Drums thundered through the Cape Town convention center, arms raised in worship, and banners fluttered, as more than 4,000 leaders from 198 nations gathered to discuss the state of the church and the challenges of world evangelization on every continent at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in 2010. Dr. S. Douglas Birdsall ’75, executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) from 2004 to June 2013, led the vision-casting and fundraising for the Congress—an event Christianity Today described as the “the most representative gathering of Christian leaders in church history.”
Capturing the attention and enlisting the cooperation of global church leaders comes naturally for Doug, who has devoted a lifetime to developing church leaders and uniting influential Christians around the globe. According to Ramez Atallah of The Bible Society of Egypt, “Doug is seen as a servant leader who believes in others. He is there to empower them and keep himself out of the limelight.”
Continuing his family’s legacy of four previous generations of ministry, Doug and his wife, Jeanine Rowell Birdsall ’75, served as missionaries in Japan with LIFE Ministries (now Asian Access) from 1980 to 1999. Doug served as the organization’s director of missionary staff from 1985 to 1991 and president from 1991 to 2004.
In addition to learning a great deal about evangelism, leadership, and church planting during these early years, Doug says perhaps the most vital lesson came in simply learning to trust God in the midst of a resistant nation like Japan. “Just as the prophet Habakkuk, who had little to show for his work, I learned to say, ‘Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines…yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior’” (Hab. 3: 17-18).
Like the generations before them, Doug and Jeanie devoted themselves not only to their ministry outside of the home, but also to raising a new generation of insightful and engaged Christians. After 20 years of side-by-side mission work in Japan, Jeanie took up teaching and counseling responsibilities at The First Congregational Church of Hamilton and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary while Doug assumed leadership of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism (LCWE). Doug also served as the first director of the J. Christy Wilson, Jr. Center for World Missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Doug’s history with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism began long before his involvement as a leader. In 1975, during his senior year at Wheaton, he was introduced to the new movement by President Hudson Armerding ’41 (one of the five authors of the Lausanne Covenant) and Dr. Donald Hoke ’41, M.A.’44, D.D. ’59, director of the 1974 LCWE.
While at Wheaton, Professor of English Dr. Leland Ryken and Chaplain Evan Welsh ’27, D.D.’55 strongly influenced Doug’s growth and development. With Dr. Ryken, Doug studied Milton’s Paradise Lost and his sonnet “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” which concludes with the words, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Doug notes that over the course of his career he has come to realize, “This waiting is not passive—it is waiting with hopeful anticipation that God is going to demonstrate his faithfulness and his greatness.”
Doug met with Chaplain Welsh every Tuesday during his Wheaton days. “We would sit in wing back chairs and talk for 30 or 40 minutes and then get down on our knees and pray. He taught me a magnanimous spirit and prepared me for working with a wide spectrum of the church.” Though evangelicalism was preoccupied with boundaries in those days, he says, “Chaplain Welsh showed me the importance of a heart that’s pure with the love of God.”
Doug participated in the Lausanne Younger Leaders Conference in Singapore in 1987, and then in 1989 served as assistant to the conference director for Lausanne II in Manila, Philippines. His leadership as executive chair of the LCWE began in 2004. His persistent commitment to sharing the vision for the global church with all those he encounters has produced an increased spirit of unity among Christians around the world.
Grace Samson-Song, part of the National Leadership Team for Youth With A Mission in South Africa, notes, “Since [the Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering in Malaysia in 2006], my world has been enlarged, my perspective of missions challenged, and my passion has risen to new heights. My life has drastically changed. I became more focused and my faith for the Great Commission has been multiplied.”
For three years prior to the Cape Town event, Doug traveled the world, articulating the vision, expanding networks, inspiring individuals, recruiting leaders and volunteers, and raising funds for the Congress and for the ongoing movement. Even afterward, he says the real work is just now taking place through relationships, partnerships, and ideas sparked from the Congress in 2010.
“What does it mean for a ten-day event to energize a global movement? It means the fruit of that movement grows on other people’s trees,” Doug says, noting for instance that an organization like World Vision has re-assessed its humanitarian work in the light of the evangelization mandate.
The progress also continues through international meetings such as the consultation that took place among 15 evangelical Islamic specialists from across the globe to help the church think about how to respond to the challenges in Muslim majority countries; or the Global Leadership Forum held this June in Bangalore, India, drawing 350 delegates, including President Philip Ryken ’88, who addressed the challenges and opportunities for world evangelization through Christian higher education.
In 2013, Doug begins a new chapter of service as the 27th president of the American Bible Society. He sees this as a continuation of the theme at Cape Town: to eradicate Bible poverty. In this new role, Doug continues to collaborate with evangelical leaders, particularly through the commitment to scriptural engagement, working across the full expanse of the Christian community.