Youth ministry isn’t about helping young people create a successful future but about standing with them, waiting for the fullness of God’s action. A youth ministry scholar and author of "The Relational Pastor" reflects on Advent, eschatology and young people.
Editor’s note: Parts of this essay are adapted from the author’s book “Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry.”
“Waiting sucks!” I thought every Christmas Eve as a child.
How couldn’t I? I had waited through a long day, a tedious Christmas Eve church service, dinner at my grandparents’ with all my cousins, dessert and, finally -- pushing me to the breaking point -- the doing of the dishes.
It was torture to watch my grandmother dry each plate, each glass and cup, while a pile of wrapped presents, several bearing my name, sat in the other room.
“Hurry!” I’d beg.
“Just wait, Andy,” my grandma would respond. “Just wait.”
“Waiting sucks!” I’d mutter as I walked away, always careful to say it just loud enough that she couldn’t hear it. “Waiting sucks!”
Adolescence, too, is a time of waiting, a time when a young person is no longer a child but still needs to wait to be an adult. Some scholars, like psychologist Robert Epstein, have argued that many of the problems teenagers often experience -- problems like depression, vandalism, anger and, most importantly for our purposes, apathy -- are due to the nature of adolescence itself.
Epstein believes that being an adolescent is innately frustrating. Your body tells you you’re ready for adulthood, but society continues to shout, “Wait! Just wait.”
Futurum vs. adventus
Those conflicting messages -- and the inherent frustrations that follow -- are rooted in the way in which we orient ourselves to the future. Jürgen Moltmann notes in “The Coming of God,” that European languages generally have two ways of talking about what lies ahead: “Futurum means what will be; adventus means what is coming.”
Adolescence today is captured in futurum -- in the notion that the future is bound in the present, determined by what we do now.
If apathy sets in when our passion for the future is miscarried -- and it does -- then it is no wonder so many teenagers are apathetic. Young people today are often overwhelmed by everything they feel they must do to have a good and enjoyable future.
Many, especially in the middle class, have swallowed the false eschatology that says they must be busy now so they can be successful down the line. They must be busy with SAT prep so they can get a good job in the future, busy with basketball camp so they can make varsity in the future, busy going on summer short-term mission trips so they can put it on their college applications in the future.
The young people whom teachers, parents and pastors tend to like best are those who care about their future, those who plan and live for it. We like these young people because we often wear the same glasses of false eschatology. We affirm them for assimilating the false eschatology that says, “The future is yours.”
“If you just get your ducks in a row now and mitigate risk, your future can be a bright and successful one,” we tell them. “And if your individual future is successful and happy, you’ll be fulfilled.”
But any future orientation that is all about you, that sees the future in terms of your future, has a way of heightening concern about whether the happiness or success you achieve can last.
There is no rest in futurum. To be future-oriented is to stand in the now as you prepare through your own actions for your tomorrows. In future orientation, “waiting sucks,” because it delays (self-)fulfillment and gratification.
Another kind of waiting
But there is a different kind of waiting, a deeper waiting that can’t be satisfied by our actions or achieved by our preparation. It’s the waiting of adventus, of Advent -- the time when the church remembers that it waits, and waits in the darkness for the light of the world to come. It’s when we remember that our very being is as those who await the coming of our Lord. Though we sit in the present, we bend our necks toward God’s coming. We are the waiting people of Advent.
When Lazarus steps from the cave in John 11, it’s a sign of Advent. Lazarus is a dead man walking. The Gospel of John declares, “The dead man came out” (John 11:44), revealing how Lazarus now lives as a man between the times. His resurrection is not bound by the future but by God’s coming, God’s advent.
Advent is the dawning of God’s action, action located in the new world God is bringing forth, where death and sin have no place. Jesus resurrects Lazarus as a witness to God’s own future, which comes only through God’s own action.
Until Jesus calls him forth, Lazarus has no future; his present has given way to death, the end of all possibilities. But when God acts, when Jesus calls, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43), Lazarus witnesses to the reality of God’s own future, in which nothingness is overcome, and the advent of God takes on death for the sake of life.
Lazarus continues to wear the marks of a world in which time moves from yesterday to today to tomorrow. He has died. But when Jesus acts, Lazarus becomes a sign of the advent of God’s future, which doesn’t bow to the progression of time.
Rather, this God who raises Lazarus moves from completion into barrenness, from the eschaton into our time. Lazarus still wears the scars of death and will have to die again, but in his raising, he witnesses to God’s coming when death is overcome.
Youth ministry and waiting
Too often, youth ministry functions outside a spirit of Advent and instead operates in a sense of futurum, a belief that the future depends on us and impinges on us, prompting us also to say, “Waiting sucks.”
This has big ramifications. It causes us to have almost no Advent vision in youth ministry. Without an Advent vision, we tend to think that things are static and can be completed -- often through our own action.
So when a high school girl who became a believer after a talk six months ago falls back into old patterns of destructive behavior, we get depressed. We had imagined that once she became a believer, the task would be complete. We had assumed that once her faith had been resurrected from unbelief, it would never have to die again. But this is confusing Lazarus’ raising and Jesus’ resurrection.
We tell young people that if they invite Jesus into their lives, everything will be better forevermore and they will be complete. We don’t seem to understand that even though Jesus, as the resurrection, brings forth the eschaton (the completion of God’s actions), our world still awaits the fullness of God’s act.
It’s not that we in youth ministry don’t have an eschatology but that we tend to offer a false realized eschatology that depends more on the young person’s commitment and the youth worker’s skill than on God’s coming resurrection reality. We have a youth ministry that gives little attention to Advent as formative for the practices of ministry.
Promise and hope do not bow to the false eschatology that says, “If we work hard, we can make something of ourselves.” True hope is found in the promise that God is bringing forth God’s advent -- God’s own future.
Youth ministry may be more about waiting in anticipation of the fullness of God’s action (advent) than it is about possessing it. Faith is about hope in God’s coming. It is about bending your life toward God’s future. It is living for God’s end -- of peace, love and mercy -- before that end is here in its fullness.
Sure, we have tastes of this in worship, prayer, service and relationships. But like the raising of Lazarus, these are just witnesses, signs pointing to what is coming when Jesus’ resurrection becomes our own. Youth ministry can’t complete anything -- it can’t completely form a young person’s faith, can’t completely wipe out homelessness, can’t completely change the world.
Only the action of God, which brings the resurrection, which brings Christmas morning, into the now, can do such things. The point of youth ministry is not to bring a fully realized and complete eschatology but to stand with young people and participate in small signs of the coming of God into their now, as we await with them the fulfillment of God’s coming.
Youth ministry is Advent.