If God calls you to live for him in a small or obscure city, do not mistake your ministry as trivial. Heaven will one day reveal all the wonders of God in overlooked places.
When Jesus wanted to make a point to the religious leaders of his day about the significance of every life and the eternal soul, he told them two surprising stories. He told them about a shepherd who was not content simply to enjoy the ninety-nine sheep, forgetting about the precious wayward one. In the same way, neither were nine coins to be satisfactory, as long as one was missing. Just as there was rejoicing when the one lost sheep and the one lost coin were found, Jesus said there will be joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents (Luke 15:1–10).
Jesus was teaching about the wonderfully surprising grace of God, but he also was teaching about the upside-down values of the kingdom of God. God loves to see his children go to great lengths, and hard places, to find what has been lost. He says there is a weighty glory in leaving the many “in the open country” in order to “go after the one that is lost” (Luke 15:4). To see the world as Jesus sees it, we must radically reorient the way we evaluate what God views as strategic.
Almost seven years ago, I left the United States to plant an evangelical church an hour north of what is universally recognized as one of the most strategic cities in the world: Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). I did so because the ruling sheikh of the northernmost emirate in the UAE gave land for an evangelical church, and this kind of opportunity rarely comes along on the Arabian Peninsula.
The emirate I moved to, however, is much smaller than our towering neighbor to the south. It is not an internationally recognized hub of economic activity, and it has a fraction of the population of Dubai. So, the question must be asked: Is what I am doing, and where I am doing it, strategic?
We Never Labor in Obscurity
As Christians and churches have considered, over recent years, how they can best use their lives, talents, and resources for the global advance of the gospel, a strategy of focusing on strategic cities has emerged. Strategic cities are often identified as crossroads cities with large populations that include people from many parts of the globe.
The apostle Paul stayed and ministered in the strategic city of Ephesus for three years (longer than he stayed anywhere else), which led Luke to write, “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Strategic cities matter. But does this mean, for the many Christians laboring elsewhere, that their work in an “unstrategic” city doesn’t matter?
Every single blood-bought child of the living God should consider how we can strategically use talents God has given us during our brief time on earth. And for many of God’s people, that will mean laboring in a place or in a situation that you might be tempted to think is not important. We must consider, however, how different the plans of our God are from the wisdom of men.
“God loves to see his children go to great lengths, and hard places, to find what has been lost.”
In God’s economy, when the very Son of God took on flesh, Jesus was not born in a metropolitan city, but in Bethlehem — a town “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2). He was raised in Nazareth, a small town of (at most) two thousand people. Nazareth’s lack of prestige is evident when Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to follow him, and Nathanael sincerely asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). On a list of strategic cities, the hometown of our Lord would not have been given a second thought.
Changing the World from Jail
Even Paul, who had the highly important mission of taking the gospel to the Gentiles, did not spend his time exclusively in strategic cities with “strategic” people. On his second missionary journey, the Holy Spirit forbade Paul from preaching the gospel to an entire region where Ephesus and other major cities were.
Instead, the Spirit led Paul on a four hundred-mile journey, by foot, where he ultimately ended up in a jail cell in Philippi. And from that cell — perhaps the seemingly least strategic square feet anywhere — he saw the jailer and his whole household converted (Acts 16:6–40). If man’s wisdom had put that journey together, surely we would have proposed a different itinerary. But in God’s wisdom, one sinner was waiting to be found in that jail, and so that cell became the most strategic place on the planet that night.
The church today can wisely think about how to maximize gospel impact and at the same time be slowly tempted by the wisdom of this world. In God’s economy, what is strategic and unstrategic is measured by an altogether different wisdom. On the last day, the widow’s mite will be judged more strategic than many of the billionaires’ millions, because “she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:4).
Who knows how our Lord might be using a faithful brother or sister you and I have never met in the far reaches of Nepal for global gospel purposes that will redound for all eternity to the praise of Christ? Wouldn’t it be like our Lord to confound the wisdom of the world (and even the wisdom of many Christians) like this?
Surprises Waiting in Heaven
Was I unwise to move across an ocean to a city an hour north of a strategic city? Of course not. I leave what is ultimately strategic and unstrategic to our all-wise God who delights to upend the world’s (and my own) expectations in the most surprising of ways. After all, we serve the God who won the world by going to the most unstrategic place possible on the hill of Calvary, dying on the cross to accomplish what no other human plan or man ever could, and then being exalted far above every other name.
“On a list of strategic cities, the hometown of our Lord would not have been given a second thought.”
If you are laboring in a “strategic” city among “strategic” people, press on in faithfulness; you have a great stewardship in the gospel. But if you labor in relative obscurity and are tempted to think your work is unstrategic, I want to encourage you that, if you labor for the Lord, there is no such thing as an unstrategic city. He cares about every last sheep. Heaven will be the ultimate judge of what is strategic and unstrategic, and my guess is that when God’s wisdom is finally revealed in its fullness, there will be more than a few surprises.
If you wrestle with the insignificance of the city or town where you are laboring, be assured that God is sovereign over where he has you right now (Acts 17:26). It’s a cosmic impossibility that he could be doing any better than he is doing to you right now in Christ (Romans 8:28). So, look around at the people and opportunities he has sovereignly placed in your life. Build up the local church. Make the gospel known to the non-Christians around you. Disciple others in order to reach those who will be there long after you are gone. Wherever the Lord has led you to labor, serve and witness there joyfully and faithfully.