Only time will tell whether these are the best or worst of times for doctrine. On the one hand, many church leaders seem to sense that evangelicals must become reacquainted with Scripture as understood and taught throughout history. On the other hand, surveys indicate that they may struggle to convince younger believers that God's Word trumps experience and prevailing cultural norms. But new efforts to promote doctrinal formation in evangelical churches are trying to overcome Western culture's aversion to theological precision and exclusivity.
Belief in God remains somewhat stable among American evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29, according to data released in February by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Across all age groups, around 80 percent believe in life after death. About the same percentage trust the Bible as the inspired or literal Word of God, though that number spikes between 5 and 10 percentage points starting around age 60.
But the data begins to alarm when you examine other key doctrines. Pluralism in particular has ravaged young evangelicals' confidence in Jesus Christ's claims that he alone shows the way to the Father in heaven. Asked whether many religions can lead to eternal life, 52 percent of evangelicals from the so-called millennial generation agreed. Only 43 percent said Christianity is the one true faith that leads to eternal life. It doesn't help that barely more than half of these young evangelicals read the Bible weekly.
The Pew survey accords with findings from the National Study on Youth and Religion, analyzed by sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell for Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. They observed a fascinating side effect of Western society's value on diversity. Instead of appreciating differences, emphasizing diversity tends to devalue distinctive beliefs. So all religions tend to look similar to someone weaned on Western notions of tolerance and wary of exclusive claims. Nothing is more foundational to American education than tolerance, according to Adam Kotsko, visiting assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College.
"In fact, in my experience my students' commitment to keeping an open mind and valuing others' opinions is so strong that it's often difficult to convince them to express straightforward disagreement with each other," he wrote for Inside Higher Ed in a column advocating a theological approach to teaching Christianity. "We all of course want to avoid the nightmare scenario of a professor who grades on the basis of agreement and attempts to 'indoctrinate' students on that basis, but even such a person would most likely wind up doing a disservice to his cause by definitively turning students off to Christianity due to their very healthy aversion to close-mindedness."
It might appear, then, that doctrine has no pull in this age that shuns indoctrination. Indeed, Smith and Snell find that young adults hold their religious beliefs in abstract, "mentally checked off and filed away." Doctrine does not determine their lives. Religion is about being good and living a good life, not believing the right things. But this approach draws a false dichotomy between belief and behavior. In fact, the idea that religion boils down to good works is itself doctrinal, if erroneous from an orthodox Christian perspective. It makes a doctrinal distinction by privileging Jesus' ethical teachings over his work on the Cross and in the Resurrection. It rejects Jesus' interpretation of his sacrifice as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Young adults who buy into this view follow a well-worn path trod by liberal theologians in the last two centuries.