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Lux Summer Theological Institute uses ‘a different model’ to spur youth engagement


Two-week experience challenges high school students to think creatively about their theology

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The application deadline for the 2020 Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth is Jan. 1, 2020. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Lux Summer Theological Institute for Youth at Monmouth College in Illinois is looking for 22 high school students who want to think deeply next summer about their theology around environmental justice.

The 2020 institute, “A New Earth: Thinking Theologically about Environmental Justice,” is set for June 14-28 at Monmouth College, a private liberal arts institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A $226,000 five-year renewal grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. means that youth can attend for $300 each (with scholarships available), plus the cost of travel either to Monmouth College or one of two Chicago airports. A free airport shuttle will deliver students to the institute and take them back to the airport when they’re done.

The Rev. Jessica Hawkinson

The Rev. Jessica Hawkinson, associate chaplain at Monmouth College and the director of the institute, said the goal is to “introduce students to creative ways that theology can shape the way they think about the world.” The faculty is a mix of professors from Monmouth College  and doctoral students from other institutions, including the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, the University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University.

A majority of the youth accepted into the program are Presbyterians, “mostly because they are the network we have recruited for, although we’re striving to make it more ecumenical,” said the Rev. Dr. Teri Ott, dean of the chapel at Monmouth College. Her husband, Dr. Daniel Ott, associate professor of philosophy at Monmouth College and religious studies department chair, came up with the idea for hiring doctoral students to augment the institute’s offerings a few years ago.

“They get a nice stipend,” she said, “and they get some teaching experience.”

Click here to watch a short film about what some participants learned during last year’s institute.

A big emphasis is on community-building, Ott said. That’s why the institute takes two weeks rather than the standard one-week run.

The Rev. Teri Ott

“It is that second week when you are getting sick of each other,” she said. “It gets hard and the drama goes on high during the second week, but the relationships last a lifetime. They leave with new skills, theological and biblical, and the value of community.”

Hawkinson said the reward of long-term community development “has been a big surprise for me as the director. They stay in touch,” using tools ranging from traditional pen pals to social media. “They pray for each other, and that has been a really neat outcome.”

Graduates of the institute have become Young Adult Volunteers, started community gardens — and are even considering attending seminary once they’ve completed their undergraduate degree.

“We are seeing the ripple effects, even after three years,” Hawkinson said.

The Lilly Endowment, she said, is interested in tracking the students following their Lux institute experience.

“They have done a lot of research that shows that may of the students who go through (Lilly Endowment-supported high school theology initiatives) are remarkable contributors to the current church and the future of the church, across denominations,” she said. Students “are interpreting vocation in interesting ways, and they see themselves as change agents.”

“It’s not as hard as you think to make change,” says Kaitlynn Pillion of Plainfield, Illinois, one of last summer’s participants, in the promotional video on the institute’s website. “There are options out there. You can actually go out to a food pantry and help there, or you can spread awareness.”

“Deep down, it really made a difference,” she said of her experience, “whether it be for a handful of people or for the entire community. You know something changed and something happened — and it was worth it.”

Ott said the institute isn’t for everyone. A former youth pastor, she said that every church has one youth “who wants to dive deep, who underlines items in their church bulletin. We are saying, ‘Send that one kid to us.’ They come here and they realize they are not so odd, that there are other young people with the same kinds of questions. It’s thrilling to watch the community build and for them to find each other.”

Hawkinson said another benefit is that youth who attend “discover the relevance of the church in the world in ways that many churches struggle with. They go back and see their local congregation as a place with new life, with the possibility of engagement and change. They get a toolkit for how to make those changes.”

Ott said one of the go-to tools in her youth ministry work was “taking youth to a mega youth group experience in a stadium with a praise band.”

“But the church can’t recreate that,” she said. “We really aim to build a different experience. When they get home, they are more excited to plug into church to help lead the church into more social and community engagement. It is a different model.”

To apply or learn more, click here.

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