The Way, but Only One Way?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again and now: one of the most pressing issues facing youth ministry and the Christian church, if not the issue, is religious pluralism and universalism. Is there only one way to God, through Jesus, or not? The issue sorts into things like exclusivism (one way), inclusivism (one way but God is generous), pluralism (more than one way) and universalism (all go to God). What do Christian teenagers think? Mike Nappa did a survey of 845 Christian teenagers, The Jesus Survey, and asked them the pluralism question — in particular, he asked if there was one way to God or not.

And he probes affirmations and denials to sort the Christian teenagers out.

Do you see a concern here? Is this typical teenage tolerance, lack of clarity in thinking, etc., or is this a big issue? Do you see it in your youth groups? Where do you think are the sources of the breakdown of exclusivism in the churches today?

1. 48% strongly disagree that “Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and other great teachers… have equal standing in leading people to haven.” 19% somewhat disagree. 67% are more or less on the only one way side; 10% strongly agree and 23% somewhat agree. We see there religious tolerance and possibly pluralism. 56% strongly agree 100% that Jesus is the only way, while 24% somewhat agree; then we have 13% and 7% who disagree.

2. Nappa’s synthesis: 39% believe Jesus is the only way; 49% are unsure; 13% think Jesus is not the only way.

3. His big summaries: 33% are pluralist — tolerance and pluralism and multiculturalism are brought into this conclusion. Only 39% are confident in their exclusive stance on Christ as the only way.

4. Teenage girls are slightly less pluralist. Nappa correlates again with Unshakeables on their view of Scripture. His conclusion: “raising youth with strong Christian faith means first raising kids who have strong faith in God’s Word” (82). I was taught we raise animals and “rear” kids, but that’s not the point. Correlation, probably; but I suspect this isn’t as causal as much as Nappa seems to be making it.

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  • Amy

    I’d be interested to see survey data on these teenagers when they become young adults too…I think the breakdown is more prevalent in my generation (let’s say 20-35ish) who have grown up in a more mutlicultural/pluralistic society and yet are less regularly attending church. It’s really hard to remain a strong exclusivist when you know + love somebody who isn’t a Christian. I don’t think that necessarily can/should be prevented either [knowing people outside of your faith community, both local and more broadly speaking.] I’d place myself as more of an inclusivist, so the data doesn’t really concern me, to be honest, if I had my choice…I’d much prefer universalist teens who err on the side of being TOO tolerant than teens who are arrogant about their exclusivist views and condemn others to hell who don’t have the same religious beliefs [and I’ve encountered my fair share of both, having worked at a Christian K-12 school where many of the kids were fairly sheltered.]

  • Chris

    Every time I hear this question I think that the question is either a misleading one or is asking the wrong thing. The way this question comes off it seems like another invitation to find God through our own efforts. That doesn’t seem to be the basic drift of Scripture.

    It begs another question, “What is God’s way of redeeming persons and the world in which they live? I wonder if that wouldn’t be a better way of helping us to think of God’s activity and manner in the world. The question in this post seems to fit well with self-determination.

    I believe the gospel is that God is in restoring the world in and through Jesus. To as many as receive Jesus as Lord, God gives a place in His Kingdom and Kingdom work.

  • Fish

    There’s nothing like the feeling of being a little kid and being told you’re going to hell by a classmate because you’re Catholic/Methodist/Whatever and weren’t baptized properly, etc.

  • Holly

    I think we “tame” kids. 🙂

  • Cody

    I’d love to know more about the data. Is this a representative sample? How did Nappa select his participants? What US regions are they from? What was the distribution of participants by region? Were there statistical differences by region? What about the race of the students, or denominational background, etc.? It seems that before we can draw any sort of valid conclusions we’d need to know such things. Does Nappa provide this sort of data in the book? And finally, would this survey be critiqued by someone like Bradley Wright, the sociologist who has critiqued Barna, Stroble, McDowell, etc. for citing misleading stats and drawing invalid conclusions (and who’s book you endorsed!)?

  • Patrick

    Some of the confusion might be related to lack of teaching which is why I left my original Church. Some are raised on pap like I was , not serious biblical studies and teaching.

    Some may be caused by our own disrespect as elders for the bible narrative once we do inquire and teach it.

    Since Jesus validated the entire OT text as inspired and claimed to be that Yahweh, if I were a teen I’d be seriously confused by some of our modern teaching.

  • Amy

    @Holly Was that a reference to The Little Prince + the fox? That is one of my favorite books ever, especially that chapter! An apt analogy here.

  • Scott Gay

    It does me good to hear that the issue is pluralism and universalism. The gospel in a pluralist society is a compelling one. The lack of understanding on the issue could be highlighted in many ways, Love Wins being an example. I liked the succinct definitions in the opening paragraph of this post. But it’s important that much more is said about each. It is a big issue to me, and the breakdown of exclusivism to this contributer is because it is such a poor description of God. The history of how it became central, is better left to Dr. Olson and one that he deconstructs honorably.
    Since my second sentence here alludes to Newbiggin, I’d like to give one of his descriptions….”It has become customary to classify views of Christianity to the world religions as either pluralist, exclusivist, or inclusivist….(My) position is exclusivist in the sense that it affirms the unique truth of the revelation of Jesus Christ, but it is not exclusivist in the sense of denying the possibility of the salvation of the non-Christian. It is inclusivist in the sense that it refuses to limit the saving grace of God to the members of the Christian church, but it rejects the inclusivism regards the non-Christian religions as vehicles of salvation. It is pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but it rejects a pluralism which denies the uniqueness of what God has done in Jesus Christ.”
    If you are universalist, don’t be ticked by leaving you out of that quote. There are instances where the Bible uses “all”, “every”, “world”, “everyone”, and even “all men(people)” when making reference to a limited group or category of persons or things. As many as fifty examples can be found. These cause no confusion because the limiting factors are clearly understood from the immediate context. However, there are “universalistic” texts. different because they have no limiting factor. The Bible can be cumbersome at times, but not as sloppy as some of the commentators on the unversal texts have been. “The true light gives light to every man”. “The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world”. “Jesus will draw all men to himself”. “All will be made alive”. God”is the savior of all men”.
    I highly recommend “A Theology of Inclusivism” by Neal Punt for the purpose of stimulating fresh thought on this important topic. “All are, but some are not’ is his central point. Universal, unconditional, self-sacrificing love shown in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. Everything else is dimmed by that light. To be sure God also has wrath, but that cannot be contrary to His love. It is God’s love spurned and rejected. This is what makes inclusivism compelling.

  • Scott Gay

    Do you see a concern here?
    There are body language, attitudes, implications that are at work on this issue, even on subconcious levels. For now do we regard no one from a worldy point of view? I live in the fourth largest Old Order Amish community in the world. Loving you neighbor has manifold ramifications depending on where you are on this issue.

  • Without a comparison to previous generations and followups to young adults and mature adults. I think this can result in a lot of hand-wringing but little enlightenment. Adolescence is fraught with uncertainty- of course their responses are going to be all over the board. If I were an eveagelical I would be pleased that only 13% are definitely pluralists and most are just in the mushy middle.

  • Paul

    The conclusion of the author above (more faith in God’s word) sounds to me like memorizing statements of truth and simply “trusting” they are true. This is low level thinking and may be part of the problem of why teenagers answer these questions the way they do. Guiding teenagers through deeper levels of thinking (analysis, evaluation, synthesis) in regards to scripture, other faiths, etc may be part of what is needed to help them true and lasting faith in God.

  • “Universal, unconditional, self-sacrificing love shown in the incarnation, cross, and resurrection. Everything else is dimmed by that light. To be sure God also has wrath, but that cannot be contrary to His love. It is God’s love spurned and rejected. This is what makes inclusivism compelling.”

    Yes! Thank you for your comment! I love your breakdown of how Christ is analogous to all those words in some way but not defined by any of them. God just simply can’t be compacted into “yes” or “no” categories.

    I sigh every time I read this type of survey. I’m overwhelmed with the sheer volume of assumptions that the authors make in writing the questions—What is “heaven”? What does it mean to “go” to heaven? What does it mean to be “saved”? I could never answer any of these questions with a “yes” or “no” without feeling like I’m lying.

    I suppose that the interesting thing in this study is simply to hear how teens generally respond when asked these questions in this way, but to extrapolate any meaning from their dis/agreement with these findings—to assume that this shows us what they believe (let alone how their hearts are oriented) with relation to God—is beyond presumptuous.

    Side note: it’s sad to me that the church is so eager to define people by their answers to yes, no, or maybe questions. If only we spent as much energy and resources asking humble questions, seeking understanding, and engageing people as we do categorizing, defining, explaining, debating, and developing strategies to change them….

  • dopderbeck

    Scott (#8) — thank you for that reference to Newbiggin!

    Scot M. — don’t you see a problem with this kind of “survey,” particularly in the conclusion that it all boils down to how a person views the Bible — with the misleading presumption that the Bible absolutely and necessarily contradicts the more “pluralistic” impressions of some of the respondents? Are you really suggesting that “exclusivism,” as this survey seems to define it, is healthy and correct?

    It seems to me that the question is often the problem. If someone says (like Newbiggin) Jesus is finally the only way to God, but other religions also contain truth, and many people from other religions ultimately may be among those who come to enjoy God forever through Jesus — well, I would define that person as someone who probably has a nuanced position that is faithful to scripture and the Tradition.

  • dopderbeck

    To say a little more: at least in Evangelical contexts, it seems to me that if this survey points out a problem, the problem is that we don’t offer teens a compelling, careful and rich theological framwork for thinking about the phenomenon of religious pluralism in light of the exclusive claims of Christ. We do one of two things: (1) we demand an “exclusivist” framework that makes God appear horrible and arbitrary; or (2) we ignore the question and hope it goes away.

    When I was young, (1) was the predominant mode; mabye now, (2) is the predominant mode. If we’re going to grow up, and if we’re going to hope our kids grow up, this has to change.

  • Scot McKnight


    Yes, of course, I’ve got problems with this book — but I think his numbers are saying something worth listening to — namely, to the degree this sampling represents cons evangelicals (I think it representing more than that is doubtful), then we see something worth thinking about. As for Nappa’s overlay, or interpretation, we are seeing a fairly typical conservative evangelical approach — and that, too, is worth hearing about. And for the sorts of reasons you yourself are concerned about!

  • Scot McKnight


    Yes, of course, I’ve got problems with this book — but I think his numbers are saying something worth listening to — namely, to the degree this sampling represents cons evangelicals (I think it representing more than that is doubtful), then we see something worth thinking about. As for Nappa’s overlay, or interpretation, we are seeing a fairly typical conservative evangelical approach — and that, too, is worth hearing about. And for the sorts of reasons you yourself are concerned about!

    To trace everything back to one’s view of the Bible is inaccurate, though that “story” is obviously compelling to many. There are other factors at work — namely one’s own judgment, beliefs, theology, desires, education, social context — more influential. Tracing things to one’s theology to one’s view of the Bible is not necessarily to provide the origins.

  • dopderbeck

    Thanks Scot (#15). Yes, I agree generally with the concerns, particularly seeing it now with high-school aged kids going through youth groups. There are so many good and healthy things in our present models of youth ministry, but IMHO an unhealthy thing is that we seem to have gotten into this space where emotion and high-octane experiences drown out any ability to talk about Truth — except on rare occasions, when the discussion about Truth tends to be a sort of left over indoctrination and not really a healthy exploration of scripture and the tradition.

  • Scot, As an evangelical universalist, I especially appreciate your recognition that an increasingly pressing issue for many will be the traditional understanding that God won’t ultiimately reconcile many of those that we love who are made in His image. I think a key is that in this civilization partially shaped by Jesus, our moral conscience (which Paul suggests should be taken seriously) seems to confirm to us that an ultimate value is steadfast love, which never fails or stops seeking the welfare of those we love “until they are found.” Thus, (while unconvincing to me) we can argue that Scripture is unambiguous that at death God’s love will stop its’ pursuit or not be able to succeed in bringing most to genuine repentance, but this finale appears contrary to the kingship of the moral value of which we are most sure.

  • CGC

    Hi Bob,
    Universalism in the end may work this problem out in your mind but it seems the problem in this world still persists. There are people who resist God at every turn, and die. To have a hope for them in the future is one thing, to say that they have to be reconciled because no-one can resist God’s love goes directly against our present reality in the here and now. If God does not stop his pursuit in this life (and people still resist God’s love), it seems like we can not know for sure that things will change in the after-life? (God can still pursue but what if people still don’t want to be found?).

  • CGC (#18). Good points. I don’t think any of the early church’s universalists thought that “no-one can resist God’s love.” As you say, they had a “hope for them in the future.” Of course, whether one is inclined to embrace such a hope depends on one’s exegesis of Scripture’s judgments, promises, and the nature of God’s character and power. In terms of whether it seems consistent to believe that the creature could forever resist the work of God’s pursung judgments and mercy, I believe the God who wants to save all is both willing and able.

  • I would agree with you that the data suggests more of a correlation relationship than one that is causal. The difficulty I have with quantitative studies like this is that the questions do not really get to the heart of why teens answered the questions the way they did. Additionally, many of these questionnaires are very narrowly constructed with narrow parameters for their varying indexes used to measure. These need to be coupled with qualitative data like that done by Christian Smith in Souls in Transition and Soul Searching.

    While the data in this and similar studies does need to be discussed, I think it is careless to draw conclusions from them.