GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP)–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.”
One college pastor said students at one of the most thriving Baptist churches in Texas are instead focusing on other controversial subjects.
“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. Titled “The New Evangelical Scandal,” 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.”
Students at a Southern Baptists of Texas Convention-affiliated church near the campus of the University of Texas in Austin seemed to fall under this category. When polled as to their eschatological views, interest in the “here and now” prevailed over future concerns.
A 20-year-old finance major from Southlake believes the idea of a rapture has only become prominent in the last century and does not appear in Scripture. The student defined the new heaven and new earth spoken of in Revelation as an earthly Kingdom.
“The Bible seems to be critical about followers of God separating themselves from the suffering of the world,” the student said. “I don’t believe there will be a literal rapture, because I don’t believe Christians are supposed to long to be taken out of the world. As Christians, we are called to change the world. We are supposed to care for the sick and promote peace and justice. That’s what the Kingdom of God is about. So why would God take Christians out of the world during its darkest hour?”
Despite the postmillennial appearance of some younger evangelicals’ eschatological views, most do not consciously hold to a specific millennial position.
A student from Houston summarized the beliefs of younger evangelicals regarding last things by stating it is not his job to figure out what God is going to do in the future, adding: “We’ll know it when we’re there.”
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.
“Interest in issues of new creation, resurrection of the body, and the eternal state is resurgent among younger Christians, and puts them in line with the oldest traditions of the Christian church,” Moore contended. “… Interest in the Kingdom of God is increasing. I think that’s a positive development.”
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.
A recent listing of the top 100 worship songs by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) reveals that only 11 bear clear testimony to eschatological themes. Out of the 11 songs, one is a gospel style from the mid 1990s, two are traditional Baptist hymns, one is a remake of a traditional hymn, and one is a song written by the Gaither family. The remaining six songs with eschatological themes draw heavily on a missions focus that sees the nations worshipping Christ.
Outside of the 11 songs that showcase clear eschatological themes, six additional songs on the CCLI list vaguely refer to the eschaton but refrain from identifying specific eschatological events or realities.
Songs that do figure prominently on CCLI’s list of top 100 worship songs include themes of the incarnation, acceptance (coming to God as you are), God as Creator, personal salvation and victory over sin, dwelling with God in a present sense, and even love songs to the Lord.
Gordon Borror, professor of church music and chair of the music ministry department at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, believes the absence of eschatological themes in worship music is not a new phenomenon.
“Eschatological themes have generally been missing in worship music for a very long time,” Borror said, noting that most eschatological themes resemble sentimental references to the “by and by” in old gospel music.
But modern worship choruses are not the only culprit to translate eschatology poorly, said Borror, co-author of the book “Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel.”
“I would not say that eschatological themes formed a significant part of traditional Baptist hymnody; songs on the second coming were quite common, but celebration of the intimacy of Christ’s return for His bride is generally missing from contemporary church anyway,” he said.
“The postmodern themes of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ along with the need for immediate gratification doesn’t call for thinking future,” Borror said. “Looking back at old traditions like sacred harp, you’ll find much more text about death, dying, ultimate victory with Christ — but comparatively less about the future reign of Christ.”
Despite this prognosis of the state of current worship material, Borror has hope for change.
“Some of our contemporary writers are doing a better job at teaching ‘last things’ or ‘future things’ than we generally find in traditional gospel music,” he said referring to modern hymn writers Keith and Kristyn Getty. “The Gettys are breathing more doctrine into their hymnic efforts, which I appreciate very much. I so appreciate their commitment to doctrinal and musical integrity.”
But the problem of misapplied eschatology runs much deeper than ill-informed worship choruses, Borror said, 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.”
Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., agrees. While specifics regarding end-time events are still subject to interpretation, the truth of their occurrence is not, he said.
“The truth of the rapture is not up for debate, but its timing is something we can graciously disagree on,” Akin said. “In the meantime, we should seek the redemption of God’s good creation knowing it will not come in all its fullness until Jesus returns. How do we correct things? Exposition of the whole counsel of God’s Word.”
Melissa Deming is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at texanonline.net.