Deconstructing Relativism In the Mind of Students

moral relativism in student ministry

Youth Ministry has changed drastically in the last 17 years since I first began working with students.  Some of the changes have been in me, some of them have been in the context in which I am ministering, and some of them have been in the students themselves.  When I started all those years ago students had the ability to assess arguments on a basic level.  They intuitively understood that truth is not relative in nature and that in order for something to be true it must correspond to reality.  Today, students are very different.  Though I am convinced neither our teachers nor our students realize what is being taught, relativism is by far the predominant approach to truth outside of the sciences.

Several years ago I would often pick my daughter up from the Spanish immersion school she attended and use the drive time to explore what was being taught in school.  At the time she was five or maybe six years old.  On more than one occasion we dove into the topic of relativism.  Let me explain.  My daughter could not define that term then and probably still could not today (6 years later).  Still there were things she was being taught in Kindergarten and first grade that would (if the course remained the same) turn out to be relativism.  These ideas were things like, “everyone’s opinion is equally valid,” “We don’t place value on any family structure, we believe they are all equal,” or other similar concepts.

I realize that some of you may not see the problem with these statements and how they lead to relativism, so let me explain.  Opinions are not all equal in value, not even close.  If you have lived in Florida your entire life and have never set foot on a mountain with snow on it, but you had opinions about how to ski waist deep powder your opinion would not be as valid is mine since I live in Colorado and have skied waist deep powder.  In addition some opinions about factual things are wrong and some are right.  Clearly the wrong ones are not as valuable as the right ones.  There are, however, times when opinions can differ and be of equal value.  For instance my opinion is that Mexican food is better than Italian (though I like both).  Maybe someone else who has had a similar amount of experience with both kinds of food believes otherwise.  Both of our opinions would be of equal value because this is a claim to facts which pertain only to the person making the statement, it is a matter of preference.

The second statement regarding family structure is actually a misguided statement and defeats itself.  The statement places value on family structure and then says it doesn’t place value on family structure.  The intent of the statement was to avoid disenfranchising families where there are two moms or dads, divorce has happened, and so on.  The end result is the disenfranchisement of those who believe a traditional family structure has greater value.  In an attempt to avoid being offensive the statement ends up being exactly that.

The point of all of this is simple; today’s teenagers have a relativistic worldview.  Postmodernism reigns supreme in their minds and things like knowledge and truth are misunderstood.  The result is teens who believe Jesus is the only way, for them.  They believe Christianity is the only true religion, but they think it would be wrong to attempt to convince someone who holds a different opinion.  They believe Jesus is God, but don’t think anyone can really know for sure.  I am not talking about fringe students who have no church background, but churched kids who have grown up with teaching from God’s word.

What are we to do?  The answer is complicated.  Christianity is based on propositions; Jesus was God, Jesus died on the cross, Jesus rose again, the price for our sins was paid by Jesus, if we put our faith in Jesus we will spend eternity with Him.  Students have been taught that those kind of propositional statements are not acceptable in the public market place.  Separation of church and everything.

We need to address relativism and postmodernism by teaching that very thing.  Christianity is true because the propositions it claims correspond to reality.  In other words, there really was a guy named Jesus, he was God whether we believe it or not, he is the only way to the Father and this is true for all people, if these things are not real we should all abandon our Christian faith.  We need to teach these things over and over again.  The Bible says a lot about things like truth and knowledge.  The concept that truth must correspond to reality is all over scripture.  When we teach on passages like 1 Cor. 15, 1 Peter 3, Malachi 2:7-8, and others, we must engage students with concepts of truth that are not relativistic.  Let me give some examples:

  • John 14:1-7
    • Questions to ask students:
      • What kind of room do you think Jesus is preparing?  How would you decorate yours?
      • What does it mean to believe in God?  What are some good reasons to believe in Him?  What are some bad reasons to believe in Him?
      • Jesus told the disciples they KNOW the way, but it doesn’t appear that they realized they knew it.  Is it possible to know something without knowing that you know it?  (You might have to explain a question like this.)
      • Jesus makes a claim that He is the only way to the father.  What does this mean for people who don’t know Him?  (The following verse Jesus says if you know Him you know the Father)
      • Jesus is making a claim that He is the truth and that the truth is the only way to go to the father.  What does this claim mean for those who claim that Jesus is not the only way?  Can both claims be true?
  • Hosea 4:6
    • Questions to ask students:
      • In Christianity we talk about faith a lot.  What is the relationship between knowledge and faith?  Can we know things about God?  How?
      • Why would a lack of knowledge e harmful?
      • God rejects those who have rejected knowledge, why would he do that?
      • We believe that all believers are priests in the sense that they are God’s representatives and that they can go directly to God, why would knowledge be necessary for being God’s representative and for going directly to Him?  What kind of knowledge might we need?

The words knowledge and truth are all over scripture.  The answer isn’t to do a series on these two themes (although that might have some value to it), but instead to change how we teach about all the claims to truth we make.  Teach as if we can actually know things about God with a high level of certainty.  When we make claims, support them with strong reasoning and not just stories or experiences.  This is not a fight we should walk away from.  There are times when it is not just ok to fight, but it is morally obligatory.  We must fight this fight!

John Byrne's Bio

John Byrne has been involved in youth ministry for more then 15 years. His ability to engage, challenge, and speak relevantly to his audience has led to speaking opportunities nationwide including camps, seminars, conferences, and training events. He has also written for Group Magazine, Youthworker Journal, and contributed to Youth Ministry Lemonade: turning “sour” experiences into leadership success. To see more of his writing check out the YM Theology blog.

John knew he wanted to be a youth pastor at the early age of 13. While attending Oak Hills Bible College he met the woman of his dreams and convinced her to marry him. After a two year honeymoon in the great state of Colorado he returned to his home state of Minnesota to finish his Biblical Studies degree from Northwestern Bible College.

John’s passion is living out the great mission (commission) in his life and helping others do the same. He does this through writing and speaking as well as missional living in his own neighborhood and community.

John is currently the Student Ministries Pastor at The Rock of Southwest, a church in Littleton, Colorado. He lives in Littleton with his wife Christa, daughter Catrina 11, and son Joash 4.


Hie thanks for the highly

Hie thanks for the highly motivating insight, I also see the problem of relativism, even here in Africa where globalisation has exposed young people to the same ideology you speak of.

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Yeah that is true students

Yeah that is true students are getting into this argument that it is the matter of preference. But we should not impose our decisions on others. Let the things sort out first and be good with all.

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