Living in the Land of OZ: Three Ways the Church Can Posture Herself in a Foreign Cultural Environment

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have been reading a plethora of books, blogs, and articles on the condition of the church in contemporary culture. I even wrote my dissertation on James Davison Hunter’s “Faithful Presence Within” cultural engagement paradigm. In tackling this subject, many writers deal with the different postures that the American church has taken over the course of the last century and a half. One of the many reasons for the various postures of the American church is due to the constantly changing cultural environment—a changing environment that has transitioned from more of a Christendom one to one influenced by secularism, pluralism, subjectivism, and skepticism.

The influence of Christianity upon Western society seemingly has become a past experiment. As the Enlightenment experience failed—meaning that it failed to eliminate all societal ills and bring about a human utopia due to human reasoning—so too has the “Christian Nation” or Christendom failed. As a result, the church (during this shift) has struggled, and in many cases continues to struggle, with her role and posture in a pluralistic, secular, post-Christian, and skeptical environment. In other words, the church in North America has finally realized (like Dorothy once did) they are no longer in Kansas but in the land of OZ.

But how does the church live in the land of OZ? How does the church live in a foreign land? In trying to understand how to live in their new found, drastically different environment, I believe the church has been tinkering, reacting, and responding with different posturing[s] in culture in hopes of finding their true identity and mission as the people of God.

In many ways, the North American church in the twenty-first century finds many similarities with the people of God in Jeremiah 29. [The dissimilarity that I must point out is that God was in a covenant relationship with the nation of Israel whereas America is not.] The theocentric nation and kingdom had fallen. No longer did Israel experience cultural and national hegemony. Having been led into captivity, they now experienced life as a sojourner, alien, and minority. They experienced marginalization. Obviously, no longer being in their homeland was very difficult, demoralizing, and quite depressing.

In response to their newfound foreign environment, you could say they had a few options with regards to how they would posture themselves towards the larger culture. First, they could have just faded off as a sub-cultural hermit, living a depressed, demoralized, and defeated life—sitting and longing for the golden years of the past as they faded in irrelevancy to the greater Babylonian culture. Second, they could have taken a more antagonistic, resentful, and angry approach, one that was mean-spirited, violent, and intolerant. They could have told the Babylonians how awful, unspiritual, pagan, and wicked they were compared to themselves. Or, they had a third option, the God-option, which was inspired by the Spirit, written by Jeremiah, and delivered to the inhabitants.

Within this option, I believe we see at least three principles for how the people of God are to live in the land of OZ.

1) Live here as if you were living there. We are to live everyday normal lives as if we were living in the homeland. God informs his dazed and confused people to, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:5-6). In other words, God tells them to keep on living as if they were living back at home—faithfully tilling and cultivating both land and family while they multiplied in the land.

2) Live to bless not Curse. We are to seek the welfare of the city where we are marginalized and alienated. God expresses that his people take up the task of blessing the pagan nation. This is quite remarkable! The people of God are to live as a blessing, praying to the Lord on the nation’s behalf, as they desire to see the (secular, pluralistic, hedonistic) city flourish. For in the city’s flourishing God’s people will flourish. While this blog does not permit me the time to dive into the notion of “blessing,” this vision, nevertheless, harkens back to the prophetic promise God made to Abram, “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

3) Live faithfully not forcefully. We are to strive for faithfulness, rather than striving for world change. In this passage, there is nothing about seeking the transformation of the city. God doesn’t ask them to transform the Babylonian culture and cultural practices.  So while change may very well take place, God’s people should embrace the missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in their all areas of their life, as they seek God and the welfare of the uncomfortable city. Please don’t misunderstand, I completely agree that the Gospel is transformative; the gospel changes individuals, families, cities, and even nations. To a certain degree God brought change in Babylon through the faithfulness of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My point is that the goal for the people of God is faithfulness to God and to his call, work, and mission in the world. And, there lies the tendency for believers to view that it is their duty and obligation to change the world, to transform cities, to spark movements; yet, in the biblical narrative God never assigns that task to his people. Our task, or mission, is witness—bearing both verbal and demonstrable witness to our great God and King. As witnesses we simply proclaim, invite, enact, embody, and demonstrate the good news of Jesus Christ—working as agents of blessing for the good the city—as we point to the narrative and work of King Jesus who is in the construction process of making all things new (Rev 21:5).

In closing, may the church today—in finding herself in this foreign land, like Dorothy found herself in the land of OZ—seek to live everyday normal lives as she was living in the new city Jerusalem. May believers display and reflect the characteristics, attributes, and signs of God’s kingdom life in our homes, vocations, relationships, and ethics. May churches seek the “welfare” of the foreign city, living as agents of blessing rather than antagonistic, mean-spirited, angry, resentful and defensive agents. May we pray for the inhabitants as we seek to be benefactors rather than detractors. And finally, may we take the posture of faithfulness. May we not become so consumed with changing the world, transforming cities, or igniting movements. While God may very well do these things in and through us, let us focus our energies on reflecting his glory (in every area of our lives) in the foreign land as we anticipate, just as Abraham did (Heb 11:10), our arrival in the new city (Heb 13:14) designed and built by God.

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