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Lilly Endowment Grant Enables TU to Launch Theology Institute for High School Youth

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A new program created by Taylor University and funded with a $600,000 gift from Lilly Endowment Inc. will bring high school-aged youth who show promise for ministry and leadership, but face economic and educational challenges, to the Taylor campus for Bible and religion-related classes, study of vocational ministry, and one-on-one mentorship.

Starting this summer, the Taylor institute, Empower: Lives That Matter, will bring 32 young people to campus for a 19-day program each summer for four years. From July 11-29, they will participate in classroom activities led by theologians and trained staff; focus on local service, community building, leadership team development, and specific one-on-one mentoring with a mentor from the student’s home congregation; and be mentored in practices of the Christian faith through prayer, worship and Scripture. They will then be joined by hometown mentors who will themselves earn college or graduate credit.

The program is part of Lilly Endowment’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, which seeks to encourage young people to explore their religious beliefs and their concerns about contemporary challenges by studying theology and examining how faith calls them to lives of service. Taylor is one of 82 private four-year colleges and universities participating in the initiative. The schools are located in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Dr. Mike Severe, program director and Associate Professor in Taylor’s Biblical Studies, Christian Ministries & Philosophy Department, said faculty for the Institute will come from Taylor’s 15-member BSCEP department and cooperating institutions and be assisted by Taylor students. He added the institute will yield important research about young people’s theological and scriptural awareness and engagement in their congregations. A rigorous ongoing evaluation process will be employed to ensure yearly program improvement.

“The Institute’s activities will empower students to act on their convictions by engaging in hometown congregations,” Severe said. “As a result, these theologically-minded and exceptionally well-trained youth will be far more likely to emerge as leaders in church and society.”

To empower lives that matter, youth participants (mentees) and mentors will:

  • Reflect in depth on Christian Scripture and theology as a means for engaging specific contemporary challenges.
  • Experience God through theology and Scripture lived out in worship, Christian practices, service and intentional community.
  • Cultivate a proper, robust and growing love for God, others and creation through worship, mentoring, spiritual formation and humble lifelong learning.
  • Pursue a vocational direction while intentionally considering full-time ministry.
  • Train their worship communities in theological reflection and Scripture engagement.

The National Study of Youth and Religion has shown that many young people are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith. Teens need safe space and time to wrestle, question and doubt in order to personalize and reflect upon their own faith.

“Confronting high school students with the most important questions of our time enables them to see that their lives matter and that what they know truly does make a difference,” said Severe. “Through this Institute, national and congregational partners will select young people who not only show promise for ministry and leadership, but who come from economically and educationally challenged areas. They will be invited to join a unique program—one informed by insights from a dozen Endowment-funded initiatives that will allow them to engage Scripture and theological texts, encounter contemporary challenges intellectually and experientially, and explore religious and ministry vocations.

“We are grateful for Lilly Endowment’s visionary support of this vital program,” added Severe. “We believe the impact on the young men and women who might not have otherwise had this opportunity will be significant.”