Several years ago, I wrote down some thoughts on young Southern Baptists. One of my observations concerned eschatology, and how younger Southern Baptists seemed to be “all over the spectrum” when it comes to the timing of events surrounding Christ’s return. Here’s what I said:
I don’t have surveys to back this up, but my hunch is that thirty years ago, most conservative Southern Baptists would have placed themselves firmly in the premillennial, pretribulation Rapture camp regarding the end times. . . . Among young Southern Baptists today, Dispensationalism is on the decline and diversity is the norm. Whenever I talk to young guys about their eschatology, they run the spectrum from amillennial, to historic premillennial, to post-tribulation Rapture, to partial preterism. I’ve even met a couple of postmillennial Southern Baptists (a happy, hopeful minority!). But I meet very few traditional Dispensationalists.
Now there is a survey that backs up my observation. LifeWay Research, in partnership with Chosen People Ministries, has conducted a survey not of Southern Baptists specifically, but of Protestant pastors in general. They’ve discovered a generation gap not only regarding the specifics of “end times” beliefs but also the level of attention they devote to the topic.
Here are a few takeaways.
1. Older pastors tend to be more committed than younger pastors to a particular eschatological position.
The research shows older pastors (age 55+) more likely—by a 20-point margin—to hold “very strongly” to their beliefs about the millennium than younger pastors (18-44). What position do they hold strongly? Premillennialism is the majority position among all age groups, but other views are more prevalent among younger pastors, including a surprising surge in those who claim the postmillennial position (14 percent).
Education may be a factor in this divide. The research shows that older pastors were more likely to have taken courses and classes dedicated solely to eschatology, and this may be one reason they feel more equipped to teach on the end times. Younger pastors were less likely to have been taught in detail one particular position.
2. Older pastors preach more often on the end times.
Since older pastors hold more tightly to their position and since they feel more equipped to teach on the subject, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that older pastors teach on the end times more often. The gap here isn’t as wide, but it’s still noticeable. The older you are, the more likely you are to see preaching end-times prophecies from Revelation and the Old Testament as more important for your congregation. Likewise, the older you are, the more you are likely to regularly speak and teach on the end times in your church.
3. Older pastors are more likely to see division in their congregation over differing views of the end times.
The research shows that older pastors are more likely than younger pastors to serve in churches that align with them on their position. Younger pastors are more likely to say there is no consensus in their congregation. One’s view of the end times is more of a “we can agree to disagree” issue, with a variety of acceptable positions.
At the same time, older pastors are more likely to see interpreting the end times as “a divisive issue” within their congregation. This may be because the older pastor, being firm in his convictions, finds it frustrating when members of the congregation differ, or because the church’s stance is more “set in stone,” thus placing members with different perspectives at odds with the majority. It could also be the case that in churches where the subject of the end times is more pronounced and prioritized you’re more likely to see debates and divisions over disagreement.
There’s a lot more in this research on pastors’ views of eschatology than what I’ve selected here, including specific questions about the current state of Israel, the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem, and the urgency of believing Christ’s return to be imminent. But here are some thoughts based on this generation gap between pastors.
First, it’s possible both to overemphasize the particulars related to Christ’s return and to underemphasize the truth of Christ’s return. Sometimes, in reaction to previous generations that may have overemphasized speculative doctrines surrounding the end times, younger Christians may go to the other extreme and fail to cultivate in their people a sense of hope and anticipation for Jesus’s return. The New Testament writers stressed the need for believers to “be ready” for the second coming of Christ, and whatever you may believe about the sequence of events surrounding that coming, we cannot and must not lose sight of the glorious hope. We are to live in the present based on God’s promised future.
Second, it’s good that younger pastors do not see as much division in their congregations regarding different views of the end times. But it’s not good if that lack of division stems from a lack of teaching on the matter altogether. It’s one thing to say, “We can agree to disagree on the specifics of how Christ will return.” It’s another thing to say, “The reality of Christ’s return isn’t really all that important.”
Third, many Christians assume that discussion of eschatology refers to the “last things” doctrines in the back of systematic theology textbooks—the second coming of Christ, the timing and interpretation of the millennium, and the future, final state of humanity. But eschatology can also be defined in a broader sense, as encompassing the Christian vision of time and the destiny of the world.
I believe discipleship should be eschatological, not because the most important matter is the time line of events surrounding Christ’s second coming but because discipleship is grounded in the larger story of the world and where the world is going, as articulated in Scripture. We read our own history and interpret our present moment in light of the times being fulfilled in Christ.
Unless we are teaching the Bible’s perspective on where the world is headed, we run the risk of making Christianity out to be a timeless system of moral wisdom, while certain rival visions of the future in our society today reign unopposed. Older generations may have been wrong to overemphasize specifics, but at least they recognized how your beliefs about tomorrow were to affect your life today. I hope younger Christians, in their zeal to avoid unproductive disputes and debates, do not unintentionally downplay significant and life-altering doctrine.