Participating in Hope: The Eschatology of Youth Ministry

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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).[1]

So what is my understanding of eschatology and missional ecclesiology?

Eschatology

The very essence of eschatology is hope.[2] 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.[3]  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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]

Missional Ecclesiology

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] Since the church is the community of hope, it is therefore the primary lens (hermeneutic) of the gospel.[13]

Youth Ministry

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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.

*****

[1] 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.”)

[2] Burnham, Frederic B., Charles S. McCoy, and M Douglas Meeks. 1988. Love : the foundation of hope – the theology of Jürgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988., 5. (Moltmann explains Christian eschatology as having 3 horizons all of which include hope, “(I) it is hope in God for God’s glory; (2) it is hope in God for the new creation of the world; and (3) it is hope in God for the resurrection and eternal life of humanity.”)

[3] Ibid., 8. (“The real and whole Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, therefore, was understood…as the victory of God over death and the victory of heaven over hell and the victory of eternal life over the powers of destruction.”)

[4] Moltmann, Jürgen. “Resurrection as Hope.” Harvard Theological Review 61, no. 02 (1968): 146. (“The hope for such a presence of God can be fulfilled, however, only if the negatives of death, suffering, tears, guilt, and evil have disappeared from reality, that is, in a new creation, which, figuratively speaking, is no longer a mixture of day and night, earth and sea, and in which, ontologically speaking, being and non-being are no longer intertwined.”)

[5] Root, Andrew. Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry. Zondervan, 2013. 58. (Root lays this out well, “…we participate in God’s action by interpreting God’s action with the end in mind, by seeking to discern what God is doing through the lens of the new reality God is bring about.”)

[6] 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.”)

[7] Burnham, Frederic B., Charles S. McCoy, and M Douglas Meeks. 1988. Love : the foundation of hope – the theology of Jürgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988., 5. (Moltmann argues, “Precisely because I hope for the “resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” I must resist the forces of death here and now and love this present life in such a way that I free it from oppression and exploitation wherever I can. And, vice versa, because I love the life of people and, for the sake of God, struggle for justice and freedom, I have this hope – that “death will be swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54); that some day “neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore,” and that God will “make all things new” (Rev 21:5).)

[8] Guder, Darrell L., and Lois Barrett, eds. Missional church: A vision for the sending of the church in North America. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998. 86. (Guder provides an excellent explanation of the church’s missional character. He states that the church’s essence is not just found in history but in the gospel, which is eschatological, “The gospel centered profoundly for Jesus in the announcement that the reign of God is at hand, is eschatological in character. It pulls back the veil on the coming reign of God, thereby revealing the horizon of the world’s future. The gospel portrays the coming of Jesus, and particularly his death and resurrection, as the decisive, truly eschatological event in the world’s history. Therefore a community with origins in the gospel is ‘an eschatological community of salvation.’ As such, it comes from the preaching of the reign of God – the reign of God is its beginning and its foundation.”)

[9] Ibid, 91. (“…a world characterized y peace justice and celebration…the full prosperity of a people of God living under the covenant of God’s demanding care and passionate rule.”)

[10] Ibid, 96. (Guder points out that, “Biblical language about the reign of god also embraces the eschatological tension of God’s reign being a present fact and an anticipated future.”)

[11] Ibid 98-101.

[12] Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a pluralist society. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989. 232. (Newbigin argues that the church “will be a community of hope.” He claims the gospel “offers and understanding of the human situation which makes it possible to be filled with a hope which is both eager and patient even in the most hopeless situations.” He contends that it is only when we truly “indwell” the story of the gospel that “it becomes our real ‘plausibility structure,’ that we are able steadily and confidently to live in this attitude of eager hope.”)

[13] Ibid, 227. (Newbigin points out that the church is the answer to how people know the gospel is credible and states that “the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe and live by it.”)

[14] Root, Andrew. Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry. Zondervan, 2013. 56. (Root points out, “But young people tend to dream of destroying nothingness, of finding an altogether new world. Their vision leads them toward completion and culmination; in other words, it leads them into the eschatological.”)

[15] Ibid, 57. (Root calls this natural adolescent pseudo-eschatological impulse. It is pseudo because, “due to culture and development, this impulse often takes no account of God’s action. It misses that this coming completion, this fulfillment of possibility, has its beginning and end in the action of God.”)

[16] Loder, James Edwin. The logic of the spirit: Human development in theological perspective. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998. 233. (Loder points this out in his explanation of the transfiguration and how it transfigured time and history, and enveloped it into one, as created reality “is taken up in the unreacted reality of the one through whom all things are created.” He observes that adolescents are, “supremely prepared to recognize and attempt to appropriate. The only greater vision or perspective beyond the grandeur of the cosmic order is the vision of the One who made it all, and the unique adolescent, who will not move through this period until she has had that vision, has seen the Face of God…”)

[17] Root, Andrew, and Kenda Creasy Dean. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry. InterVarsity Press, 2011. 211. Dean notes, “What makes youth youth is its wide open sense of possibility, the confidence that death is not on the horizon, the exhilarating assumption that the future is wide open and filled with limitless potential. For Christians, this sense of wide open possibility, the confidence that death poses no threat, that the future is a gift – this is Christ’s promise to all Christians, not just the young ones.”

[18] Ibid, 217. (“Jesus calls us to be a youthful church, not because we are young but because we are his Nothing is more important for a youthful church than developing an eschatological imagination, which allows us to wait with confidence, to name our anxieties without fear, and to make room for new life and new possibilities as Christ works, unseen, to usher us into an unknown future.”)

[19] Root, Andrew. Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry. Zondervan, 2013. 86. (Root notes that it is in participating in resurrection (our future hope) that we actively hope in the coming of God’s completed mission, “Therefore, the way we participate in the resurrection is not through effort, not even through our well-intentioned efforts to make a difference. We participate in the resurrection through promise and hope…we help where help is needed…as a way of hoping in what will be, anticipating what God is doing.”)

[20] Guder, Darrell L. The continuing conversion of the church. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. 68. (Guder claims that witness is ecclesiological, that the church is a community that witnesses to the reign of God and invites others to do so. He argues that, “Individual Christian existence is only possible and meaningful within such a community. The life of the community is the primary form of its witness, and it is also the equipper and supporter of each individual Christian in the practice of his or her vocation as witnesses for Christ.)

COMMENTS


Rich Jones3:39 pm

Nice article. Worth reading for you youth ministry types!

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