Pluralism: A New Youth Ministry Imperative

My relationship with Rabbi Mark inspired me to understand religious pluralism differently and inspired me to make interfaith dialogue and cooperation not just an important part of my career, but also an imperative part of my Christian walk. It is my hope that youth leaders and ministers also begin to see pluralism as a youth ministry imperative.

Pluralism - a New Youth Ministry Imperative - Kindred Youth Ministry

Pluralism takes on different meanings depending on its context, but what I’m referring to here is Religious Pluralism. It often gets confused with unitarianism or universalism, or Unitarian Universalism, or other theological terms. Religious Pluralism, however, is not a theological term; rather, think of it as a social term.

Pluralism ≠ “Diversity”

Religious diversity exists, not just globally, but in the United States in particular. It’s important to remember that the U.S. is not just the most religiously diverse country in the world, it is likely the most religiously diverse country of all time.

So, while understanding that diversity is a fact, pluralism insists that we engage positively across that diversity.

You can contend that diversity is in and of itself valuable—and I would agree with you—but, diversity doesn’t naturally lead us to positive interactions. All sorts of conflict and violence are caused by diversity; or better put, caused by individuals or groups who are unable or ill-equipped to handle difference.

According to Pluralism.org (a resource I would highly recommend),

“…pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.”

Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes, with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

We don’t have to peer too far into our history to find examples of Christians not only complacently living in isolation from those who are different religiously (or non-religiously), but actively defending the mistreatment (rather, maltreatment) of those who believe differently.

On the flip side, we can also look into our history to find stories of Christians who chose to risk their lives for others, even though they did not profess Christian faith. Surely we want our youth to be the latter.

The Pluralism of Jesus

In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked by a lawyer, “What is the greatest commandment.” As you well know, Jesus affirms, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

The lawyer asks in response, “Well then, who is my neighbor?” The lawyer thought he was pulling a fast one on Jesus, but Jesus responded, of course, with a parable. He talks of a man who was robbed on his way to Jericho when he was suddenly robbed, beat up, and left for dead.

Two different religious elite walk by, and neither one stops to help the man. In fact, their religious obligations kept them from doing so. The Levite, being obligated to stay pure, could not touch a person if that person was bleeding or dead. Likewise, the priest would also be prevented from touching and therefore assisting the man.

And so it was a Samaritan—not only a person despised by first-century Jewish people, but also a completely different religion from Jesus—who stopped to help the man. Jesus, in the story of the Good Samaritan, holds up someone of a different religion as a moral superlative.

Not only that, but the parable seems to insist that we refrain from allowing our religious or spiritual obligations and positions to keep us from serving. Even further, the Good Samaritan gives us permission to be inspired by those of a different faith. Yes, those who believe differently from us have a moral compass, even those we are inclined to see as evil or deplorable.

Pluralism Is Imperative

Do we as Christians want a plurality of religions? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Surely, for most of us—youth ministers in particular—what we want is for young people to be in relationship with Jesus. Pluralism may seem in direct conflict with that desire, but I don’t believe it is necessarily, because (for the most part) in order for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus, they must first be in relationship with Christians.

Whether we like it or not, traditional evangelism sometimes does more to harm relationships than build them up; sometimes even ending a relationship before it’s begun. Yes, we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, but we are also supposed to bear witness to the love of God, and guess how we do that?

By being in relationship with others.

Building Relationships

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because 33% of American young people are atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated, and approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s population are not Christian. Interestingly enough, all of this diversity of religious and secular worldviews seems to get a lot of blame for the violence and war on the planet. Given that part of our identity as Christians is to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), then making pluralism part of your ethos as a youth ministry leader seems to be a no-brainer. After all, God has made us the ambassadors for the Prince of Peace (2 Corinthians 5:20). An ambassador’s job is to serve as a go-between, and without pluralism, who would we go between?

Speaking Generously

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because the ninth commandment says not to bear false witness against our neighbor (Exodus 20:16). It is so easy to misunderstand and speak untruthfully about those who believe differently from us when we don’t know them.

Nothing is easier to misunderstand than the belief systems and ideological frameworks of others. Teenagers are curious about the world and the people around them. Inevitably, you will get asked a question about another faith—will you be able to answer in a way that does not bear false witness against another person?

Living Missionally

Pluralism is a youth ministry imperative because we’re raising up the next generation of pastors, deacons, lay-leaders, bishops, worship leaders, youth leaders, and tithers. The world is a changing place and the question stands for our youth—what does it mean to be a Christian in a religiously diverse world?

Does it mean we should build walls around ourselves, surrounding ourselves only with other Christians? Does it mean participating in interfaith cooperation and interfaith dialogue in order to learn more about our neighbors and to serve our communities alongside them? What does it mean?

Remember Paul’s words about Jesus in Ephesians 2:14—“For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Engaging with Pluralism

If we’re not addressing religious diversity without fear and without defensiveness, then we’re setting the Church up for failure. How do we love people who believe differently than us without patronization, condemnation and judgment? How do we teach our youth to do that?

These questions regarding intentional relationships with people of other religious and secular identities are new for the Church in general and youth ministry in particular. So while we may not have the answers, that’s okay—asking the question helps us get the conversation going. Feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts and reflections.


About the Author: Rachael McNeal

rachael mcneal

Rachael McNeal currently lives in St. Augustine, while working as the Director of Youth Ministries at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL. She also has experience in Higher Education and Interfaith Activism. Rachael graduated from Flagler College in St. Augustine, FL where she studied Religion and Youth Ministry. She attended Princeton Theological Seminary where she received her Master of Divinity. She was featured on Interfaith Youth Core’s podcast Common Knowledge and has written for OnFaith, Interfaith Youth Core, Faith Line Protestants, Sojourners, and Huffington Post Religion.

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