A generational gap in ‘end times’ interest?
    January 11 2010 by Melissa Deming, Baptist Press

    As a 6-year-old growing up at a time when Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” was holding sway in Southern Baptist churches, Jerry Johnson was fascinated by the talk of end times.

    He later earned three theological degrees that prepared him for service at Boyce College, Criswell College and his current role as academic dean at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But Johnson still points to that early interest in eschatology as sparking his own desire to profess faith in Christ two years later at age 8.

    A few decades later co-authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins provided their interpretation of end times through the popular “Left Behind” novels.

    Today, younger generations are exchanging the doctrine of last things as viewed by novelists and their fundamentalist forbearers for what some of them prefer to describe as Kingdom-oriented living. Are they reacting against popular depictions of end times and what some described as the pessimism of dispensationalism or developing a more biblical interpretation of what the Kingdom entails?

    Unlike their parents, many evangelicals in Generations X and Y (born between 1965-1976 and 1977-2002, respectively) are throwing their energies into community projects and Kingdom causes without explicitly connecting them to the eschaton.

    But there is disagreement among those the Southern Baptist TEXAN interviewed about whether this represents a lack of interest in last things among the young or simply a rejection of “pop eschatology.”

    Anecdotal evidence
    One college pastor said students at one of the most thriving Baptist churches in Texas are instead focusing on other controversial subjects.

    stock.xchng graphic by xymonau

    “I have had numerous theological discussions with college students over the past year,” said George Jacobus, university minister at Central Baptist Church in College Station. “As I recall, none of them have dealt with the issue of eschatology. There tends to be more dialogue over Calvinism, the sovereignty of God, ecclesiology and Christian community.”

    Despite a revival in missions focus among collegians, Jacobus said the students do not have a desire to study eschatology.

    “I believe (their) interest in missions is not based on their eschatology but rather stems from a desire to apply what the Bible teaches. In their mind, missions is everything about God telling us to go — not about their belief in end times,” he said.

    A recent article in “A City Online,” the online publication of Houston Baptist University, echoed this sentiment. The article explores the possibility of an eschatological generation gap.

    “For younger evangelicals ... eschatology is barely worth considering — unless, of course, we are mocking ‘Left Behind’ among our peers,” writes the author, Matthew Lee Anderson.

    Anderson sees major consequences of divorcing the present reality of the Kingdom from the cosmic outlook of eschatology.

    “For one, it focuses young evangelicals more on the current state of the earth and the necessity of protecting and preserving our environment,” he writes. “Creation care ... is significantly less important if the end times will be as ‘Thief in the Night’ depicts them. A devalued eschatology lends itself to cultural engagement rather than the cultural escapism that has historically marked evangelicalism.”

    Southern dean disagrees
    Admitting that the popularity of dispensational theology dominant in the Left Behind novels is diminishing, Russell Moore, theology school dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said interest in eschatology is not dead.

    “I don’t think there is a decrease in interest in eschatology among college students,” Moore said. “I think, in fact, just the opposite. I think what has decreased is a particular kind of eschatology — pop dispensationalism.”

    While previous generations looked to one-on-one equations between current events and biblical prophecy, Moore believes younger evangelicals are instead beginning to view the doctrine in light of Kingdom matters.

    Follow the music
    But whether one’s view of last things includes solely a dispensational outlook or the Kingdom as both “now and not yet,” Anderson believes contemporary worship music provides insight as to the state of eschatology in the pews.

    “Worship music is one of the best indications of the declining focus on eschatology,” he writes, adding that popular worship choruses tend to ignore the future triumph of Jesus. “Any casual trip through prominent evangelical hymns reveals an extraordinary emphasis on the next life: There is a Fountain, It is Well, How Great thou Art, Blessed Assurance, and Amazing Grace all see fit to acknowledge the work that is yet to be done. I can find no comparable thread in the new evangelical worship songs.”

    Ryan Clark, worship pastor at Inglewood Baptist Church in Grand Prairie, Texas, grew up in a large First Baptist Church that was largely premillennial. Yet as a Gen-Xer, he said he never saw a large interest in eschatology among his peers or subsequent generations. Despite a sprinkling of themes regarding salvation and heaven in hymns, Clark said it is difficult to find songs that adequately convey both personal and cosmic eschatology.

    But the problem of misapplied eschatology runs much deeper than ill-informed worship choruses, said Gordon Borror, professor of church music and chair of the music ministry department at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, noting that correct eschatological teaching also is missing in the Baptist pulpit.

    “Eschatology hasn’t been taught to the church very well with a lot of very misty thinking about heaven and being ‘with Jesus’ — but not much real meaty ‘last things’ doctrine is commonly known among the rank-and-file of Baptists,” he said. “Therefore little call for writing and singing music about it.”

    (EDITOR’S NOTE — Deming is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, where an expanded version of this story first appeared.)

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