Serving the Purposes of God in Your Generation

Doug Birdsall

Listen to an audio recording of this message.

It is said of King David in the book of Acts that he “served the purpose of God in his own generation” (Acts 13:36). David was chosen as a young man. He was groomed almost from childhood for leadership. God had ordained him for that calling. Despite his obvious fallenness and weaknesses, God would make David into a great king for his glory.

It is also said of David that he was a man after God’s own heart. I trust that it will be said of you, at the end of your lives, that you were men and women after God’s own heart and that you fulfilled the purposes of God in your generation.

The challenge before you is to face the opportunities and obstacles that God has for you in your time. We don’t know if these are the best of times or the worst of times. All we know is that they are your times. And God is raising up a generation of people for himself.

Tom Brokaw, an American journalist, wrote a book a few years ago entitled The Greatest Generation. The book was a tribute to his father and the men and women of his generation, who came of age during the Great Depression. By and large, he was writing about young people who answered the call to be part of the liberating forces in Europe and the Pacific during World War II. After the war, those men and women were used to provide leadership in business, education, and government in a time that may go down as the era of America’s greatest leadership and influence in the world. They were people who, according to Tom Brokaw, were the greatest generation in American history. They were people who rose heroically to face enormous challenges.

The Purpose of God

I trust that you will be people who rise to the challenge that God has before you. Article 1 of the Lausanne Covenant begins with a section entitled “The Purpose of God.” We read:

We affirm our belief in the one eternal God, Creator and Lord of the world, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who governs all things according to the purpose of his will. He has been calling out from the world a people for himself, and sending his people back into the world to be his servants and his witnesses, for the extension of his kingdom, the building up of Christ’s body, and the glory of his name. We confess with shame that we have often denied our calling and failed in our mission, by becoming conformed to the world or by withdrawing from it. Yet we rejoice that even when borne by earthen vessels the gospel is still a precious treasure. To the task of making that treasure known in the power of the Holy Spirit we desire to dedicate ourselves anew.

I trust that you also will dedicate yourselves anew to the purposes of God.

Chris Wright, the Chair of the Theology Working Group for Lausanne, has presented us with some of the challenges faced by our contemporary world. He mentioned six things: following Jesus as a unique Lord and Savior in a pluralistic world; following Jesus as his community; following Jesus in the context of power and violence; following Jesus in a world of suffering and disaster, including HIV/AIDS; following Jesus in a globalized marketplace; following Jesus as the truth in a relativistic age. There are many other challenges that have been mentioned during this Gathering—the challenge of Islam and loving Muslims to Christ; unreached peoples; leadership training; responding to children at risk; the use of media and technology for the proclamation of the gospel; ministries of compassion and justice; ministries of Scripture translation; ministries to the urban youth of our world.

The task before you is to respond courageously to the challenges of your generation. We’ve heard from great people like Billy Graham and John Stott, who have been praying for us throughout this week and for months preceding our gathering. You can’t fulfill the purposes of God in their generation. You can’t fulfill the purposes of God in my generation. You will not be able to fulfill the purposes of God in your children’s generation. But you can be used greatly in your generation here and now. Perhaps it will be written of you: “They were the greatest generation. They were used more greatly and more effectively than any previous generation for the glory of God, and for the advance of his kingdom.”

Let me talk briefly about seven biblical elements of greatness for the glory of God.

Greatness for God’s Glory

First, the Great Commandment. You are familiar with Matthew 22:37-38. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Love for God is the wellspring of our Christian lives and ministries. It seems so obvious, yet many leaders will tell you that as your ministry opportunities expand, and as your ministry responsibilities become heavier, your relationship with God is often the first thing to suffer.

What was the complaint against the church at Ephesus? “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:3-4). Brothers and sisters, follow the Great Commandment! Make it your priority every day and throughout the day to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Second, the Great Commission. Note that the emphasis of the Great Commission is on making disciples. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in  the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). Jesus did not say, “Go into all the world and have people raise their hands.” He did not say, “Go into all the world and have people fill out a decision card.” He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” That, my friends, requires a sustained and intensive investment. Make disciples.

Third, the Great Requirement. What does the Lord require of you? Micah 6:8 tells us, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” One of our colleagues was recently with John Stott and asked him, “What would you say if you were speaking to this generation?” Uncle John said, “Two things: embrace personal holiness and remember social justice.” There must be congruity between our words and deeds so that our witness has integrity. The gospel message will never be heard as good news if the messenger is bad news.

Fourth, the Great Cost. There is great cost for attaining greatness for the glory of God. In Mark 8:34-35 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Then later in Mark 10:43 he says, “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be the servant of all. Service requires sacrifice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Serving Christ will cost you everything.

Often when I speak with young staff members who have just joined our mission organization, Asian Access, I will say to them, “I envy you. I wish I was in your position, starting all over again with all of the new opportunities that are now before you. I admire you. I respect your willingness to sacrifice and to suffer for Christ. And I pity you. I know how hard it will be.” That is jarring for them to hear. They like the sense of envy and admiration, but not the pity. There are surprising, unanticipated costs that will come in life and we need to be willing to make whatever sacrifice God calls us to make.

For some of you that sacrifice might be the struggle to learn a new language. Many of you are already multi-lingual. But I grew up speaking only English. When I went to Japan, I had so much on my mind that I wanted to share, but I did not speak the language of the 123 million people around me. That gave me a sense of suffering. Part of my identity was removed; I could not communicate.

One day as I was walking from our home in Tokyo to the train station, I passed by an old Japanese woman, dressed in a kimono, who was scolding her dog. She was wagging her finger and giving the dog a strong rebuke. As I walked by, I saw that the dog had his ears down and his tail between his legs. And I thought to myself, this is pathetic. Here I am, an American man, and here’s a Japanese mutt. The dog understood everything that the old lady just said and I didn’t catch a word. As a missionary I am prepared to work at the level of a child, but now I am working at a sub-dog level in a new culture.

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV). What did Paul have in mind when he was speaking about “light and momentary troubles”? He gives a little litany in 2 Corinthians 11:25-27:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

Then he adds in verse 28, “apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” It’s as if Paul is saying, “These beatings, these shipwrecks, these dangers—they were tolerable. But on top of all of that, I have to daily face the pressure of my concern for the churches.”

Paul is talking about the suffering of love. You will find that your greatest pain comes as a result of disappointments and betrayals from those who you love the most. We need to be people who absorb pain, who do not inflict pain. We need to model for our people a willingness to die, to give our very lives for the glory of God and for the church so that others will be inspired to give their lives in his service.

Fifth, Great Understanding. In 1 Chronicles 12:32 we read that the men of Issachar, “understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (NIV). They were people who acquired great wisdom. I doubt if this came intuitively or naturally or easily. Attaining such understanding of the times would have required the disciplined work of study, analysis, reflection, and prayer. It also requires vision and courage and determination to know what to do and to be willing to do it. May it not be said of you that you were people whose zeal was exceeded only by your ignorance. May you be people of wisdom who, like the men of Issachar, understand the times and know what to do.

Sixth, the Great High Priestly Prayer. We realize that authentic unity—not mere organizational unity, but some authentic tangible expression of organic spiritual unity—is a precondition for the prophetic witness of the church. To the extent we are disunited, people will not believe our message.  To the extent we are united, they will believe our message.  Our unity provides credibility for the gospel.

Christians still constitute tiny minorities in many parts of the world. Where the church is a minority, there is an even greater need for unity in order to impact the majority. The smaller the minority, the greater the need for unity.  So let’s be people who respond to Jesus’ prayer and demonstrate tangible unity.

Seventh, the Great Hope.  My dream when I entered seminary was to pastor a church of 1,000 members by the time I was thirty.  At that time, I was planning to be a pastor back in the Midwest of the United States where I was raised. But during my last year in seminary, God unambiguously redirected my wife and me to cross-cultural ministry.

My son Judson was born in Tokyo when I was thirty years old. I went to the U.S. embassy in the center of the city to register him as an American citizen. What should have been a very happy time was a time of sadness for me. When I was preaching at my church on the previous Sunday I thought about the dream I had as a seminary student to pastor a 1,000-member church. As I looked out over the vast throng that had gathered that Sunday morning, I realized that I had missed my goal by just 988. During the previous year, under my visionary leadership, we had seen that Japanese church grow from fifteen to twelve. And I thought, “God, I am wasting my life. What am I doing here?  I am serving a little church on the second floor of a rented building on a side street and no one seems to care.”

I arrived at the embassy of the United States of America, a magnificent structure of marble and steel and glass in the center of the city, surrounded by wrought iron fences and gates. Handsome young marines stood at every entrance. Chauffeured limousines were coming and going. I thought to myself, “Why couldn’t I have received an appointment to serve as an emissary of the United States of America in the country of Japan? Now that would be something. People would recognize that as influence and power and prestige.” But here I was as a little insignificant missionary in the largest city of the world.

After I got all of the obligatory signatures and stamps on my documents, I began to walk back to the train station to make my way back home an hour away in the suburb of Tokorozawa.  While walking, I had an experience that I will never forget.  As a missionary who was struggling with a sense of calling and a sense of identity, I witnessed what seemed like God opening the windows of heaven, and I saw before me what John had written about in Revelation. I saw the King of glory seated upon the throne, surrounded by the elders, bowing down and worshipping, crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come.”

It was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Doug, I did not send you to Japan to represent the United States of America. I sent you as an ambassador of the eternal kingdom of God, the only kingdom that is without an end. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but the kingdom of God is forever.” I then turned around on the sidewalk and I looked at the embassy that was receding in the background and I thought, “I wouldn’t want to work at that temporary shack. Someday it will be reduced to rubble and ashes, but the kingdom is forever.” Brothers and sisters, as we return from YLG to faraway places—to big cities and to small villages—realize that we have been sent as ambassadors of the Almighty King of heaven and we are united to his people in every nation around the world.

We labor with the great hope that someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  In Revelation 21:1-5, John writes these words of hope and inspiration to his people in a time of difficulty:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

This is not hope with fingers crossed. This is our hope because these words of Scripture are trustworthy and true. Reflecting on the missiological implications of eschatology, the Lausanne Covenant says this in Article 15:

We believe that Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in power and glory to consummate His salvation and His judgment. This promise of His coming is a further spur to our evangelism. For we remember His words that the Gospel must first be preached to all nations. We believe that the interim period between Christ’s ascension and return is to be filled with the mission of the people of God who have no liberty to stop before the end. We also remember His warning that false Christs and false prophets will arise as precursors as the final anti-Christ. We therefore reject as a proud, self-confident dream the notion that people can ever build a utopia on earth. Our Christian confidence is that God will perfect His kingdom and we look forward with eager anticipation to that day and to the new heaven and earth in which righteousness will dwell and God will reign forever. Meanwhile, we rededicate ourselves to the service of Christ and to the people in joyful submission to His authority over the lives, over the whole of our lives.

The Challenge of God

Friends, will you rise to the challenge that is before you? Will you fulfill the purpose of God in your generation? I trust that you will be the greatest generation that God has ever developed for the accomplishment of his purposes.

As we look at our world and as we look at our church, we are aware that things are not the way they are intended to be. My generation has not attained greatness for God according to his standards for life in the kingdom. The church today is not consumed with a love for God and for neighbor. We are too consumed with the things of this world. We have not been faithful and effective in mobilizing the vast resources of the church for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Otherwise, we would not be in a situation where we still have some two billion people who have yet to hear the good news.

The world too often does not see the church as an instrument of justice and mercy and reconciliation. In our churches today it is hard to find those who are willing to abandon everything for the cause of Christ. We are lacking people like the men of Issachar, because we are either inclined to indifference or we are jumping too soon into action without taking the time to understand the times.

We are terribly fragmented because we would rather go it alone and do our own thing than take the time to get connected and build enduring partnerships. We need to heed the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

At a time when the world is desperately in need of the message of hope, we have the technological ability to share our message with the entire globe. Yet, too often we have nothing to say. As a people, we have become compromised to our culture, comfortable in our wealth, and complacent in our lack of holiness.  However, it need not be this way. This week I have sensed a dissatisfaction with the way things are, and an unwillingness to continue doing things the way they have always been done. There is a holy discontentment here, which I believe is energy and power that the Spirit of God could channel for his purposes.

The Promise of God

Adoniram Judson provides us with a model of rock-solid confidence in the promises of God. America’s first foreign missionary, Judson endured heart-rending suffering during his thirty-seven years in Burma. He left behind friends and family and a promising career in Boston. He had to master the complex Burmese language without the aid of any textbooks. He labored for six years before winning a single convert. While on the mission field he suffered the untimely deaths of two wives, three children, and a number of coworkers. Judson was incarcerated for nearly two years in a mind-numbingly squalid prison—emaciated, filthy, shackled, and hanging upside-down much of the time. His few Burmese followers faced the constant threat of persecution. Still, Judson persevered in his work of preaching and translation.

When he returned to Boston for his only furlough, Judson was asked by a prominent printer, “Do you think the prospects are bright for the speedy conversion of the heathen?” Judson promptly replied, “As bright as the promises of God.” Today, thanks in large part to Judson’s pioneering work, there are at least four million Christians in Burma.

Brothers and sisters, the future of the work of God is not contingent upon your ability. It is contingent upon your willingness to simply trust the promises of God. Through your faith and through your trust, the future is as bright as the promises of God.

My Dream for the Global Church

With deference to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream—for the global church. I have a dream of a new generation of leaders who will love God whole-heartedly and love their neighbors and the world sacrificially. I have a dream of the greatest mobilization of Great Commission Christians that the world has ever seen; a church mobilized to incarnate the gospel in the urban centers of our mega-cities and in our small towns and villages, so that we will see a great surge towards faith in Christ.

I have a dream of a generation of leaders who have humbled themselves in the sight of God and of one another so that they might attain a greater degree of unity and prophetic witness in word and deed.

I have a dream of a generation of leaders that values integrity and authenticity more than success; a generation that rejects the prosperity gospel as a seriously deficient distortion of the true gospel.

I have a dream of a generation of leaders who have given up their small ambitions for the greater good of taking the glorious gospel to every people on earth.

I have a dream of a generation of leaders who remain faithful to their spouses, keep their promises to their children, and treat their employees with care and respect.

I have a dream that the church in Africa will be known to the world for its depth and Christian maturity and uprightness of moral character.  I have a dream that the African church will be a source of social transformation across the continent and of moral and spiritual strength to the church around the world.

I have a dream that the church in Latin America, whose exuberance in life and worship, especially in its burgeoning Pentecostal movements, will have a corresponding zeal for justice.  I have a dream that the churches across Latin America will be known as safe places for children, for women, and for the marginalized of society.

I have a dream that the churches of Asia will play a shaping influence in the twenty-first century, transforming the nations that will be world leaders and super-powers in the decades to come. I have a dream that the churches of Asia, along with the churches of Africa, will be the greatest source of missionaries in this century. They will be used to bring the light of the gospel to those who live in the 10/40 Window.

I have a dream that the church in Australia will be known for generously sharing its wealth with the world. I have a dream that Australia will be known for its sense of resolve and purposefulness in the work of world missions.

I have a dream that the church in North America will be convicted of its arrogance and animated to play a new role as a magnanimous servant to the world church. I have a dream that it will be known more for its humility and generosity than for its size and resources. I have a dream that it will be known more for respectful partnerships than for its propensity to assume leadership.

I have a dream for the church in Europe. I have a dream that its great churches and cathedrals will once again be filled with devoted worshippers rather than with admiring tourists. I have a dream that the land of the Reformation and the continent of sophisticated culture will be a place in which postmodern ambivalence will be replaced by God-inspired confidence in the truth of the gospel; that in the midst of increasing pluralism, Christ will be proclaimed as the only way to the Father.

I have a dream of a united global church—an answer to Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17. I have a dream that you will fulfill the purposes of God in your generation. It won’t be easy. It will be the way of service and sacrifice and suffering. But it will be worth it, and the fulfillment of God’s purposes will be accompanied by a sense of joy.

Brothers and sisters, the challenge is before you. I encourage you, I implore you, I admonish you, and I stand with you as you respond to the mission of God in your generation. As you persevere in ministry through the course of your life, the amount of joy you experience in attaining your ultimate destination will be in direct proportion to the degree of difficulty you face in getting there.

How will you respond? Will you answer the call for your generation? Will you fulfill the purposes of God in your time? Will you achieve greatness in God’s kingdom and for his glory? Or will you play it safe? Will you shrink from the challenge? Will you squander or will you seize an opportunity of historic proportion and global magnitude?

After being with you for this week, I think I have seen into your hearts. I know that you are people who have a heart and a mind for God. I believe that one day it will be said of this generation that truly they achieved greatness for God as they fulfilled his purposes in their generation.

Living & Leading Like Jesus, a compilation of the plenary addresses from the 2006 Young Leaders Gathering, is available from the William Carey Library.

Date: 06 Aug 2007

Gathering: 2006 YLG


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