Editor’s Note: This article stems from the author’s final paper in Theological Foundations for Youth Ministry, a graduate course offered through the Center for Youth Ministry Training and Memphis Theological Seminary, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky.
by Andrew Mochrie
I imagine youth ministry as ministry that invites teenagers to hope. This hope is not a lofty, intangible hope, but one that is participatory. I imagine that through participation in hope teenagers begin to embody and live out the reality of hope. That reality is that the world as it is isn’t the end of the story and they have a role to play. Their role is for them to be uniquely and fully who they are called to be as they participate in hope. It is through participation in hope that they become a sign of hope for those around them. This is the eschatological task of youth ministry, which is best carried out in a missional ecclesiology.
A missional ecclesiology has become a lens for my vision for youth ministry, and more recently eschatology has grafted itself into that lens. I believe youth ministry exists to proclaim the gospel to a specific cultural group: adolescents. The question then arises, what is the gospel? The gospel is the good news that God has won, is winning, and will win, that evil has lost, is losing, and will lose (eschatology). A community, the church, proclaims the gospel because the church is called to be the representation of the gospel (ecclesiology).
So what is my understanding of eschatology and missional ecclesiology?
The very essence of eschatology is hope. We place our hope in Jesus because it is in Jesus that God’s mission is complete. Jesus embodies hope because in him we find the victory of God, the death of death. We no longer need to fear evil because evil is conquered, it does not have the last word but God does. Therefore, because evil is defeated, God has the final word, and death is vanquished, we have hope. It is hope because the ways of death and evil we see in the world today will not be so in the future but is present today. This is where eschatological hope gets a bit messy. It is a future hope, which was won in the past, yet can only be tasted, not fully experienced, in the present. It is what God has done, is doing, and is yet to do. That is why evil has lost, is losing, and will lose in the future.
God’s mission has been completed in Christ; therefore, the past aspect of eschatology is easy to make sense of, but this is not the place we reside. Nor do we reside in the future where God’s mission is experienced in its completion. No, it is the “in-betweeness” or “not-yetness” that we reside. We live and move in a state of complete but not yet. The task of doing eschatology is the task of bringing the hope of God’s completeness into our “not-yetness.” We can experience and participate in God’s completed work in the present, but it is only that, an experience or a taste of what is yet to come. All we need to do is look around in the world and know that God’s work is yet to be complete, because remember, God has vanquished death and evil. It is in participating in God’s future in our present that we experience and witness the hope of what is yet to come, and we become a sign to others of the future coming, yet present in-breaking, of God’s reign.
What does it look like to participate in hope? I believe it means to participate in the very things that represent the reign of God. Where there is death we bring life, where suffering, comfort, where chaos, peace, where oppression, freedom, and the list could continue. Why do we do this, because in the participation of the things of God we are doing eschatology, we say no to death and nothingness and yes to God’s transformation of those things into freedom and love. It is in participation that we acknowledge the two sides of eschatology, personal and universal. We have a personal faith in Jesus, and because we have faith in Jesus we hope for the ways of Jesus here and now, which is why we participate in the bringing of those things. Though we can only partially bring those things to the here and now, it still matters. What we do with our lives in the present matters precisely because we have a future hope.
This participation in hope is best done in the framework of a missional ecclesiology. A missional ecclesiology finds its foundation in the gospel, which it defines as Jesus’ announcement that the reign of God is at hand, breaking into the world around us. A missional ecclesiology is thus eschatological in nature, proclaiming that God’s mission is complete, yet breaking in, and yet to be experienced in its fullness. This announcement is found in the community of faith, in the church. As the church we are called to be a sign and a foretaste of God’s coming reign. What is the reign of God? The reign of God is God’s peace, God’s shalom. The reign of God is an eschatological event, an event of hope. We see this in the nature of God’s reign, it is a gift that is has been given, is being received, and will be inherited. This gift was given in Christ life, death, and resurrection. This gift is being received in faith daily, and it will be inherited in fullness on that final day.
Just because the church finds its foundation in the gospel, the reign of God, how does that allow it to be an agent of eschatology? That is simple, because the church finds its foundation in the reign of God, the gospel, means that it is best equipped to be the representative. It is not the reign of God, but a sign and foretaste of God’s reign. The church points away from itself to something else; what God has done, is doing, and will do. The church is thus a community of hope precisely because it points away from itself to God’s in-breaking reign, which was ushered in by Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection. Since the church is the community of hope, it is therefore the primary lens (hermeneutic) of the gospel.
The question now is, “Why does this matter at all in youth ministry?” First of all adolescents are naturally eschatological. In other words hope comes naturally for a teenager. They naturally seek hope in the midst of this chaotic world of schedules, school, family, and friends, not to mention threats of terrorism, economic downfall, and death. They hope for a better world and we do not need to snuff that out but help them navigate towards true hope, one that eliminates the powers of evil and death. For it is in that hope they seek possibility of new life, the very new life that is offered in Christ, though they might not articulate it that way.
We need to be cognizant that adolescents reside in an insecure world with an insecure future. It is here that the church can confidently proclaim a future that is secure. It is because of the eschatological character of the church that the church can be a place where adolescents find a powerful and life changing hope, the eschatological hope offered in Christ. The church then becomes the place where, as a community, we imagine a future without pain and fear, without the threat of death and nothingness. Instead we imagine a future full of promise and life, a future only God can promise, and we live as if this future promise is already fulfilled, because it is.
Youth ministry grounded in eschatology within the framework of a missional ecclesiology moves away from consuming hope but to participating in hope. Youth ministry becomes a place where teenagers learn how and to practice participating in hope. We participate in hope with them, not because we can change anything but because God can and we, as a sign and foretaste, can witness to God’s reign, here and in the future. Adolescents learn this best within the church, which is best prepared to equip others for witness to the in-breaking and coming reign of God. Adolescents learn how to do this through incorporation into the life of the body of Christ. They become full participants in the life of the church and the church’s ministries. They learn how to participate in God’s reign and how to see their story, true self, through the lens of God’s story. They learn to see their lives eschatologically, they see through the lens of hope.
In the Local Church
To wrap it all up, what does this mean for the youth ministry in which I serve? I serve in a traditional, mainline, typical small-town church. Our congregation is very wealthy and consists of the more elite members of our community: engineers, judges, lawyers, business owners, and doctors. The church is a downtown, off the square church; city hall is a stone’s throw away. That being said we are close to both low-income government housing and wealthy aristocratic members of the community.
A youth ministry grounded in eschatology within a missional framework has led us into both the wealthy sector of our community as well as the low-income. We are moving toward being present with all ethnicities in the community and all socio-economic backgrounds. Not only that but we are incorporating the entire church in this movement. We make the eschatological announcement with our presence, that though the world says we are different (ethnically and socio-economically) in the Kingdom of God, we are one in Christ, same status, same future. We make this eschatological announcement as a body of Christ, not just a youth ministry. Teenagers, adults, and children practice this together, not separately. All are in ministry with and for each other. Because we are witnesses to the reign of God we witness to and with all people for all are welcome no matter what background they come from. We frame acts of service and Christian practices (Eucharist, worship, etc.) eschatologically, as a way of practicing the hope of Christ, the confident hope of life and the defeat of death.
This isn’t happening completely this way, but it has begun, the wheels are in motion. I’ve mentioned that a contemplative-interpretive blending is, I feel, the best way to communicate the gospel. I would add a third, a community of faith. I say blending because I don’t envision us eliminating youth group, mainly because we are the go-to youth ministry for many smaller mainline churches in the area. If the church, as Lesslie Newbigin claims, is the primary hermeneutic of the gospel, then the youth ministry should come from the church, launched into the world as witnesses to the eschatological hope of Christ.
The youth ministry practices hope with the entire congregation, not just alone on youth mission trips and summer camps. Because of being grounded in eschatology within the framework of a missional ecclesiology, our youth ministry must be launched from and with the congregation of the local church into the community to witness to God’s reign. We participate in hope together in order to witness to its past, present, and future reality that life and possibility have won, is winning, and will win, that death and nothingness have lost, are losing, and will lose. The youth ministry alongside the congregation invites teenagers to hope through the practice of hope together.
 Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a pluralist society. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989. 152. (Newbigin phrases it this way, “I am thus again stressing the priority of the gospel as the message, embodied in an actual story, of what God has in fact done, is doing, and will do. Christian theology is a form of rational discourse developed within the community which accepts the primacy of this story and seeks actively to live in the world in accordance with the story.”)
 Ibid, 57. (“Eschatology is the study of the last things, but at its core is the hope that God will move to bring forth ultimate possibility next to what feels like ultimate nothingness. To study eschatology is to seek the promise that God is acting to transform possibility into an actuality of love and peace, a reality in which the nothingness that seems always to be threatening us is eliminated forevermore.”)