Welcoming Youth to Deep Spaces

Date Published

May 1, 2016

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Published by Calvin Seminary

When I hear the word “hospitality,” what immediately comes to mind is a picture: a room lit by the warm glow of candles, a beautifully set Thanksgiving dinner table, place cards noting a spot for each guest, and a feast of food and drink for all to enjoy. Now, of course, this is extravagant; it goes without saying that hospitality is present to us in many different forms – some extraordinary and others routine, some around the table and many in other areas of life, some in the company of many and others in a brief one-on-one encounter. But, in this picture of a quintessential Thanksgiving celebration, there is often more than just one table. If we back up, surveying the whole area, while this table remains the focal point, we often find at least one more: the kids’ table. At this table, everyday dinnerware replaces fine china, mismatched paper napkins are found in place of the pristinely matched cloth sets, and simple food dishes are served in place of the [sometimes unfamiliar!] culinary adventures of the adult table. There are reasons for this separation, many apparent and pragmatic. But, in my family, at least – a gathering much less extravagant, but nevertheless full of laughter and love – this separation raised an important question: when do I get to “graduate” to the adults table? Or, when do I get to be privy to the conversations, food, and other mysteries of that table?

These same questions, I’d contend, can get asked by young people in the church. In the past few decades, some of the well-intentioned efforts to present an age-appropriate message of the gospel have left our young people wondering when they, too, will “graduate” to the adult table. That is, when they will be privy to the deep theological conversations and questions, engage difficult theological and biblical texts, and have the opportunity to ask hard questions that go beyond the “Sunday school answer” of “Jesus.”

For some families, hospitality has meant changing – or abandoning altogether – the “kids’ table” at their family gatherings. In a similar vein, some churches and institutions have been rethinking the way they think about young people and theological education. It was this type of thinking that spurred the Lilly Endowment to pilot a new initiative in 1998: Theological Programs for High School Youth. This initiative provided grants that created opportunities for young people to explore deep biblical and theological questions, foster excitement for this type of study, and consider ministry as a vocation at a place where robust theological learning was already happening, seminaries!

Since the announcement of this initiative, over forty seminaries have created opportunities for young people who are still in high school to come to their campuses for an extended residential program. Young people were invited to live in community together, think about questions of vocation, and explore scripture, important theological texts, worship, and service, all under the guidance of faculty members, seminarians, chaplains, and local pastors. Chris Coble, Vice President of Religion for the Lilly Foundation, writes, “young people today want to make a difference … [youth theology programs] connect them to faculty and religious leaders who will h elp them explore that longing by drawing more deeply on scripture and theology as they make decisions about their futures.”

In other words, many young people deeply desire a space to think about deep, challenging biblical and theological questions, a space for serious theological study and inquiry. Rather than picturing theology as inaccessible, an obscure, arcane discipline for an elite few, these programs help us envision a way to open up the table, so to speak – a way to bring young people into conversations that once may have seemed off-limits to them.

While the grants for these seminary programs have now come to an end (grants for college youth theology programs are now being offered), the seeds that the initial Lilly grants planted and saw to fruition have created thirty-four vibrant programs around North America. As a way to continue supporting these youth theology programs, the Lilly Foundation helped to establish the Lilly Youth Theology Network. These programs have connected with some of the deep desires of young people; they highlight that young people hunger deeply for theology, for the beautiful, challenging, dynamic, rich Christian life that it points to. Indeed, the success of these programs helps to show us that not only do young people hunger for theology, they have a capacity to engage these materials – to learn difficult concepts, to teach each other, to teach those of us who have studied theology already for some time – in a robust way. These programs show us a way to enable young people to explore the riches of theology and biblical studies in a powerful way.

These programs all share a primary purpose: to explore theology with young people, giving participants opportunity to ask difficult questions about their faith, reflect theologically on contemporary challenges, and examine how faith calls us to lives of service. Embracing this primary purpose, however, each program pursues that purpose in a unique way. These programs encompass different theological traditions and emphases, different pedagogical practices, different lengths of residency, different forms of leadership, and more. The network gleans wisdom from each of these programs. Calvin Theological Seminary’s own youth theology program, Facing Your Future, has been privileged to learn with – and learn from – these programs for many years.

The Lilly Youth Theology Network and the many programs it represents have much to teach us about what it means to welcome youth into our theological education. They model ways of taking young people seriously, as learners and teachers capable of deeply engaging theology, reflecting theologically on their context, and applying themselves in ministry and service. These programs encourage young people to take classes with seminary professors, engage in interfaith dialogue, plan and lead worship services, and the list could go on. But, perhaps one of the greatest insights we can glean is that young people are ready and eager to take part in these theological explorations. They may not have already learned the language that can sometimes act as the entry point of theological study, technical language like soteriology and superlapsarian, but young people certainly have the capacity to engage the conversation – and are often eager for the challenge. What we need to do? Invite them to the table.

For more on these programs, see: youththeology.org


By Jess Driesenga


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