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Engaging young minds

What happens when those in high school read Luther and Bonhoeffer?

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.

The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

Let’s ask the theologian in the room.” A common statement, made far too often in church settings with large groups of people. There is a misconception that theologians are only those who have seminary training or graduate level coursework under their belt. As if theology, or talk about God, were limited to professionals.

But a theologian is one who seeks to discern who God is and what God is up to in the world. By that definition, a theologian isn’t defined by education, job description or even age. Anyone seeking answers to their questions about who God is, by that definition, is a theologian. In fact, I learn as much about who God is through the voices of the 9- and 10-year-olds in my Sunday school class as I do from the pulpit.

 So why are ministries for youth often designed around the entertainment factor? The guiding question informing youth ministry practices often ends up being “How do we grab and keep their attention?” When did we lose sight of the fact that youth have brains that can handle abstract reasoning? Complex thought? When did we fail to remember that youth have burning questions about God, sin and the devil? Frankly, if we as a church don’t engage these young minds around complex ideas addressing real world issues, someone or something else will.

Addressing the vacuum 

In 1998, the Lilly Endowment came up with a plan to address this vacuum in the church. The Theological Programs for High School Youth Initiative provides funding and support for theological schools to create learning opportunities that meet two primary goals. The first is to stimulate and foster an excitement about theological learning and inquiry. The second is to identify and encourage talented Christian youth to consider vocations in the ministry. How these goals are met is left up to each academic institution.

Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton [N.J.] Theological Seminary, recently spoke at a Lilly-sponsored gathering of directors, faculty and institution presidents of these theological programs, sharing insights from her research on these efforts. She said all of the programs create a place for youth to fall in love with theology and to expand their vocational imagination. And the ministry of the church is actually expanded by the participation of the youth in new ministry settings and events as a result of these programs.

Since the late 1990s, Lilly has granted nearly $100 million to almost 50 academic institutions across denominational lines. From this original pool, 37 programs are still in existence; six can be found at ELCA institutions.

• Augsburg College, Minneapolis: Youth Theology Institute.

• Luther College, Decorah, Iowa: WIYLDE — Wholly Iowa Youth Leadership Discipling Event.

• Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago: Youth in Mission.

• Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and at Philadelphia: Theological Education with Youth. 

 Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio: Summer Seminary Sampler.

• Wartburg Theological Seminary,  Dubuque, Iowa: Wartburg’s Youth Leadership School.

Each is as distinct as the institution that sponsors it. Held primarily in the summer, these programs vary in length from five days to two weeks. Activities include, but aren’t limited to, cultural immersions, service projects, worship, classroom time with faculty, adventures on a high ropes course, and plenty of time in spiritual practices and vocational discernment. Students leave these programs thinking creatively about their identity as children of God, having their imaginations shaped and formed in community, and challenged to think in new ways.


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