Enrollment at theological schools in the United States and Canada has dropped each year for the last 10 years, as theological educators are keenly aware. In the same period, church membership and participation have dropped more than 8 percent, according to data from the Pew Research Center, the General Social Survey, and individual denominations. Of particular concern is the lower level of church-grounded religious commitment among the younger generation — in fact, the Pew study reports in 2010 that a third of Americans ages 18 to 25 were religiously unaffiliated, a higher proportion than in previous generations at the same age.

It makes you wonder where our future religious leaders will come from. Will there be a leadership vacuum in parishes and congregations in the years to come? 

Some look to “fix the problem” of church decline through new strategies like informal and emotionally expressive worship styles, less hierarchy in church polity, use of social media to enhance or form Christian communities, and reduction of educational requirements for authorized ministers. The hope is that new leaders will emerge naturally for a new kind of church. 

But in How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education — If We Let It, co-editors Kenda Creasy Dean and Christy Lang Hearlson present a leadership development approach that is more fundamental and more theological. They illuminate a vocational discernment process for children on up to young adults — an intentional process of formation that culminates in a call to ministry and enrollment in seminary for graduate theological education.  The centerpiece of the book is an experiment to reinvigorate vocational discernment through the formation of youth. And its unique variation is using seminaries in this very formation — seminaries that teach not just graduate students, but also high school students. 

The foreword, written by Craig Dykstra, former senior vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment Inc., explains the vision: give teens the opportunity for serious theological inquiry so that together, with the help of theological educators, they can create learning communities and drink in the “prayers, poems, and ideas of generation upon generation who tried to know and worship and be faithful to God” (page xvii). In the Lilly Endowment–funded experiment, participating seminaries were asked to help create new summer programs for high school students that might awaken in them a call to ministry through serious theological exploration and the spiritual practices of vocational discernment. And then, of course, these schools were asked to follow up to see what happened. 

Why teenagers? In the opening chapters, co-editors Dean and Hearlson point out that “while as many as 40 percent of teens attend religious youth groups for an extended period of time, three out of four millennials say religion does not matter much to them” (p. 7). To explore this tension — a lot of teens attend youth group but nevertheless say that formal religious practice is not important — seminaries invited teens to experience vocational discernment as it has occurred throughout the history of the church while particularly emphasizing the seminary’s own tradition, whether mainline Protestant, evangelical, or Catholic.  

The grand experiment, which eventually involved 20,000 teens, was launched in 1993. Dykstra and his associate, Christopher Coble, gambled that with Lilly funding, seminaries might be able to address two issues: not just getting talented young people to consider ministry, but also providing vigorous leadership down the line to reform congregations (p. 9). 

Forty-seven seminaries in the United States and Canada eventually received funding to design and implement programs, and the results were dramatic. More than one-quarter of the participants later said that they planned to enroll in seminary, and another 28 percent said they were considering doing so. But Dean and Hearlson caution readers not to try to make a formula out of the experiment. “Often the people trying to solve the problem are the people causing the problem” (p. 32), they say, suggesting that the call to ministry is not a problem to be solved but is rather a response to Christ’s call to discipleship. It is a work of the Spirit of God. 

The major discoveries of the experiment are well worth the read. First, the seminaries discovered that teens hunger for theology. They want to face the big questions of meaning like “Why are we here?” and “What will we do with our lives?” and “What will come of our having been here?” Adults sometimes underestimate how attractive theology is to young people and their ability to engage in it at a high level.  Second, many young people have an underestimated capacity for religious leadership. The programs offered youth the opportunity to be leaders in the religious communities they formed, and many developed a maturity and competence in leadership that led to joy — especially when they were invited back the following year to be leaders. 

Third, awakening to a vocation for ministry is a communal exploration, and a key factor is immersion in a community of discernment. It is not about the quests of isolated individuals to name their passions or aptitudes for careers.

Fourth, certain spiritual practices encourage vocational discernment. The book presents essays by a sample of the seminary project directors who explain how these practices were built into the programs at their schools. Some of these practices included exposure to disruptive experiences and encountering difference. Others involved creating experiences of liminality, of deep belonging, and of holy struggle. The pilgrimage motif sometimes figured into the experience of these young people as they left home, walked toward a holy destination, and reintegrated back home as transformed people. 

How Youth Ministry Can Change Theological Education - If We Let It, ed. by Kendra Creasy Dean and Christy Lang Hearlson (Eerdmans, 2016, 331 pp., $30).

How can theological educators benefit from the programs in youth theological formation? After all, it’s highly unlikely that Lilly Endowment will launch another round of grant-making to seminaries to design and execute youth programs. Instead, today’s educators can learn from what has already been done. 

This volume offers all theological schools, as well as leaders of denominations, congregations, camps, and colleges, critical insights into how to awaken a call to ministry in a new generation. The pedagogical practices that were effective in seminary settings can be adapted to other contexts, and institutions can work in concert to build networks and whole ecologies of formative communities that invite young people into lives of faith and service.

Because even older students often begin their theological education without a clear sense of vocation, it may be useful for seminaries to build these pedagogies into their curricula to help students of all ages discern their vocations in the communal setting of the seminary.

Seminaries are communities of vocational discernment that form people who bear Christ’s image in the world and in turn will form others in their callings to discipleship and ministry. The church will be reshaped by them. Now that the grand experiment in Lilly-funded youth programs has yielded positive findings, it’s our job as theological educators to ensure that we don’t forget the lessons that it can continue to teach.

This book can help us to remember, learn, and adapt. 

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