Emory starting theological program for future leaders who now are in high school

By David Pendered

At a time a third of the nation’s teenagers say they have no religious affiliation, Emory University is expanding its efforts to shape future leaders whose outlooks will be rooted in theology and faith.

Students repack medical supplies for distribution by Medshare to hospitals overseas. Credit: Heather Dash Conley

Students repack medical supplies for distribution by Medshare to hospitals overseas. Credit: Heather Dash Conley

The notion of reinforcing the role of theology and faith in the decision-making processes of teens seems especially pertinent at this moment in time.

Some teens are just years away from big jobs in corporate America, as baby boomers leave the workforce. Not to mention that 26 is the average age of company founders funded by Y Combinator, a venture investment company for web and mobile applications.

These trends increase society’s stake in the core values that rising leaders will rely upon as they make impactful decisions.

One way to describe Emory’s project is that it intends to reshape the methods by which teenagers make decisions. The new program is for high school students.

For example, instead of simply encouraging teens to help the poor, the program will encourage them to think of the broader issue of poverty.

“We’re very good at teaching how to do a service project, how to serve soup,” said Elizabeth Corrie, who will advise the program as she continues directing the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

“But we’re not good at making the connection between the structural reasons that people are poor to begin with and whether we, as people of faith, have something to do with why they are poor in the first place,” Corrie said.

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Students express their theology on the streets of Atlanta. Credit: Heather Dash Conley

The program will begin as a growing number of young people don’t have a religious foundation on which to base such considerations.

A 2015 report by Pew Research Center found that 36 percent of millennials aged 18 to 24 years have no religious affiliation; the rate is 34 percent for older millennials, aged 25 to 33 years.

“They don’t see church sticking its neck out on big social rights movements,” Corrie said. “They don’t see it making prophetic decisions. … We’re trying to show there is a way to be Christian that is prophetic, and make a difference in the world. Being religious allows you to become a world-changing person.”

The four-step program begins with baby steps, a course titled, “Taking Your Faith to College.” Here’s how Corrie describes some of the content:

  • “How do you think theologically about drinking and partying? How do you think theologically about romantic relations? How do you think about people who practice a different religion, or no religion at all? … If you can’t have faith when you go to a frat party, you will compartmentalize [your faith] and it will go away.”

Two components involve travel. “Praying with our Feet” involves trips to Civil Rights sites in Atlanta, Birmingham and Selma; a trip to Alabama could culminate with participation in a march on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “Journeys of Faith and Reconciliation” is a trip to Northern Ireland to visit with Protestants and Catholics. Corrie observed:

  • “Young people think religion only creates violence. ISIS. Israel and Palestine. What the Christian right is saying. There’s absolutely good reason to say that. But there’s a deep history of peace-making involving religion that needs to be brought out and shown to them.”
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Students sing and play instruments during a worship service. Credit: Credit: Heather Dash Conley

The final component is “Taste of YTI: Finding God in the City.” It’s a shorter version of the Youth Theological Initiative and is tailored for rising sophomores, junior and seniors who don’t think they have time for full three-week program, Corrie said:

  • “They’ll go out into the city of Atlanta and see different aspects of urban life, and where they see God in the midst of that. … They’ll be thinking of the theology of land, looking at gentrification and development and thinking about what does it mean to say the land belongs to the Lord, as in Psalm 24, and in Genesis, that we are stewards of the land.”

Emory is providing the program with a $600,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. This is the maximum single amount Lilly provided to a total of 82 private four-year colleges and universities in 29 states and Washington, D.C.

The endowment the private philanthropic foundation created by three members of the Lilly family, which founded the Eli Lilly and Co. pharmaceutical business. The foundation focuses on religion, education and community development, with a special interest in programs that benefit young people, according to a report on its website.
The purpose of the grants, according to Lilly, is to:

  • “[D]evelop high school youth theology institutes. The grants are part of the Endowment’s commitment to identify and cultivate a cadre of theologically minded youth who will become leaders in church and society.”

All the recipients appear to be Christian, according to Lilly’s account:

  • “Although some schools are independent, many reflect the religious heritage of their founding Christian traditions, including Baptist, Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed traditions, as well as Catholic, non-denominational, Pentecostal and historic African-American Christian communities.”

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    Students learn how to grow food and gain an appreciation for the theology of man’s use of land. Credit: Heather Dash Conley

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Students gather for vespers, a religious service in the late afternoon or evening. Credit: Heather Dash Conley

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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