July 21, 2003

Research shows YTI's long-lasting impact

Michael Terrazas

For 10 summers the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) has welcomed a group of rising high school seniors for an intensive, monthlong residency on campus, where the teenagers are invited to explore their deeper theological questions in the hopes that some of them might be drawn to ministry or other forms of theologically informed leadership in church and society.

This summer, for instance, the 54 YTI scholars might be seen learning the art of improvisational theater as a tool to take back to their respective churches. Or perhaps they are visiting a local temple to see for themselves an example of the Jewish faith. Or maybe they’re simply tossing the frisbee on the Quadrangle between classroom sessions on subjects like apocalpytic literature, world religions or religion and violence.

Whatever the activity, YTI staff long have suspected the program makes a difference, and now they have the research to prove it.

The program is compiling data from a survey sent to more than 500 former YTI scholars, inquiring about their current interests and any effects they feel their YTI experience had on them. Though some of the numbers have yet to be crunched, what has been evaluated is enough to show that youth theology programs—and YTI in particular—do indeed have a measurable influence on the young people who experience them.

“Theological education with youth benefits the youth themselves, their religious communities and the wider society,” said Faith Kirkham Hawkins, YTI director and assistant professor of youth and education in the Candler School of Theology. “We’ve learned that helping young people engage in sustained and critical theological reflection promotes within them a commitment to renewal of the church in society.”

Hawkins and her colleagues also have learned that fully 85 percent of YTI alumni who responded to the survey report at least some participation in their local faith communities, and 65 percent describe that participation as “active” or “very active.”

Further, even though Hawkins said YTI never has focused exclusively on scholars interested in ministry, their research shows YTI participants are pursuing the ministry in significantly higher numbers than the general population—and the oldest YTI alums are only about 27, while the average seminary student is in his or her early 30s, according to David White, YTI research director. White hopes to produce a document on the YTI research targeted toward a lay audience, as well as submit scholarly articles for publication.

“With this age group, their early faith has been destabilized, and we’re helping them explore questions in ways that allow them to weave it into a broader framework,” White said. “A lot of the church contexts they come from don’t allow them to explore theological questions on a deep level; one of the most powerful aspects is just being here with other youth who have similar interests.”

“One goal of YTI is to help them realize they have to claim their own faith,” Hawkins said. “That doesn’t mean a rejection of their parents’ faith, but just because their minister or parents or friends tell them X is so, that doesn’t make it so. They may come to believe X is so, but it will be through their own processes.”

They also learn that adults have had many of the same questions. In a plenary session this summer, instructor Janet Melnyk (an assistant professor of religious studies at Clark Atlanta) shared that, when she was 4 years old growing up in a small town in Kansas, she asked her minister why, if Jesus Christ died and spent three days in hell before he was resurrected, he told a thief hanging next to him on another cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

The minister, Melnyk said, was “not too thrilled” with either the question or the fact that a 4-year-old girl was asking it. “Now,” Melnyk said, “I know the questions are sometimes more important than the answers.”

Thanks a to four-year, $2.2 million grant this spring from the Lilly Endowment, YTI will help teenagers find their own answers for at least four more years. Lilly has supported YTI—formerly the Youth Theology Institute, but the name was changed to reflect a program that now operates year-round—since its inception, and the new grant also provides support for a fundraising campaign designed to ensure the program continues into the future.

“Developing a group of theologically articulate and reflective youth,” Hawkins said, “strengthens the church as much as developing an educated and reflective citizenry strengthens democracy.”