Helping Teenagers Address the Hurdle of Religious Pluralism
A 2011 Barna Study addressed the question nearly every youth minister and Christian parent is asking: Why are young people raised in the church walking away? And even more important, what can we do about it? A decade later, those questions are still pressing and Barna’s answers are still timely. Here at Rooted, we long to see God work through youth ministers, parents, and churches to flip the statistic so that students would increasingly walk with Jesus into adulthood. We believe this vision is best accomplished through the five pillars of gospel centrality, theological depth through expository biblical teaching, relational discipleship, partnering with parents, and intergenerational integration. In this series Rooted writers show how this gospel-centered framework for youth ministry can help us address the six most common reasons young people leave church. We hope these reflections will help you to walk in wisdom as you point students to trust in Jesus now and well after they leave home.
No list of “youth ministry’s most wanted,” those stumbling blocks that lead students away from the faith, is complete without mentioning the common pitfall of religious pluralism. Also known as the problem of exclusivity, this is the resistance to any religion’s claim to truth and access to God so far as it also denies other claims. In other words, it is the pervasive notion that “all roads lead to God.”
The Rational Objections to Religious Pluralism
The field of apologetics has traditionally tried to answer such objections to Christianity through rational discussion of faith claims, commonly using two lines of thought. First, apologists point out the contradictory faith claims of major world religions. For instance, were a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Orthodox Jew, and Buddhist all to try and worship together, each would commit heresy against some of the others in the ways they addressed the divine. Thus, all religions cannot be equally right.
Second, many resources discuss “the elephant problem,” leaning on an ancient parable in which multiple blind men each feel a portion of an elephant and describe the concept of ‘elephant’ according to the portion they felt. The parable is commonly used to discuss how religion is limited in its ability to describe something incredibly diverse and complex. Traditional apologists counter that the story (and religious pluralism in general) assumes an objective position. In other words, for the parable to work, there must be a man with sight and knowledge who can rightly describe a true elephant. Apologists point out that religious pluralism likewise assumes someone objective who can judge over and against exclusive religious beliefs. Thus, the whole framework of pluralism devolves into a subjective position in which all religions are equally wrong, with everyone doing (and believing) what is right in his own eyes. Apologists argue that religious pluralism breaks down philosophically, leaving the dominant cultural religion with power to define truth. And of course in today’s world, that dominant religion is actually a secular worldview.
For some students, especially those with a very logical bent, these discussions from a traditional apologetic framework prove helpful. However, it’s unfortunate that these rational arguments are often the only way youth ministry resources address religious pluralism, since for most students they fall flat. In Travis Scott’s book Faithful Doubt: Habakkuk, he argues that “head answers aren’t always the best replies to heart questions. And pastors fail to care well for people if all we do is give head-answers to questions coming from the heart.”
It might be best to instead consider students’ questions of religious pluralism on a spectrum. At one end, we do find rational questions like the ones we described above. But the majority of my students are on the personal side of the spectrum, embracing religious pluralism for reasons of the heart.
The Personal Objections to Religious Pluralism
Consider two teenagers, Jim and Rob. Jim is a Christian, and his friend Rob is not. Jim cares deeply about his friend. At some point in his faith journey, Jim realizes one implication of what he believes is that his friend Rob will spend an eternity apart from God. While in centuries past this might have started an evangelistic fire under Jim a la Romans 10, the pervasive modern struggle with relational discomfort stifles this impulse in Jim, at least a bit. Jim then reflects on his beliefs – he loves his friend. In fact, he thinks Rob (despite his religious differences) is actually a much more moral person than he is. If Jim cares about Rob so much and can see past their differences, why would a God who is supposed to be so much more loving than Jim send Rob to hell? And while Jim isn’t looking to join Rob’s faith anytime soon, isn’t Rob’s character enough to make Jim’s faith seem pretty arrogant about having a corner on the truth market?
Students are processing issues like these all the time. Some who experience what Jim did end up rejecting their faith entirely, refusing to follow a God who would send people to hell. But most make tiny, almost unconscious theological shifts instead. Researcher David Kinnaman (who wrote You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith based on the research highlighted in the Barna study) notes that because tolerance, diversity, and unity are such strong values of young people today, students are more likely to emphasize points of connection and similarity in beliefs than analyze differences.
While of course we celebrate students’ compassion and empathy, the focus on these to the exclusion of truth claims also has the potential to make any discussion of differences deeply uncomfortable. Over time, this emphasis on similarities can solidify into shallow theological commitments that allow for multiple paths to God. Additionally, focus on similar moral imperatives between religions can sometimes blur their theological distinctives, resulting in the formation of civil religious commitments to things like justice and human rights because they are the social norm, not because of any faith commitment.
Students also engage in religious pluralism at the personal level because they believe their faith is lacking something that other religions could supply. While discussions of the rise of the “nones”—the massive rise over the last 20 years in people who report that they have no religious allegiance—may seem to indicate the death of religion in the U.S., in reality religious convictions have simply moved beyond the institutional and formal.
As a result, students may choose to include specific practices, beliefs, or doctrines of one faith in a syncretic relationship with their own Christian faith. This becomes easier as students are exposed to a much wider variety of faiths than any generation before them, both through the increasing diversity of culture itself as well as a near-infinite access to information.
The Youth Minister’s Way Forward
Because personal struggles with pluralism are often much more complex than rational ones, it is perhaps less important to prepare students with specific arguments for exclusivity than to help shape them into people who are not pluralistic. I’ve found these teaching emphases to be helpful:
Teach students a more robust theology of sin and hell. Students whose view of God’s justice is wider than God sending “good people” to an intentional place of eternal torture can begin to distinguish God’s deep love for their friends from the reality that their friends’ sinful hearts separate them from God. Emphasizing the image of God in everyone along with what the late R.C. Sproul called “pervasive” depravity can help students explain and praise God for the morality of their friends without believing God is unfair in his dealing with sin.
Teach students their own history. Students who hold an Americanized Christianity have much in common with similar movements in many of the world’s religions which allow for easy compartmentalization, shallow theological and moral commitments, and painless public practice. On the other hand, students who identify with Christianity as the body of Christ, the movement of God’s people, across thousands of years of history and culture, often can ground their faith in communal and personal practices, spiritual disciplines, global expressions, and historic creeds. They can connect with the intimate, yet transcendent, nature of God without feeling they must go somewhere else for a spiritual fix.
Teach students better ways to value others. Students can value the ‘little ‘t’ truth’ found in many world religions and philosophies without affirming those religions wholesale because, as Calvin writes, “All truth is from God.” They can affirm the dignity of those who disagree with them by honestly asking about another’s faith. This civilizes the discussion of differences in the way Peter describes in 1 Peter 3:16, with gentleness and respect.
Teach students to love Jesus. Students who see Christianity through a shallow lens, as a moral system or a compartmentalized belief they access when they need to, easily move into cultures of religious pluralism without any resistance. However basic it may seem, we want students to have what Jonathan Edwards called “religious affections”for Jesus—emotions bound in intellectual and experiential intimacy. Teenagers who truly love Christ this way aren’t in love with the religious high they get from praise concerts, the feeling of goodwill they get from a missions trip, or the sense of belonging they have as a part of a community – all things they can get regardless of the specifics of their religious system. Instead, they desire Jesus, and for his name to be made great in all the world.
Religious pluralism doesn’t have to be a youth ministry boogeyman. Addressing the personal, as well as the rational, concerns of our students communicates that we, and the God we serve, love them and their friends, and want them to experience a beautiful, deep, and true faith in every corner of their lives.
 Scott, Travis. Faithful Doubt: Habakkuk. Storied Publishing, 2020.
 Sproul, R. C. What is Reformed Theology? Baker Books, 2005.
 Calvin, John. “Titus 1:12”, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.pro