Dr. M. Thomas Thangaraj, professor of world Christianity at Candler School of Theology, learned that "Seventeen-year-olds want to have serious conversations with adults who are not their parents."

It’s pretty innocuous as name changes go. It doesn’t even mess up the initials. But when the Youth Theology Institute became the Youth Theological Initiative, it marked the coming of age of a program that has, in ten years, reached beyond its beginnings as a month-long summer theology academy for students about to enter their senior year of high school. The summer program at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta is still the center of YTI, but the research that has been going on over the years is reaching a critical mass, and the initiative is beginning to see itself as the place where youth ministers and others who work closely with young people can work and talk together with those who have a more academic approach to the topic.

When In Trust first reported on YTI in the autumn of 1995, it described its participants as “changing the future shape of theological education.” The participants it had in mind were the scholars (YTI students are always referred to as “scholars,” to help emphasize that they are not passive learners, that they are responsible for their own learning). And indeed, scholars have been doing interesting things as direct results of their YTI experience, like writing scholarly papers rooted in what happened to them. Almost without exception, at some point in their description of their YTI experience, scholars will say, “It was the first time I was part of a real community, the first time I was free to be fully myself.” The intense community, created by sixty scholars and a faculty that includes unusual roles like “wise person in residence” living, working, playing, and praying together is the core of the experience.

But the initiative’s new director as of August, Faith Kirkham Hawkins, has noted that faculty, too, are transformed by the month they spend in a total learning community. Part of that awareness is personal: she taught at the institute while she was a doctoral student. When she went on to teach at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, she was involved in faculty development in the area of effective teaching, and the workshops she led were largely based on her YTI experience. Conversations both formal and informal with other YTI staff have convinced her that it’s not just summer scholars who will change the face of theological education.

Forming New Teachers
“I’d like fellow faculty to know of my profound debt of gratitude to them and ultimately to God to live and work with them in one of the most important contexts I’ve ever been part of.” That’s not the voice of a neophyte teacher, fresh from his first YTI experience. It’s Gilbert Bond, assistant professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, who hasn’t taught at YTI in seven years. He was part of YTI’s first faculty, back in 1993, when he was a grad student just through with his exams. Right away he became aware of two things. First, he felt his sense of vocation confirmed. Second, he became permanently convinced that it is necessary to create a theological community to teach theology. In the three summers he taught at the institute, he found the community, “born anew each year,” he said, “as we became one in unexpected ways.” But although he credits the Holy Spirit, he points out that the community happened because it was nurtured. He taught a class entitled “becoming community for ourselves and for others,” incorporating pilgrimages to places around Atlanta where people were being intentional about sharing their lives—and along the way, students did their own work of community building until, as Bond describes it, “I ended up teaching incarnational theology instead of theology of the incarnation.” 

"Fifty of the best friends I'll ever have" is one scholar's description of his fellow YTI participants.

He’s teaching in a different context now. He describes his first-year students at Yale as largely second-career, with a greater quantity of life experience, but not necessarily any more theologically proficient than were the YTI scholars. His juniors are, he said, “tremendously insecure.” And so, again, he is trying to create a theological community in which every student can come to his or her own voice, in which there is a place to connect with older texts. “I’ve learned that beginning every seminar with prayer is integral to the community,” he said.

Reforming Teachers
Thomas Thangaraj was already well settled into his role as Candler’s professor of world Christianity when YTI began, and he had taught in India for ten years before that. Still, he faced his first YTI summer with, he said, “a sense of adventure ... and fear and trembling. My teaching experience had only been with motivated graduate students.”

Thangaraj learned two things quickly: First, “You don’t need to act like a seventeen-year-old to reach the kids.” Second, “Seventeen-year-olds want to have serious conversations with adults who are not their parents.”

He did have to adjust some of his teaching strategies. “I felt like I was holding very precious crystal in my hand,” he said. “I’m used to teaching those who are already deeply committed, so I don’t worry about them losing their faith. I jolt them, shake them. I couldn’t do that with the kids.”

He realized that he could do serious theology with them, though, and he has taken lessons learned at YTI back into his M.Div. classes. “I’ve forced myself to make theology as accessible as possible,” he said, and when he asks his students to define the task of theology, he makes sure that clarity of expression and the democratizing of theology are part of the task.

Forming Pastors

Laurie Fields and Wade Halva were the first couple to meet at YTI and later marry.

Laurie Fields has experienced YTI from two sides. A scholar in the first summer institute, she returned the summer she graduated from college to serve as a mentor. Both experiences changed her life. Her YTI experience as a scholar challenged her to reach beyond her comfort zone, to acknowledge that even though she was educated in public school, she had a privileged education, that even though she’d gone to a fairly diverse school, her honors track wasn’t all that diverse. When In Trust spoke to her recently, Fields, now a Presbyterian pastor in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, had just preached a sermon about Peter stepping out of the boat to walk toward Jesus, testing, but stepping out of safe space. “I didn’t mention YTI in the sermon,” she said, “but that was my image for being called to move beyond comfort.”

When she returned as mentor, she was able to see how far she’d come in a few years. She was amazed at how driven her students were: she talks about walking down halls after midnight, “literally pulling books out of girls’ hands and saying, ‘You have to get some sleep.’” She saw how important free time is when she saw how hard it was resisted; when scholars were forced to choose only one elective, she saw that “it was shattering for some of them to be limited.”

Her second summer at YTI was also a chance for Fields to look at the limits of community. Two scholars had disciplinary issues that summer: one went home after being given the choice of apologizing or leaving. The other, whose behavior was “bordering on sexual harassment,” stayed (under supervision). One scholar said, “If he goes home, he sees his dad treat his mom like that every day. Here he has to do things differently for at least two weeks.”

Fields went on to earn an M.Div. at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, following a deepening sense of call that had begun before YTI. “It came from the community, it was other people who started me thinking about it.” How did her seminary experience compare to YTI? She thinks on the whole that her school is a good one, but “I was spoiled,” she said. “I expected classes to be exciting and full of energy. And not just for me, but for second-career students who were struggling with forms—like writing papers—and not getting to ask the questions they needed to ask.” She was frustrated enough with the pedagogical style—not the content—of a two-semester course that she wrote on the evaluation, “I feel like I taught seventeen-year-olds more in three weeks than we got in this class.”

And the Rest of the World
YTI was never designed to attract young people into the ministry—although engagement with theology has led some (like Laura and her husband Wade Halva) in that direction. But “imagining new possibilities for the public good,” has been an ideal of the project from its first grant proposal. Some graduates are doing that imagining from outside the church.

Peter Pope didn’t grow up in an especially churched home, but that changed when he was ten and his mother married an independent charismatic minister and quickly became one herself. Peter’s involvement with the church was total—he even preached a few times. But as he entered adolescence, he began what he describes as typical adolescent questioning—and he became interested in the study of religion, something he didn’t think his church encouraged.

Pope got the brochure from YTI in the mail, he suspects as a result of the interest boxes he checked when he took the PSATs. He applied, was accepted, and embarked on what he called, “The pivotal moment in my life—granted that I’m only 23. It was the first time I came into a community without any walls up and a with sense of complete and utter possibility.” He asked his questions, he celebrated his personal growth, but also his sense of being there for other people. 

Peter Pope described his YTI experience as "a pivotal moment" in his life.

Pope started college as a religion major with an interest in becoming a psychotherapist, but in his second year he wrote a paper on representations of Eve in film and suddenly gained a new understanding of liberal arts as a place of connections. Convinced that “nothing in our society is unimportant,” he began focusing on television as his primary interest, and although he is unemployed at the moment, he spent a year and a half as a production assistant. He dreams of having his own production company.

His faith journey has been complicated. He used the title “Christian” for a while, visiting churches with friends, then flirted with Judaism, then decided he’d never find the perfect denomination and “chose the moniker ‘spiritual’” rather than religious. Now he describes himself as agnostic, but the label is more about avoiding definitions than making one, he said.

He felt a brief tug toward church membership after the September 11 terrorist attacks; he wanted to volunteer, and he wanted to do it through a church, but he didn’t want to join without full commitment. For now, he said, he is focusing on himself, as he looks for a job: “I chose my career for a reason,” he said, “and I feel whole when I’m working.”

Lessons Shared 
The research that YTI has been involved in goes in two directions. First, there is the study of the summer academy itself. Scholars have been interviewed about their experiences during and after their summer. The academy itself is an ongoing workshop—this year, for example, in response to a sense of dislocation that scholars feel when they leave, time was spent in the last week talking about strategies and practices for carrying what they’d experienced back home, and parents and people who provided recommendations were sent letters about the process.

As other youth theology programs have sprouted around the country, funded by a series of grants from the Lilly Endowment, quite a few former YTI faculty are getting to try out different takes on the model and creating a new body of literature. They are eager to continue conversation with others writing and working in the field, both in academic and congregational contexts. A conference in September will bring together academics and youth workers. Faith Hawkins is a little nervous. “There’s a perceived or real gulf between the groups, and we’re looking to bridge it,” she said.

The academy can serve as a model here, too: “holy listening” is their watchword, and perhaps these groups can thereby come together as gracefully as do theologians and high schoolers, to create community anew.

Turning Things Upside Down
Don Richter was the YTI’s first director. He has since become program associate for the Valparaiso Project, an attempt to help Christians with the practice of their faith. Recently he co-edited a book: Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens (Upper Room Books, Nashville, 310 pages, $16). Richter collaborated with Jack DePaolo, a high school sophomore from Asheville, North Carolina, on the chapter on play, from which this excerpt is taken.

I sometimes imagine Jesus as a jester—a quick-witted, playful guy with a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. You can see his jester skills when he tells parables that prod people to reframe their lives. Having a little problem figuring out who your neighbor is? “Well now,” Jesus muses, “suppose you’re lying facedown in a ditch after being beaten and robbed, and the very person who stops by to help you is the kind of person you most fear and despise. Could you possibly bring yourself to consider this person your neighbor? Or would you rather just lie there in the dirt and die?” (You can almost see self-righteousness squirming in its seat.)

Or what if a Roman soldier marches by and officiously orders you to carry his backpack for a mile? (This happened all the time in countries the Roman Empire occupied.) You could always boil with anger or seethe with resentment, but instead Jesus suggests a playful third way. Carry the pack without complaint for one mile, as requested. But when the soldier reaches out for his pack at the next mile marker, continue walking and say, with a friendly smile, “Hey, I’m just getting warmed up. I’ll be glad to carry this thing another mile for you. This is fun!”

Now the soldier is off-balance, because by law he can force you to carry his pack for only one mile. If he lets you carry the pack an extra mile, he’ll get in trouble with his superiors. And if he tries to explain that you offered to carry it, they’ll laugh in his face and throw him in the brig. So this mighty soldier is reduced to pleading with you to give him back his pack. Puh-leez.

Do you see what Jesus is up to here? This is radical play. The kind of play that upsets the powerful and self-important and delights those who are weighted down and oppressed. The authorities—who have lost all sense of playfulness to their own lives—do not like this unconventional activity one bit. They huddle together and vow to put an end to Jesus and his jester ways.

Even Jesus’s own friends lose their sense of play from time to time. One day Jesus hears his disciples arguing among themselves about who will be first in line, sit at the head of the table, and get the biggest reward in heaven. So what does Jesus do? He puts a child on his lap and tells these “grown-ups” that unless they change their ways and become like children, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 18:1-5; Mark 9:34; Luke 9:46.) Then Jesus probably plays a few rounds of scissors, paper, rock—the first-century version anyway—with the proud youngster.

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