One important question that I've been asked is why I — with a passion for the unreached and unengaged peoples of the earth — serve as a pastor in Birmingham, Alabama, one of the most churched cities in America. It's a great question and one that often perplexes me. Here are three conclusions that I have come to in my own personal wrestling with this question.
God Called Me to Birmingham
First and foremost, I am a pastor in Birmingham because I believe this is where God has specifically called and ordained me to pastor. Years ago, my wife, Heather, and I said that if there are nearly two billion people in the world who have little to no access to the gospel — and most of them live overseas — then the only way we can stay here instead of moving there is if we're convinced we can do more to affect them from living here than living there. And whenever that is not the case, we want to take a one-way ticket overseas.
We have given God a “blank check” with our lives. Wherever he wants us to go, we will go. And I trust that he has used and will use that blank check according to his wisdom. Five years ago, I was living in New Orleans, teaching seminary, and traveling around the world. I had no desire to pastor a church in Birmingham. But in God's sovereign wisdom and by his boundless grace, he led me here. And I trust— I pray! — that he is using me here for the sake of the unreached and unengaged.
Leading God's People for God's Purpose
Second, my heart’s desire is to shepherd, equip, and mobilize the people of God for the purpose of God. I believe God’s purpose for his people is for them to enjoy his grace and extend his glory to the ends of the earth (this is obviously all over Scripture; see particularly the bookends in Genesis 12 and Revelation 7).
This God-given desire fits well with the people among whom God has placed me. God has been gracious to people in Birmingham. He has given us abundant gospel access. Not everyone in Birmingham is saved, but people in Birmingham have access to the gospel. And many have been saved. By God’s grace, many have been born into families where they have heard and received the gospel at an early age. This is evidence of the mercy of God!
And God gives mercy for the sake of mission. He has given us the gospel in Birmingham for his glory among all nations. And I absolutely love shepherding, equipping, and mobilizing people who are overwhelmed by God’s grace to live for God’s glory among all peoples. And I rejoice that this is happening as we send out people from our church throughout Birmingham and around the world.
Undo the Hidden Assumption
Finally, when I contemplate this question — why someone with a passion for the unreached and unengaged peoples of the world lives in Birmingham, Alabama — I conclude that the question itself contains a hidden assumption that, with all due respect, I am not comfortable with. This question almost assumes that those who have a passion for the “unreached and unengaged” should live among the “unreached and unengaged,” and those who have a passion for the “reached and engaged” should live among the “reached and engaged.” But I am convinced by God’s Word that every follower of Christ should have a passion for the “unreached and unengaged.”
Together, we have all been given a command to make disciples of all nations (i.e., panta ta ethne, among all the people groups of the world). Obedience to the Great Commission, therefore, requires commitment to taking the gospel to all the people groups of the world. This is a command for all of us, and it is not an option for any of us. How God calls us to carry out that command obviously varies from person to person and church to church. But whether someone is a pastor (or Christian, for that matter) in Birmingham, Minnesota, Seoul, Beijing, Delhi, or London, we are all commanded to make disciples among all the people groups. Therefore, we all need a passion for the unreached and unengaged.
Like every other follower of Christ, I want to live — wherever I am — with a God-given, Christ-centered, gospel-saturated, world-embracing longing to see every people group on the planet reached with the gospel so that our life-giving, grave-conquering, all-satisfying King receives the praise that he is due. That’s the primary motivation that drives me as a pastor in, of all places, Birmingham, Alabama.