Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bethany Seminary engages youth in thinking about faith and call

By Jenny Williams

This past summer the Institute for Ministry with Youth and Young Adults at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., invited young people to think theological thoughts and ask faith-forming questions. Amid beautiful landscapes, supplemented by worship and recreation, and surrounded by support from peers and mentors, the responses were thoughtful, deep, and encouraging.

For the first time, junior high students gathered for Immerse! on June 17-24 at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College. Explore Your Call (EYC), Bethany’s annual program for high school juniors and seniors, was held July 15-19 just prior to National Youth Conference at Colorado State University. Leadership in planning and directing both Immerse! and EYC was provided by Russell Haitch, director of the institute and  professor of Christian education, and Bekah Houff, coordinator of outreach programs. Both events are available at no cost to participants through a generous grant from Barnabas Ltd., a family foundation based in Australia that focuses on preparing people for ministry.

During Immerse!, seven junior high youth joined in exploring what it has meant to call oneself a Christian, from the time of the early church to the beginning of the Brethren movement to the 21st century. Together they studied most of the book of Acts, asking questions and discussing ways to enact the proclamation that "Jesus is alive!" in today's world. Haitch and Houff worked to provide a supportive, encouraging environment for conversations about relating to peers, differences in church traditions, and how to witness to one’s own faith. “The youth were hungry for this experience,” said Houff. “They soaked everything in and left wishing the experience had lasted longer.”

Taking advantage of the central Pennsylvania location, the group came in contact with Brethren history. Jeff Bach, director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, arranged day trips including a tour of the center led by staff member Edsel Burdge. With pastor Kevin Derr from Philadelphia First Church of the Brethren, they visited Germantown Church of the Brethren and its historic cemetery and took part in Sunday worship. A tour of Amish country included lunch with an Amish family and conversations about the different Amish traditions.

Bethany Clark, a Bethany Seminary master of divinity student, assisted with logistics for the event, led worship, and shared from her experience as youth pastor at Palmyra (Pa.) Church of the Brethren. The youth participants included Hannah Buck, Ally Dupler, Erika Fies, and Maura Longenecker from Atlantic Northeast District; Clara Brown from Southern Ohio District; Emilie Deffenbaugh from Western Pennsylvania District; and Garrett Lowe from Mid-Atlantic District.

“When we think of learning only in terms of mental or emotional development, it limits our sense of what junior high students can do,” said Haitch. “With spiritual education, when the Holy Spirit shows up, a lot of developmental assumptions go out the window. For example, as we studied the book of Acts, these youth not only asked questions but offered observations and insights that I would be happy to hear in a seminary classroom.”

Houff also appreciated the high school youth who participated in EYC, noting that “all were discerning a call in their own lives and were prepared for the EYC experience.” By focusing on the meaning and nature of being called, the theme of EYC dovetailed with the theme of National Youth Conference the following week, “Called by Christ” based on Ephesians 4. “It was good to build on the energy that the youth had for NYC, giving them basic Bible study and theological reflection before they headed into the mountaintop experience of NYC,” said Houff.

In addition to studying Ephesians, EYC youth learned about the history, styles, and planning of worship with Tara Hornbacker, professor of ministry formation, missional church, and evangelism at Bethany, who shared session leadership with Haitch. Time also was spent in worship, recreation, and a day in Rocky Mountain National Park to consider the divine in creation and the importance of caring for creation.

“There has been national research on these youth and theology summer programs over the past 20 years, and we are finding that over half of the participants go on to seminary or full-time ministry. In other words, even a week or two in high school can have a life-transforming impact,” said Haitch.

Chloe Soliday from Middle Pennsylvania District said that EYC was a “pivotal moment” for her. “It was the start of my spiritual journey, and since the conference I have been called to dive right in, applying to be a part of the Middle Pennsylvania District Youth Ministry Team. I am ecstatic to share my love for ministry, even more so now that I was baptized in August and agreed to be a disciple of Jesus and a faithful member of my congregation.” Additional participants were Jeremy Bucher and Jenna Walmer from Atlantic Northeast District and Courtney Hawkins from Virlina District.

Plans are underway for a second Immerse! to be held in 2016. In 2015, Explore Your Call will return to its standard 10-day duration at Bethany Seminary, scheduled for July 24-Aug. 3. Information about the event and registration will be released in the coming months. Contact Bekah Houff at houffre@bethanyseminary or 765-983-1809.

-- Jenny Williams is director of communications and alumni/ae relations for Bethany Theological Seminary.

Source: 9/16/2014 Newsline

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