One of the things I’m constantly thinking about as I’m at seminary is Sunday School/Church School/Christian Education/whatever one’s church calls it. While obviously classes and discussion groups for people of all ages meet at most churches, I have a particular interest in youth and young adult programming. This past week, I’ve been thinking in particular about the role our churches should play in introducing kids to other religions.
My dad called this weekend, and I was telling him about my world religions class, which includes visits to Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu places of worship. What did it bring to mind for him? Unitarian church youth groups. For those of you that are unfamiliar, I’m not the world’s expert on Unitarianism, but essentially, it’s an all-paths sort of place where various religions are seen as legitimate ways to reach God–in my own ignorant generalization, I think of it as almost a sort of Western Ba’hai faith.
I think we evangelicals do ourselves a disservice by not copy-catting our Unitarian friends. It seems we think that just because we don’t affirm every path as equally effective, we think we must focus solely on our own. But where does that leave us? At best, sweetly ignorant, at worst misinformed and even bigoted towards those we don’t understand.
The way I see it, the concepts I’m learning in my world religions class aren’t too difficult for a high schooler to understand. Besides learning basic factual information about what others believe and how they practice their religion, we are learning about different theologies of religions–ways in which Christians throughout time and from different traditions understand people of other/no faiths. There are about four basic categories we’re using to describe the various positions, and it’s clear that most people at my school fall in one or two of these camps. One of my favorite aspects of the class is its nonjudgmentalism toward these various positions. While people in the class have, on average, conservative to moderate views, we’re discussing each of these positions as views of potentially legitimate Christians. We’re not automatically labeling anyone a heathen–we may disagree with them, but hey, there may be others right in the class that we disagree with as well.
I feel this would be a useful approach for evangelical churches when discussing the topic with high school and college students. Besides learning about specific religions, talk about how Christians of various theological persuasions have made sense of our pluralistic society. Don’t just tell them what your church thinks about Buddhists or Mormons; tell them about how all sorts of Christians do. They’ll know you obviously disagree with some people’s views, and they should be encouraged to look critically at all of the views–even the one that your church espouses. At the end of the day, knowing the breadth of Christian options they have and knowing more about the histories, beliefs, and practices of other religions seems more likely to encourage them to authentically develop their own faith (which may even end up theologically similar to your own!).
I think there are milllions of small things like this that we can do to encourage young people to be intelligent and honest when it comes to matters of faith–and that, I believe is one of the most powerful ways we can equip them for college and life beyond. Instead of whining all the time about how many people lose their faith in college and are incredibly embittered towards the church we may have teens coming home and thanking us for how much intellectual freedom we gave them. Some might still convert to another religion become agnostic, but even if that happens, I think they’ll appreciate our desire to help them make their own decision. And that would do wonders for the church’s relationship with the outside world.