I've A Feeling We're Not In Kansas Anymore: 2016 ND LWML Convention Mission Message

The following is a lecture/message at the 2016 North Dakota Lutheran Women Missionary League Convention in Jamestown, ND.  

In 1939 the world was introduced to a musical fantasy film titled, "The Wizard of Oz." In this film the main character, Dorothy, finds herself trapped in a massive Kansas tornado. As a result she is struck in the head and knocked unconscious. While being unconscious she dreams that this immense Kansas tornado grabs a hold of her house, spins it around and mysteriously transports her to the magical Land of Oz.

Soon after arriving to this new magical Land of Oz, Dorothy utters the now famous, often-quoted words (and often misquoted), “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” 

Over the last several decades the Christian church in America has been finding itself identifying with Dorothy as well.  Somewhere along the line, we too were wrapped up in a tornado-like storm and somehow transported to another culture.  It is true; as we gaze out of the front doors of the church we come face-to-face with an environment that is unfamiliar, different, and frankly at times overwhelming.  This change in our cultural landscape is of seismic proportions, in which every area of society has been changed.  Like Dorothy, we’ve got a feeling that we are no longer in the America that we once knew so well.  Like Dorothy, the Christian church has recently been saying, “I’ve a feeling that we’re not in a Christian culture anymore.”  We are truly in a new land – we are not in Kansas anymore. 

As many of you already know, at one time the Christian church was in a cultural majority position; the church was very influential in society.  In other words, the church was embraced and supported by culture. This resulted in a society that understood the basics of the Christian story. Words like ‘grace, atonement, and Trinity’ were understood in a Biblical context. Most people understood the fundamentals of Christianity, even if they did not attend church. In evangelism, many non-Christians comprehended the basics of Christianity which granted a common platform of language and a common context for the gospel to be delivered. Furthermore, people inside and outside of the church would seek out the pastor for assistance with input in life’s issues and the church was historically placed at the center of the city with its steeple rising above the trees, so that the cross could cover the roof tops of houses. Overall there was a uniform and common foundation for understanding life. In spiritual conversations you could begin with the assumption that those around you understood basic Biblical phrases and terms.  Yes, in the past there was a common ground and a relatively uniform worldview in America.  For the most part there was also a fairly consistent Godly ethic in the culture.

With this said, there is no doubt about it that Christianity has enjoyed a relatively smooth ride these last two centuries here in the good ol’ USA.  Christians and even Pagans have tipped their hats to Pastors, Sundays have been respected with Blue Laws, and tax exemptions have been given to churches. We Christians have had it easy.  Otherwise stated, over the last two centuries a person could be a Christian and not really have to suffer any consequences from the state or from pagans in society.  To be a Christian these last two hundred years really has not cost anything.  No suffering; no persecution; no mocking; no attacks; and no government fines or law suits.   

In the last several decades though, all of this has changed.  We are no longer in Kansas; we are no longer in a Christianized culture.  We are in a different land – it is not the magical Land of Oz, but like Oz, it is different from what we have known. 

In this new land – this new culture – we have seen dramatic changes as prayer has been removed from school, the Ten Commandments removed from courthouses, and the name of God stricken from the public sphere.  Abortion is now a right, same-sex marriage is now the norm, and gender distinctions are no longer relevant and are deemed by some as oppressive.  Instead of being respected, Christians are now labeled bigots and haters, with lawsuits and government mandates stomping on religious freedom.  Right before our eyes, the church and Christianity have been kicked out of the public sphere, shamed, and labeled.  This has resulted in a Christian voice that is often not heard, sought out, nor respected.  Furthermore, the Christian story has been lost in our culture and words like ‘grace, atonement, and Trinity,’ conjure up thoughts of perfume, a recent Academy Award winning movie, and a female science fiction character, rather than Biblical terms.     

We not only see this shift in the church’s place in society, but we also see a shift in the way that people think and process the world and understand truth. We have entered into a new land and a new culture; we are no longer living in a world familiar to the way Christians have known it to be for the last two centuries.  In the words of Dorothy, “We are no longer in Kansas.”  We are no longer in a Christian culture.

At this point, it would be easy for you and me to close our eyes, click our heals and whisper with a hopeful determination, “There is no place like home, there is no place like home, there is no place like home…” only to open our eyes and see that we are not back in a Christianized culture, but still in this new culture we find ourselves in. Yes, it is easy to have a homesick feeling as we find ourselves looking backwards to the good ol’ days, longing and reaching back for the days when the church was respected, honored, and held in a majority position in culture. With that said though, it is imperative for us to recognize the reality that this new culture is here and I believe that it is here to stay. We might be in the Land of Oz for quite some time!

To our surprise, many in the American church have already accepted the reality of this new culture that we find ourselves in.  Like us, they have survived the wild tornado – the transition into this new culture.   These individuals though have stepped out of the spinning house into this new land to explore.  However, instead of clicking their heels longing for the good ol’ days, they have decided to be hopeful optimists and engage this new culture.  For example, in the 1990s a movement began that was called the Church Growth Movement.  It was a movement that enticed me as a young Christian, as well as many pastors across our country.  This movement was an attractional model of ministry that was designed to entice people in the culture to come into the church.  The Church Growth movement encouraged churches to mimic the culture – to bring the Land of Oz into the walls of the church in order to entice people to come and join the church. As a result churches created all sorts of ministry programs based upon demographical groups; altars were stripped out of churches and replaced with stages, lights, and praise bands.  Narthexes were redecorated to look like Starbucks and some Narthexes even were equipped with rock climbing walls. Bouncy castles were also blown up outside the church for children.  Free food was given away and televisions were raffled away.  Crosses and religious art were removed from inside churches… the list goes on and on, but you get the picture.  Churches that did not want to adapt their churches to look like the Land of Oz; well… they were accused of being behind the times, irrelevant, not loving, and not caring about reaching the new culture.

About a decade later, in the early 2000s, another movement came about called the Emergent Church Movement.  This movement told young pastors like me that it was no longer important to try and adapt the inside of the church to look like the Land of Oz, but rather, it was mandated that the people needed to leave the walls of the church and go out into the Land of Oz – to be missional.  In other words, according to this movement, it was no longer important to attract people into the church, but rather, it was important to kick people out of the church.   As a result of this movement, the office of pastor, doctrine, and sermons were downplayed.  Deeds were demanded, not creeds.  If the church was to grow, it was not enough to simply invite people to come to the church to hear the Word of God, but the church needed to be involved in all sorts of projects and deeds in the community.  As a result, church services were canceled on Sundays and parishioners would venture out into the community to rake leaves or clean up garbage in ditches, in order to make a difference and somehow grow the church by proving to the world that Christians were needed and relevant.  

While the original intentions of these movements may have been honorable and while there is much that we can commend about these attempts to engage our new culture, we must confess that after 25 years, these two movements have had little impact on the attendance and membership numbers of the church.  That is to say, they have been ineffective at ministering to and into the new culture we find ourselves in.  In fact there is considerable evidence that these two movements have actually hindered the Word of God – that they have not only failed to evangelize our culture but have wounded and destroyed those already in the church. 

Indeed, the church over the last several decades has essentially failed to engage and reach the new culture we find ourselves in.  The work of these two movements has not resulted in a mass movement of people from the Land of Oz into the church.  Statistically speaking the church in the United States of America has essentially been playing musical chairs, shuffling people from one church to another, while the decline in membership continues.  The cold hard truth is that, statistically speaking, the Church Growth and Emerging Missional movements have had little impact on the attendance and membership numbers of the Church.  This is true across America and it is true for us here in North Dakota as well.

Soberly stated, what we have seen is not an increase in attendance over the last several decades or successful engagements of our new culture, but rather, we have seen a culture that has become more and more hostile to the church. 

Consider Dorothy again.  As she left her house and journeyed on the yellow brick road throughout the Land of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West took notice.  That is right, when Dorothy Gale and her companions set out on their great adventure, the Witch attacked them with a pack of 40 great wolves, a flock of 40 crows, a swarm of black bees, and a group of Winkie slaves.  What I mean to say is that, more often than not, as the church ventures out into the Land of Oz – this new pagan landscape – the church should learn to expect persecution and hardship.  To the point, I believe that evangelism in this next century will not be marked with loud euphoric numerical growth, but will be marked with a quiet persecuted growth. 

While this may be disheartening for us to hear, this is nothing new though.  In fact, Jesus in the Gospels tells us over and over again that whoever confesses Christ freely will not have paradise here in this present life, but persecution and hardship.  That is right, what we have experienced in America for the last two centuries is not the standard, but the exception.  In other words, being a Christian typically does not include roses and quiet walks on the beach, but rather, includes a thorny cross and suffering.

Dear friends, consider Jesus for a moment.  After His birth, King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to slaughter children in order to exterminate the Christ-child.  Years later, as Jesus began His ministry, He told the religious leaders about their sins and as a result they began to hate Him, plot against Him, and eventually killed Him.  With an unjust trial they convicted Him to death.  What harm did Jesus do to the world?  Nothing at all, except point out the reality of sin and then speak truth into ears!  However, the world would not have this and repaid Him with fierce wrath, bitter hatred, and death on a cross.  The world and the devil hated Christ, for the darkness shrieks at the light.

Considering this, if this is true of Jesus, will it not also be true of His Apostles and if it is true of His blessed Apostles, shall it not also be true of His disciples like me and you?

With all of this stated, is all hope lost for us Christians then?  Is all hope lost for North Dakota Missions?  Is all hope lost for North Dakota church planting? Is all hope lost for North Dakota LWML?  Should we just close up shop and go into hiding now, when we still have a chance?  Should we remove our websites, stop publishing our sermons online, quit having public Divine Services, put our pastors into a witness protection plan, discontinue the Lutheran Quarterly, and dismantle our church buildings in order to sell them off as spare building parts?  By no means!  Christ Jesus is indeed a stumbling block and the world will come against Jesus and His disciples; however, nowhere in scripture do we read that Christ and His followers will be overturned.  Sure the kingdom of darkness and those blinded by darkness will attack and persecute and slander and hiss at Christ and His church, but they will do so in vain!  Do not fear dear sisters and do not fret, Jesus has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His mighty fortress – His church.  The Holy Spirit through the Word is our Comforter against terror, our Truth against lies, and our Witness against tyranny.  We are not alone.  We – the church – are the bride of Christ and Christ protects His bride, the church!  No matter how bad it gets, we will not be abandoned.

Therefore, let the world anger, the devil spread his fear, and the world burn with fury, for they cannot overcome Christ and His church.  Let the Wicked Witch cackle; let the great wolves howl, let the crows caw, and the Winkie slaves grumble, for they are all defeated foes.  You are safe in the ark of Christ’s church, where we are all sustained by the Lord’s Word and Sacraments, despite the raging threats of chaos around us.

What does this mean though in regard to North Dakota Missions?  This is the part where I should offer a solution, assurance, or a list of ways to deal with the struggle before us.  What are we to do with this Land of Oz outside our church doors?  In all reality, I believe the solution is quite simple; it is found in the heartbeat of our Lutheran theology.  It is the Word and Sacraments.  Yes, it is the Word and Sacraments. 

Consider this for a moment.  The people that are in this new culture – what we call this Land of Oz – do not need to move to Kansas first to get Jesus (figuratively speaking). The church also does not need to become like Oz to give Jesus and His gifts.  It is not about Kansas or Oz.  It is not about culture, it is about Jesus.  It is about Christ-crucified.  It is about the message of the Gospel.  It is about the forgiveness of sins for us, for our neighbor, for North Dakota, and for the world.  It is about the proclamation of the Word of God and the ministry of the Sacraments. 

Blessed baptized saints, the fight that we find ourselves in is not to get back to Kansas or attempting to become like the new Land of Oz, but to faithfully receive, confess, and proclaim Christ-crucified. 

Simply stated, it is all about the Word and Sacraments – it always has been and it always will be regardless of the culture or age that we find ourselves in.  Nothing changes!  The reason why?  The Lord is the one who converts souls and grows the church through the Word and Sacraments – that is the way that it has always been.  He uses us when and where He pleases to confess and proclaim and plant the Gospel seed.  And as we confess this Gospel we do so knowing that the Gospel does the work.  It will not return void.

Therefore, Baptized Saints, be confident, it is about the Holy Spirit through the sure Word of God for you and for North Dakota.  The same Gospel Word that has called you, granted you faith, enlightened you, sanctified you, and kept you in the true faith is the same Gospel Word that is needed for our neighbors – those in the Land of Oz. 

Baptized Saints, do not let your ears be tickled or distracted by the gimmicks of mankind, it is not about these things, but about Jesus and His gifts.

Baptized Saints, stand firm and do not fear the Land of Oz or the Wicked Witch – do not fear the evil foe.  But rather, with your pastor and local church, receive and confess Christ-crucified for the forgiveness of sins in season and out of season.  With your pastor and local church, receive and confess Christ-crucified whether the church grows or declines, whether we are persecuted or embraced.  With your pastor and local church, receive and confess Christ-crucified when it is popular and when it is not, when it is politically correct and when it is politically incorrect.  Indeed, with your pastor and local church, receive and confess, Christ who is for you and for North Dakota.

In the month and years to come, as North Dakotans, the devil and the world may attack us, but they will not overcome us as Baptized Saints.  We might die, but we will not fall away.  The Lord keeps His own.  Jesus did not die in vain and will not give up on you and me.  He will not let the devil and the world stand between you and Him.  He is with you to the very end of the age, regardless of the season of life we find ourselves in.  Whether the church is favored or scorned, it does not matter, for the Lord does not change and does not bow to the kingdom of darkness. 

Furthermore, as a part of North Dakota Missions let us plant churches and revitalize churches by God’s grace, as we confess together that death has been slain, that hell has been shattered, that sin has been blotted out, that God’s wrath has been taken away, that heaven has been opened, that all who are baptized are heirs of eternal life, and that this message is for us and for our fellow neighbors to receive. 

And finally, as the Lord grants us His grace to live and be in this new culture, know that you have received a heart like the Tin Man (A New Heart); a brain like the Scarecrow (the Wisdom of Christ); and courage like the Lion (The Lord will fight for you).

Women of North Dakota LWML and friends may the Holy Spirit, through the power of the Word, compel, teach, and guide all of you in this unchartered territory to receive and confess Jesus in the fullness of His forgiveness of sin and healing grace, because Dorothy was right, there is no place like “home.”


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