I grew up in a church where the belief was, quite literally, Jesus could float down from the clouds unannounced and snatch away us believers. For a young child, this was not good news. First, there was the fear of the unknown. Children need to feel safe, and even though all the images I had been presented with of Jesus were safe (holding lambs, looking serene in a meadow,) the images of returning Jesus felt scary and confusing. (For example, I really hope the artist who painted the image above was either joking or 12.) Also confusing was hearing adults discuss how they couldn’t wait for Jesus to return. As a 40 year old adult, I can appreciate the notion of escaping from the grind of life, but this was incredibly difficult to reconcile as a child. I loved God and hated evil. But I just couldn’t understand why Jesus wanted to take us away from our home and burn it up!
Perhaps you had a similar experience, or still share those beliefs. This is not meant to argue end times theology, but rather to argue that how the end of God’s story is framed has an enormous impact on the Church’s mission now.
Planting a church is a sociological experiment. The society that develops is dependent on the founder’s theology, psychology, personality, politics, and even what could be considered benign personal preferences. But most important to the church’s formation is the story that is told from the beginning. What is the purpose for this new church? Why should it exist and where is it going? The driving force behind the story told should be The story – God’s story – from Genesis to Revelation. This is the foundation for everything a church is and does as God’s people in a place, so having your story straight is pretty important.
God’s story is about redemption, renewal, and ultimately hope. If an atheist were to ask me, “Why do you believe in God?” my answer would be, “Because God’s story has a hopeful ending.” One of the dominate worldviews of our time – scientific rationalism – has only one possible ending: The world is destroyed in a fireball a few billion years from now when the sun burns out…and you won’t be around to see it because you’ll be dead. I can’t debate the science behind that ending. But I can talk about an alternative ending where the returning Jesus brings together heaven and earth in a cosmic act of healing, the dead are raised to new and brighter life, and hope shines out like the newborn sun.
This ending to the story is found in the same scriptures of the floating on clouds Jesus. It doesn’t negate the fact that, yes, Jesus will return – actually reappear – one day. Believe me, when that happens, it will feel like the world is ending. But there is nothing to fear and I think he will find a way to comfort his children. N.T. Wright likens this to seeing a lamppost in a dense fog. You can tell that there is light ahead and just make out the shape of a lamppost, but the surrounding details are fuzzy. The important thing is that God will make things right. He can be trusted.
I hope you can see that it won’t do to sit around waiting for signs of the end. The healing and reconciling mission of God should be the hopeful, passionate pursuit of every follower of Jesus. With this as the foundation, any faith community can truly begin with the end in mind.