Youth Ministry’s Eschatology Problem

Youth Ministry’s Eschatology Problem May 11, 2016

Image by Jack Dorsey
Image by Jack Dorsey

Youth ministry has always been a place in the church for creativity and innovation. Kenda Creasy Dean has sometimes called it the “Research and Development Department” of the church. Perhaps it’s because youth workers are often a bit younger and less experienced than their Senior Pastors, so they don’t know any better. Or perhaps it’s because young people in the church are sometimes a little less attached to their traditions. But youth ministry in the U.S. has always been marked by a certain hopefulness and optimism. We’re convinced that the world still CAN be changed and we can be a part of it. We’re all about possibility. This is especially true for “progressive” youth ministry. Youth ministry is all about progress and development. But this is where I think we may have an eschatology problem in youth ministry.

Yeah, that’s right. An eschatology problem.

Eschatology, in Christian theology, is essentially the study of our “ends” or, more precisely, “the end.” What’s all this leading toward? What’s the point of what we’re doing? If we answer this question for youth ministry, we’ll have to say something like, “youth ministry is about developing adolescents toward mature Christian adulthood” or “youth ministry’s end is to change the church, to change the world.” Think of your own answer but, more than likely, the answer will have something to do with development or progress. We want to get better.

But Christian eschatology is not the same thing as progress. Eschatology is not development and it doesn’t insist on possibility. Christian hope is not optimistic about what we can do if we try. Instead, Christian hope looks to the coming of God and it expects God’s future, even in the unredeemed present, even in impossibility. As Jürgen Moltmann writes, “It is not out of the possibilities which we possess, but in the impossible situation which confronts us, that the new shows itself as God’s creative act… When all hopes have died, there comes the wave of the future like a spirit of resurrection into the dead bones (Ezek. 37), creating hope against hope” (Moltmann, Religion, Revolution, and the Future, p. 9).

For Moltmann, the real alternative to “progress” is “Adventus,” or Advent (See Moltmann, The Coming of God, p. 25). It is not about the becoming of the world, but God’s coming into the world. This Adventus depends on no possibility or potentiality from the present but meets it with grace and hope. This means that we can expect to find God even where there is no potential at all (like a broken body and shed blood). This means we don’t have to fear impossibility. We can “call a thing what it is” (to borrow Martin Luther’s phrase). We don’t have to struggle to see the “silver lining” or insist on possibility where there really isn’t any. What we expect is not a renovation, but a resurrection…of what’s actually dead.

What does this mean specifically for youth ministry?

It doesn’t mean we should be any less creative. In fact, we must be creative! But we can direct our creative energies in a different direction. Instead of working so hard to develop the present into the future, we can be creative in discerning where God is already active. Lemme tell you, it takes some creativity to see God’s future in the lives of the kids who don’t want what we’re selling. The real “progress,” the real ministry is not in developing mature Christian adults. It’s in relationally participating in the lived experience of young people just as they are. It’s in seeing their lived experience as the very location for divine encounter.

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