Somewhat Raw Thoughts on the Future and Youth Ministry

What is the future for youth ministry? Or, to put it differently, what's the role of the future in youth ministry? This has been the question on my mind lately. I'm not so anxious to ask, what is the future of youth? I think that question is important and many people are thinking about it, trying to innovate and respond to contemporary issues. But what I'm more concerned about is how we think about the future. What is the future's relationship to the present? Does the future have some ontological authority over the present? What authority (and what kind of authority) should we give it?

On Wednesday mornings I lead a small Bible study at my church. Currently, the group consists of me and six or seven "little old ladies" from the church. You might think that, as a youth worker, I'd be out of my element in a group like this. But, in fact, I find myself feeling right at home with these ladies. We are going through the book of John. We've only been doing it for a couple of weeks, but we've already had some really lively and enlightening conversations. 

Today, we read the story at the end of John's first chapter in which Jesus gathers his first disciples. When Simon comes to Jesus, Jesus says to him, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas [or Peter]" (John 1:42). From there on, we know Simon as Peter. Peter is his new name, his new identity. Peter, as you may know, means "rock." Jesus alludes to this in Matthew's gospel when, upon giving Peter his new name, Jesus says, "...on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  One of the ladies in our group insightfully pointed out that Peter, throughout the gospels, proves to be just about anything but a rock. He's a bit unpredictable, often opening his mouth when he shouldn't and proverbially tripping over his own shoelaces. But, in the book of Acts, he's different. He truly becomes a leader for the church and a rock on whom people can rely. It seems that there's a change in him after the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus named Peter and identified him not for who he was, suggested the lady in our group, but for who he would become. What she was really pointing out to us was that we too are not identified by God according to what we do but according to who we will become through God's gracious salvation and redemption. We take our cues not only from what we are now, but from what we will be.

Now, there's certainly good news in that! I am not loved and valued by God according to what I can accomplish in the present in order to reach into the future, but according to God's future which reaches back upon itself and speaks into the present. I am whole and new now according to God's word of promise which is an ontological reality in the present because of its revelation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The future happens to us now in Jesus Christ and in our encounter with God through him in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this sense, the future has an authority over the present. But when that authority is limited only to those good things of the present which have the potential to be extended into the future, this becomes bad news. And when, by the future, the present is judged according to its ability or inability to realize that future, then hope and grace are reserved only to those things which have the "potential" to reach from the present into the future.

This is all quite technical, perhaps, but I think it's important for youth ministry. Many times in youth ministry we get caught up in the present, desperately grasping for the future. We set goals and standards by which we can measure our success. We measure the success of our ministries according to their ability to develop kids into spiritually mature adults. The future, rather than authoritatively proclaiming the value and dignity of the present on its own terms, becomes that thing toward which the present is doomed to strive.

My hunch is that when our goals rule our ministries, we are subtly and perhaps ironically not giving the future the authority it deserves. My hunch is that when ministry is about extending and developing the present into the future we imagine for it, whether or not that future is Biblical, then it's actually the present which is getting the real authority. The present is imposing itself on the future, reaching toward and imagined future, rather than the other way around.

The Christian hope for the future is not the extension of the present into the future. It's not about progress--neither through "stages of life" or "stages of faith." Christian hope is resurrection hope. As J├╝rgen Moltmann has written,  Christian hope “...sees in the resurrection of Christ... the future of the very earth on which his cross stands. It sees in him the future of the very humanity for which he died. That is why it finds the cross the hope of the earth.” It's not the preservation of the good parts of the present. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the future resurrection of the "very earth on which his cross stands," not just the parts of earth that aren't subject to death.

The present must not be abandoned to the future. It must not be judged according to its potential to extend itself into a future which corresponds to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is, in fact, nothing that has that kind of potential, so we'd actually be selling the future short in doing so anyway. We must be able to see the present in its own dignity, with all its faults and virtues, aside from whatever goals we may have for it. Only then can the future say what it must say about that present. Only then can everything be made new, even those parts of creation which do not have the potential to defeat death. Only then can we begin to identify the the world as it is according to what it will become with the grace required of us to do so. What we must do is liberate the future from the myth of progress and allow God's future to speak to the dark and unexposed parts of the preset.