the 5,000. But he trained 72, he discipled 12, and mentored three – only Peter, James and John. He was investing the maximum time in those who would bear the maximum responsibility.'
Jesus also made the poor the priority of his mission, Warren said, alongside care for the sick. He instanced a programme Saddleback had pioneered in Rwanda focused on community healthcare, in which village churches had been asked to nominate two people each to be trained in basic skills. Beginning with 40 people, the programme has grown until the number of workers exceeds 4,000. They are also now trained in setting up savings clubs and running preschools. 'This is an example of the power of the Church over every other organisation,' Warren said.
The Church was also called to educate the next generation, he said: 'If you care about the Kingdom of God, you must care about the next generation. You cant do Kingdom work without caring about students, caring about the next generation.'
He offered principles for sending churches and mission organisations based on the words of Jesus. Among them were working as a team, staying focused on the mission, investing in relationships and beginning 'where people hurt most'.
He spoke movingly about the death by suicide of his son six years ago after a lifetime's battle with depression, and the friendship and support that he and his wife Kay had received. He condemned the stigma around poor mental health, saying: 'If my heart doesn't work right, I take a pill for it and there's no shame in that. If my spleen doesn't work right and I have diabetes I take a pill for that and there's no shame in that. If my brain doesn't work right and I have mental illness and I take a pill for that, why should I be ashamed of that? We need to remove the stigma of mental illness. It's not a sin to be sick, and the Church should be saying more than anybody else.'
He concluded by urging leaders to focus their efforts in evangelism on the ground that God has already prepared, and to be particularly aware of people in trauma.