Anne never could get used to the smell. An odd combination of smoke, animal feces, dust, and sweat, the odor hung in the air everywhere she went in this African village where her daughter and son-in-law lived. “About halfway through the trip, I thought I was going to lose it. I just couldn’t take it any longer,” she said. “Of course, no matter how much I complained nothing changed.” Her daughter hardly noticed the smell. When Anne would say something about the odor, Jennifer would take a halfhearted sniff in the air and say something like, “Oh, you get used to it after a while.”
Anne’s husband, Leroy, hated the altitude. He had thought he was in decent enough shape for a fifty-year-old man. Then he stepped off the plane in Addis Ababa in the high plateau region of Africa. The elevation sucked the wind out of him. Every few minutes an aching in his chest forced him to stop to catch his breath. “I was ready to go home after about two days,” he said.
Then there were the African children, each of whom seemed in desperate need of a tissue with which to blow his nose. “But,” said Anne, “all the Kleenex in the world wouldn’t have done any good. With so much dust blowing everywhere, I don’t understand how anyone could ever breathe normally.” A photo of the children with Anne shows them huddled around her, each one doing their best to hug her while others clung to her hands.
Anne and Leroy learned about their limitations during their two-week stay in Ethiopia. They discovered how American they truly are. Everything from the food to the language to the poverty of east Africa overwhelmed them.
“I hoped we could work with Jennifer and Adrian while we were there. I thought there must be something we could do,” Anne said. “But most of the time I felt like I was in the way. Almost everything I felt that I should do was wrong, from the way I talked to the people to the gifts I wanted to hand out. I thought I was being compassionate by giving candy to the children. Adrian told me I wasn’t doing any of them any favors.” She paused. “I thought I knew what to expect over there, but I didn’t have a clue. It truly is a completely different world.”
Anne and Leroy climbed aboard a 747 that became like a time machine, transporting them to a world that has barely changed over a thousand years. Another sort of time warp has changed your life and mine. Without climbing aboard an airplane, we’ve been transported to a different culture than the one in which we grew up. One morning we woke in a world not locked in the past, but in the future. No one is really sure what to call this place.
Even the most popular categorization, postmodernism, says more about what this world isn’t than what it is.
Nothing looks familiar here, and the moment we think that we have our bearings, the world changes again.
Marketing expert George Barna has said that every three to five years this culture completely reinvents itself, with the process compressing with each passing cycle.1 It appears that all of the foundations of the past have crumbled.
In this strange new world, even the definition of the word is is in question.
The new world assaults our senses, especially our sense of right and wrong. Personal ethics are just that, personal. Most of the natives of this land gave up the concept of transcendent, eternal truth long ago. Like beauty, truth is in the eye of the beholder—a matter of taste, not absolutes. “Does it work for me?” is the question of the day, not “Is this right, ethical, or moral?” Being true to oneself is the highest good and ultimate virtue.
That’s not all that makes us uncomfortable in this world. The people here—they seem different. Some of their ideas leave us baffled. Natives of this land value experience the way that earlier generations valued material wealth. Because of this, many people live in a state of perpetual boredom. We try to tell them that there’s more to life than being entertained, but they don’t listen. Most of us wonder if they listen to anyone. They aren’t swayed by the opinion of experts. To the natives of this postmodern world, the experts might as well be dead.
Everything around us has changed. The new world swallowed our old world, leaving us dazed, confused, isolated—and most of us want to find a way home. We feel a little like Dorothy on the day when she stepped out of the scenery of the black-and-white farmhouse and entered the Technicolor world of Oz. If only we could click our heels and wake up in our own bed in our own little Kansas, we would feel much better. That’s how Anne and Leroy felt during their two-week stay in the African bush. It was a nice place to visit, but . . .
Anne and Leroy could go home. We don’t have that option. For those of us old enough to remember watching Neil Armstrong stepping down onto the lunar surface, that world where we grew up no longer exists. There is no going home.
Either we can continue to be a stranger in a strange land, or we can adjust. We can whine and complain and wish that the good old days would return, or we can accept the fact that God knows what He is doing, roll up our sleeves, and carry on His work in this world and this culture that He has allowed to flourish.
The only real difference between Anne and Leroy and their daughter’s family was a sense of call. Adrian and Jennifer didn’t step off the airplane and find life in the bush a particularly pleasant experience. The poverty of the people, both materially and spiritually, broke their hearts. But leaving Africa has never been an option for Adrian and Jennifer. They committed themselves to making whatever adjustments necessary to become effective ambassadors of Christ to the people of Yasow because God called them there.
I don’t know if I ever heard God call me to reach out to natives of the postmodern culture. He did something much more subtle. Without my knowledge and without my consent, He planted me in the postmodern world. The new world is now my home, and yours. By sticking us here God gave us a job to do. Whether we like it or not, we’re now ambassadors of Christ to this world. We are, in the truest sense of the word, on a mission to a postmodern Oz.
In the pages that follow we will explore this new world. We will look around at the landscape, get to know the people, and take the initial steps to learn the language. Don’t worry if you feel a little overwhelmed and homesick. Culture shock hits all missionaries no matter where they serve. We not only have to learn how to understand the people around us, but we must also unlearn many of the presuppositions of the modern world that only handicap us in the postmodern world and beyond.
Understanding the culture is only the first step toward impacting it with eternal truth. As we try to come to grips with the change that surrounds us, we must move out of the safety of the familiar. Don’t worry. It isn’t as difficult as it may seem. All of us, regardless of our age, have been affected by the shift from modernity to postmodernity.
There’s a little postmodern in all of us. Reaching the natives of Oz isn’t a matter of trying to be something you aren’t. On the contrary: Authenticity is the key to effectiveness in Oz.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited about what is ahead. God is at work here. The massive shift in our culture didn’t take Him by surprise. He has now placed you and me in a new world filled with new challenges and new possibilities.
Once we recover from the initial shock, we will discover that there is no better place to fulfill His mission.