Your experience reminds us that how commitment is expressed changes over time, circumstance and opportunity.
Yes. For a time that meant teaching at a seminary, which was a great opportunity to pour my life into church leaders who would be traveling the world in ministry. I thought this was a great job. In addition to spending time teaching, I could go overseas three or four times a year and take students into a global context to see disciple-making around the world and to see how their lives and the church can be a part of that. At the time, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Well, then the Lord used a variety of circumstances, including Hurricane Katrina, to redirect me to pastor The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala. That was a little over eight years ago. With so many people around the world who are unreached by the gospel, the last place I thought I would end up was Birmingham, Ala., which, by God’s grace, is one of the most reached places in the world. But God gave me a desire to shepherd the reached for the sake of the unreached, and to lead the church for the spread of the gospel. Yes, in Birmingham, but then far beyond the city to people who have never heard the gospel.
It was along the way, early on in that journey that the collision of Word and world came back around in a fresh way. Within a year of pastoring this church, I found myself at a pretty comfortable place—not that all comfort is bad, but my wife and I bought a bigger house than we ever imagined before. In the eyes of the world, including the church world, I was living the dream. But inside I had that same feeling that I was missing the point. I was losing sight of that collision between Word and world. That was the impetus behind Radical—the sermon series and eventually the book.
If the Bible is true, that means over 4.5 billion people in the world right now are lost and apart from Christ and on the road that leads to eternal hell. A couple billion of those have never even heard the gospel. This is not tolerable. We can’t coast through a nice Christian American dream here. We were created for so much more—for the spread of his gospel to the ends of the earth. That calls us to live more simply, give sacrificially. And if we’re really following Christ, we are going to find ourselves going against the grain of the culture around us in many different ways.
So we walked through that as a church. In my own life and family we started asking some hard questions and making different decisions about how we were going to live in this culture.
And that led ultimately to the book Counter Culture.
We see the rapidly shifting moral landscape around us in the culture, even just over the past few years. On one hand, I’ve been encouraged to see evangelicals of all stripes, of all ages, standing up and speaking out on social issues, like poverty and sex trafficking, and saying we can’t be indifferent in the church with these massive issues in the world. But at the same time, I have felt burdened because oftentimes I’ve seen a lot less passion for other controversial social issues in our culture, like marriage or abortion. Instead of being passionate on some of those issues, we are passive.
But the same gospel that compels us to respond to one social issue compels us to respond to other social issues. The same gospel that compels us to combat poverty also compels us to defend marriage. The same gospel that compels us to war against sex trafficking calls us to war against sexual immorality in all its forms. To pick and choose between the two is not an option.
Maybe our supposed social justice is actually more like selective social injustice: picking and choosing which issues we’re going to speak out on based on what’s most comfortable in light of the culture around us.
I’m not saying it’s easier to reach out to the poor or to address sex trafficking. But when we work to address poverty and sex trafficking, we will be applauded and encouraged. But when we start to speak about marriage, sexual morality, abortion, we’re going to find ourselves face-to-face with the trends in culture and it’s going to be a lot less comfortable, a lot more costly. We just don’t have the option of picking and choosing based on what’s least costly or most comfortable.
What’s at the root of selective compassion and pick-and-choose conviction?
In some cases, a lack of confidence and trust in God’s Word. So when we see the Word talk about God’s care for the oppressed, for the orphan, for the widow, for the poor, we resonate with that. We say, Yes, we need to act on this. But when we see what God’s Word says about homosexuality or marriage then we’re inclined to wonder, Can we trust God’s Word on this? Is this antiquated? Is this open to interpretation now when maybe it wasn’t 100 or 1000 years ago? We start to question the authority of God’s Word, the timeliness of God’s Word. Our confidence in God’s Word begins to wane. We see this, unfortunately, all over the church today. And that leads to a real fear and hesitance to speak and proclaim God’s Word, whether it’s in public ways or even just in personal conversations.
Even for those who have confidence in God’s Word, there’s a lot of fear when it comes to personal conversations. We ask ourselves, Am I going to share what God’s Word says about this knowing that it will make me look crazy to some of the people around me—or offensive or even hateful?
If we don’t have rock-solid confidence in God’s Word then we’re certainly not going to speak up in those kinds of settings. Even if we do, there’s often a fear that breeds reluctance.