At NYWC 2016, Mark Matlock said “there are three questions youth come to youth group for.
- Can I have sex?
- What happens during the end times?
- Can I have sex during the end times?”
For many of us, eschatology seems like an exciting attention-grabber or a source of tremendous disagreement between Christians. It also seems to have little impact on our faith today. For youth ministry, this is a tragedy. Let me explain why.
While integrating eschatological discussions into your youth group probably won’t create transformative change overnight, it will have three benefits.
- First, it can be useful to youth trying to understand Christianity, because Christianity is fundamentally eschatological.
- Second, it pays off it powerful ways when we talk to our millennial youth about service and mission.
- Third, it helps youth work through doubt.
It accomplishes all of this because our eschatology is our metanarrative. For Christians, eschatology tells you where human history is going. It tells you what really matters, and where your life fits in. These are critical questions for young people, still sorting out their place in the world.
What is Eschatology?
Eschatology, as you probably know, is the study of “the last things.” The most popular (but not most common) Christian eschatology in the USA involves a rapture, a tribulation, and an anti-Christ. Think Left Behind. This system (it’s called Dispensational Premillennialism, if you’re interested) is particularly popular in the United States. It also happens to be the eschatology most common in Christian media, so whether or not your church happens to believe this, it’s probably the system your youth assume.
As you can see in some pop culture eschatologies, eschatology doesn’t necessarily mean the literal end of the physical planet or even the total end of human society. Instead, many eschatologies are a deep reordering of human society. Humans survive the alien invasion implied in The Matrix, and some humans survive the zombie outbreak in The Walking Dead. Humanity exists in whichever dystopian Young Adult fiction your youth are currently reading. However, even though humanity survived, the world has changed dramatically. The old order of things has passed away, and that makes it eschatological.
Why is Eschatology Important?
Eschatology is central to Christianity and Christian theology, even if we don’t think about it very much. If the second coming of Christ (or the first) seem important to you, that is eschatological. Further, most other Christian theologies, such as Christology (the doctrine of Christ) or Salvation are closely related to eschatology. In Mark, the very first thing Jesus says is “the kingdom of God has come near (1:15, NIV).” That is eschatology. Richard Bauckham, an important New Testament scholar, once said that every New Testament scholar agrees the Kingdom of God is at the center of Jesus’ teaching (which is interesting enough, right?). And the Kingdom, of course, is eschatological. If you think the world fundamentally changed at the resurrection…that is eschatology. See what I mean?
Eschatology is important to youth ministry because it gives us a reason to go on missions, regardless of how your church understands “missions.” I believe we go on missions because we are eager for the hope in our eschatology. We are working toward a goal. Now, hang with me here, I want to show you a realistic example. K.P. Yohannan, a famous Indian missionary, once asked “why would I put rice in a man’s belly, only to watch him die and go to hell?” This is a question you and I may not like (or maybe you do!), but it’s a logical question. It’s a question that makes a certain kind of sense to our youth, even though they probably don’t like it either. It’s also an eschatological question and the natural end of Yohannan’s eschatology. Particularly for our millennials, so eager to serve others, the logic of this question is deeply unsettling. Facing these questions head-on helps provide tools to work through certain kinds of doubt.
In the next post in this series, we will see how changing the way we think about eschatology helps with all of these issues. The question is not “which eschatology is correct,” since the important details are present in almost all of our churches. We all agree on the important stuff, the stuff that can give youth hope and vision for their as servants of Jesus. See you next week!
In the next posts in this series, I will offer suggested guidelines for how to help use eschatology in your youth group. Primarily, though, I think this creates a paradigm shift in the way we talk about our faith.
In my experience, this has changed the way I talk about Christianity, and that has paid off tremendously. I recently sat down with former youth, now in college. Hearing them still phrase things the way we did in youth group, answering life’s questions with eschatological hope, gave me confidence this works! Look for more feedback on this in the next two posts.
To get the most out of thinking eschatologically, it is incredibly helpful to see how this unites almost everything Jesus was doing. I think Jesus’ life and ministry, then His death and resurrection, and then the second coming, often feel like 3 random things that don’t relate to each other much. Thinking through eschatology helps sort that out.
It’s helpful to realize that eschatology has dominated discussions of the New Testament (and Jesus in particular) for most of the 20th century. Conservative, Liberal, Catholic or Protestant, these have been huge issues. These blog posts are really just trying to help you get your head around the most helpful parts of those discussions.
- Surprised by Hope, by NT Wright. Wright’s excellent book examines understandings of the resurrection in Judaism around the time of Jesus, which winds up clarifying what the New Testament is talking about (Hint: it’s not just dying and going to heaven). It also emphasizes the parts of eschatology that are more helpful in forming Christian identity in youth. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Zondervan generously shared the first session of the DVD discussion guide to the book on YouTube, and it’s a good introduction.
- Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, Richard Bauckham, which is 100 pages of an academic perspective on Jesus from a respected New Testament scholar. Beyond thinking the gospels are “essentially reliable (which is debatable in some circles),” most of this book isn’t particularly controversial. It’s an excellent introduction to what most Jesus scholars think today.
- Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why It Matters, N.T. Wright, which helps sort through Jesus’ mission, including eschatology.
Stephen Hale is Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church Redondo Beach. He is also Director of International Programs for Inalienable, a non-profit working for the dignity of migrants. He received a BA in Social Sciences from BIOLA, an MA in Theology from Fuller, and is finishing an M.Div from Claremont School of Theology in May (he hopes). You can keep up with him at stephenphale.wordpress.com.