The entry point for many in the Organic Church movement has been either missiology (how to plant the most churches?) or ecclesiology (what is the church and how does she function?). They are the intellectual/theological frameworks in which a person makes sense of his/her life experience out of organized religion and into a community, belief system, and spirituality that is more organic. It doesn’t take long in hearing someone’s transition story to figure out which theological emphasis was more prominent to a person. For me, it was mission, and that’s how I ended up hanging out with the Neil Coles, Dezi Bakers, and Ed Wakens. But you meet others who are primarily driven by ecclesiological questions and see themselves as reformers in that stream — trying to convince people in organized churches or ministry leaders of the advantage of doing church in a different way. They are frequently looking backwards into history and the early church practices — an orientation that, I will explain later, is not as helpful for disciple-making as we may be led to believe. Both fields of study — missiology and ecclesiology — are important; but what rarely gets mentioned in organic circles is the field of eschatology. For those who have studied theology, they would see good reason for this; after all, isn’t eschatology about non-sensical labels, indeterminable dates, and guesstimate interpretations on obscure passages? The way eschatology is done in a classroom, compartmentalized from the rest of scripture and real life, would yield such maddening results. While missiology and ecclesiology may have started us on the journey, my argument is that eschatology is the overarching outlook that brings everything together and is the proper orientation that will take us beyond the initial first milepost past the gate.
What is Eschatology?
What exactly is eschatology anyhow? Jurgen Moltmann understood eschatology not as the “epilogue” or an “element of Christianity” but the “medium of Christian faith,” “the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day” (Theology of Hope). He rightly saw eschatology as a whole and practical for the present choices we need to make. The future informed and transformed the present; it had to. Every moment was part of the present future. We understand eschatology in this broader sense, as encompassing our vision of time and the destiny of our world. Time and destiny are injected into the conversation and corporate imagination. Where are we going? Where is the world going? What will it look like when we are close? Will the world be frozen in time and look the same then as it does now? The endgame gives shape to how we move the pieces on the board. How much time do we have before we get there? How should we be prioritizing and spending all our time as a result? The variable of time shapes our decision-making once we realize that we are on finite borrowed time. When we lose sight of the destination and the time frame, it affects everything. A confusion and lethargy set in. We forget who we are – not just from the past until the present but from the present to the future. We forget our purpose for which we were created, redeemed, and sustained. We forget how our small and complex-seeming lives fit into a larger black-and-white story that is in its final chapter.
And yes, you read that right: ours is a black-and-white story. We know the definite beginning and a the definite ending. We know the climactic points. We know who the hero and the villain is. It’s all laid out for us, if we’re willing to accept the parts of Jesus’s teachings that are pretty plain. We know that time is short. We know that we need to be about loving God, loving people, and making disciple-makers until Jesus returns. As much as we like to focus on the the things that are more layered, we know the basic parts of the story, and they are CLEAR and, thus, black-and-white.
Eschatology keeps the simplicity and clarity before us. It brings all theological study together: study of God-Christ-Holy-Spirt, study of mankind, study of sin, study of salvation, study of the church, study of mission, etc. It is how our understanding of God and His saving plan for the world is enacted in real time and space. And these marvelous realities — though possibly taught in a dry and pie-in-the-sky fashion — become personal through eschatology as our personal lives get connected to the main and crystal clear story of stories. Eschatology is eminently practical and forces us to keep the main narrative, our place in it, and the urgency of it all before us.
It should come as no surprise then that our turn away from eschatology has also turned up a loss in urgency about the things yet to come. We forget that we are in the final chapter of a story that WILL come to an end soon.
Eschatology and Disciple-making
Eschatology properly conceived in this sense informs both our mission/evangelism and our ecclesiology. The very task of discipleship itself is eschatological: embedded in a past, a present, and a coming future. This time frame and greater narrative is critical, not incidental, to the task; questions like “What time is it?” and “Where is history going?” greatly impact a disciple’s worldview and inform what modeling a life of following Jesus looks like.
These questions necessarily turn our gaze forward rather than the conventional backwards, cross/calvary-fixed gaze that traditional evangelical theology has taught us. But traditional evangelical theology’s [and culture’s] baggage comes with it: emphasizing certainty over mystery, emphasizing the accumulation of knowledge at the expense of foot-to-ground obedience, assuming a constant availability of financial resources to fund initiatives instead of an alarming paucity of it, assuming religious freedom of expression in the West would overtake the religious oppression of the Global East and South, or emphasizing spiritual giftedness over personal transformation. Whether you agree with this analysis of Western Christian values and practices is not necessary. My point is simply that a past-looking orientation unknowingly creates significant obstacles for the disciple/disciple-maker in terms of his/her ability to adapt to a changing time and changing world. In short, their mobility, flexibility, and durability are jeopardized.
These words may mean nothing to you as a reader, but if you are someone interested in movements and sustainability of them, then mobility, flexibility, and durability are key elements of a sustainable movement. Putting the discipleship question back into its proper eschatological place will greatly lead us to ask the right questions. How do we prepare for the return of Christ and the hostile world that precedes that return? What kind of disciples should I be reproducing? Am I even that kind of disciple with good DNA to reproduce? Why do I assume that tomorrow will look like today? What has been the movement of anti-christ spirits against the Kingdom?
Indeed, the organic camp has long criticized traditional church ministries for being too focused on attractional, Old Testament Tabernacle or Temple orientation. It assumes an era that is open to religion and an era that is both politically and economically stable. Such thinking has been fine when society around it has cooperated with the comparison. But how about when society does not?
This is where Eschatology helps us with Mission, where prophetic priorities and insight/foresight help shape apostolic priorities. If we want multiplication, we need to multiply hearty and strong seed. Rugged discipleship produces rugged disciples. Is it any wonder why the Global East and South are producing some of the most and some of the strongest disciples? They are born in poverty, in oppression, in persecution. They aren’t drinking lattes in their chairs while listening to the praise band. Those in CPM and mission circles are rightly paying attention to the phenomenon, but they are driven mostly by pragmatics and fail to see that eschatological priorities should be shaping their focus on these rugged disciples movements.
Our friend, Curtis Sergeant, helped train some of these very movements in their early stages. Of all mission practitioners I know, he is one whom I respect and trust the most. A few years ago I remember him saying he visited his 100th country. I remember listening to Curtis share in what was the former Asian Antioch how apostolic priorities and giftedness looked. He started with a reading from Peter’s letter that discussed these eschatological realities and the limited amount of time we have. He then proceeded to talk about how the Chinese House Church movement trains their disciples. Their “curriculum” involved how to endure torture, how to fall out of third story windows, how to get out of handcuffs, and other skills that are found on zero Western discipleship curriculum’s table of contents. Assumed in that training is the notion of life being hard, of authorities being after you, of persecution being a reality. Life is rugged, and so must we be as well. These disciples and disciple-makers get it.
How do we get there? Stop looking to the past traditions and past 1st century church, even. Nobody should be trying to create a New Testament 1st Century-like church. Start looking at Jesus’s teachings that illuminate what lies ahead. Identify eschatological non-negotiables about the future. Resist the urge to complicate things — remembering that we are practitioners instead of philosophers. Then, watch and listen.
At this point, it’s worth asking: what are some eschatological non-negotiables about the future?