We’re Not from Here

This post originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer.

When people ask me where I’m from, I think to myself, That it’s a tricky question. Do I answer where I currently live, where I currently moved from, or where I was born? In all honesty, I think they are trying to locate the accent they hear from the words coming out of my mouth. So, I answer, “Memphis, Tennessee.”

Truthfully, I’m not from Memphis. I’m actually from Munford, Tennessee. But most people wouldn’t have a clue where Munford is located. It is a town about 30 miles north of Memphis.

Munford was a small town. Growing up, there was no McDonalds, Walmart, or BP Gas Station. Everything was mom and pop. It wasn’t until years later, after I had moved, that Munford began to commercialize. Munford was your typical small southern town—simple, conservative, religious, connected, and friendly (still to this day I tell my wife about the “index finger” wave). This was the cultural environment in which I was raised and in which I became a Christian.

At the age of 15, I sensed a call to vocational ministry and began to lay out my future plans; I planned to attend college, then seminary, and finally land at a church serving God in some capacity. Participating in several overseas mission trips as a teenager gave me a perspective of the world that was bigger than Tipton County. Thus, I never thought I would stay local.

At least my 40,000-foot plans panned out. I attended Union University, graduating with a degree in Biblical Studies. Prior to graduating, I met my wife. As newlyweds, we embarked on seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Full disclosure, I was your typical Bible College, young seminarian. I was consuming so much Bible, theology, and Greek—in addition, serving in local churches—that I was overweight with pride.

Shedding pride 

But there were two practical things that happened that help shed some of that overweight pride. I was part of a church planting team in urban Atlanta and a few years later—upon completing my MDiv—I entered a PhD program in Missiology.

Remember, I’m from Munford, TN—population under 5,000. I found myself on a small church planting team in urban Atlanta where there were 5,000 people in a few blocks. No building, no budget, no people.

How in the world do you reach people—without borrowing members from other churches—with no church building, no members, and no money? Maybe I was a bad student, but from my perspective, neither college nor seminary had prepared me for this environment under these conditions.

There, I learned the precious principles of proximity and presence. It was great that college and seminary had built a theological foundation. But that theological foundation would be useless unless first, I knew the people living around me and, second, I knew how to contextualize the gospel and church in their heart language.

The second practical thing that led me to shed some of my pride weight was my PhD studies in Missiology. In that program, it occurred to me that I’m not as smart as I thought. In addition, it taught me that if the church is going to reach a changing culture, we must change our perspective and our paradigms. Both lessons require a posture of humility.

I remember reading a statement by Ed Stetzer (at the time, one of my professors, now my boss), that if the 1950s came roaring back, there would be so many churches ready to engage. That’s so true of many established churches.

But then, one of the problems with Western Christianity is that it is a copy-cat culture. We copy what we perceive is working.

The church growth and seeker church movement captivated so many young leaders 20 years ago, and since then, such churches have popped up all around the U.S. to the point that they’ve saturated many of the suburban and urban markets.

Why do I say, “saturated the markets”? Because there are those like Aubrey Malphurs and Rick Richardson that accentuate, based upon research, that only a fraction (10 percent or less) of church growth is from conversion growth. In other words, the church is having a difficult time engaging an ever-changing culture with the good news of King Jesus.

Navigating the unfamilar…

I woke up to the realization that I was no longer in quaint, conservative, religious, down-to-earth Munford years ago. I had to wake up from my presuppositional stupor if I was going to be evangelistically effective.

The lessons I’ve learned over the years remind me of the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy woke up realizing she was no longer in Kansas on Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s farm. She was in Oz. Oz was a strange, unfamiliar land. Oz was a place of witches, lollipop guilds, lions, scarecrows, tin mans, and flying monkeys. Dorothy had to learn how to navigate Oz if she wanted to get back home.

Navigating unfamiliar, strange, and even hostile territory was something the people of God in Jeremiah 29 had to do. Could you imagine being a captive, taken from your homeland? You find yourself stunned, marginalized, uncomfortable, oppressed, and even despised.

Wondering what to do, God tells them to settle down—for they will be there 70 years! He proceeds to tell them to get back to the basics of family raising, field planting, and community building. In addition, he tells them to seek the peace and prosperity of the city of Babylon.

In short, God tells His people to enact Promised Land life in Babylonian captivity and to engage the Babylonians with grace and mercy.

Talk about a tall order for a marginalized, oppressed people!

Also, in God’s directives, you won’t find instructions to retreat, to become sub-cultural hermits. They weren’t to sit and sulk—longing for the good ol’ days back in the Promised Land. They weren’t to become mean-spirit, violent, and intolerant. They were to navigate the new, strange, unfamiliar, even uncomfortable land with grace and grit.

Truthfully, the Western Church today is like Dorothy in Oz and the Israelites in Babylon. Foreign and unfamiliar describe their environment.

In such environments, there’s a natural inclination to long for home. And that we do. But, I’m not talking about a home in which we go back to. And it’s not a home that is three-clicks-of-the-heel away. Our home is a future City—The New Jerusalem.

While we wait for home, let us as the church of the Living God, the Bride of Christ, live for the peace and prosperity of the unfamiliar, the strange, the one different than us. Doing so will require a posture of humility, a heart of grace, and a mind of understanding. And this is the essence of our podcast, Living in the Land of Oz.

Living in the Land of OZ: Three Ways for the Church to Posture Herself in a Foreign Land

The influence of Christianity upon Western society seemingly has become a past experiment. As the Enlightenment experience failed—failing to eliminate all societal ills and bring about a human utopia—so too has the “Christian Nation” or Christendom failed. As a result, the church has struggled with this shift—and now find herself, in many ways, confused as to her role and posture in a pluralistic, secular, post-Christian, and skeptical environment. In other words, the church in North America has finally realized they are no longer in Kansas but in the land of OZ (or biblically speaking, in Babylon). And now believers and churches across the denominational spectrum are asking the question, “What do we do?” 

Believers and churches across the denominational spectrum are asking the question, What do we do?

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.] Jerusalem had fallen. No longer did Israel experience cultural and national hegemony. Now in captivity, Israel experienced life as a sojourner, alien, and minority. They were marginalized. Obviously, many saw their newfound position as difficult, demoralizing, and depressing.

In response to their newfound foreign environment, 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—sitting and longing for the ‘good ole days’ as they faded into irrelevancy. Second, they could have taken a more antagonistic, resentful, and angry approach, one that was mean-spirited, violent, and intolerant. Second, they could have bashed the Babylonians over the head with the Torah. Third, they could have accommodated the Babylonians—thinking “if we can’t beat ‘em’, join ‘em’.” Or, they had a fourth option—God’s option. They could seek the peace of the city.

Embedded within this Spirit breathed option, there are at least three particular ways the people of God were (and are) called to seek the peace of the pagan land.

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 live here as if they were living there (back at home)—faithfully tilling and cultivating both land and family while they multiplied in the land. Seeking the peace of the foreign land begins by living faithfully as if we are in the homeland. [Keep in mind that for believers today, our “homeland” is the new city where Jesus will have made all things new (Revelation 21).] 

God tells them to live here as if they were living there.

2) Live to bless, not curse. God expresses that His people take up the task of blessing the pagan nation. This is quite remarkable! The people of God were to live as a blessing, praying to the Lord on behalf of the nation as they seek the flourishing of the pagan city. For in the city’s flourishing, God’s people will flourish. While the scope of this article does not permit me the time to dive into the notion of “blessing,” this vision, nevertheless, harkens back to both Genesis 1 where God blesses humanity (Gen 1:28) as well as the prophetic promise God made to Abram, “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Blessing a pluralistic and pagan city means believers will work for and towards the common good in a way to bring flourishing and functionality to every sphere of life.

Blessing a pluralistic and pagan city means believers will work for and towards the common good in a way to bring flourishing and functionality to every sphere of life.

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 work towards transforming Babylon into a theocentric (Jewish) nation. God doesn’t ask them to transform the Babylonian culture and cultural practices to those that more align with the Torah. While change may very well take place, God’s call to His resident aliens was a missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in all areas of their life, as they seek God and the welfare of the pagan city. 

God’s call to His resident aliens was a missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in all areas of their life.

In applying this notion to the cultural context of the church today, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I completely agree that the gospel is transformative; the gospel changes individuals, families, cities, and even nations. To a certain degree God did bring 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.

In neither Testament does God ever assign the task to His people of world change or city transformation—forcing people to believe and behave like the people of God. 

The mission of the church is to witness and make disciples. We witness and make disciples by working as ambassadors for the kingdom of God, serving as agents of blessing for the city, and inviting people to follow Jesus as their King who is in the construction process of making all things new. In sum, we simply share and show the gospel of King Jesus!

The mission of the church is to witness and make disciples.

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 faithful lives reflecting 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. And finally, may we take the posture of faithfulness—faithfully calling people to follow Jesus.