Youth program equips with experience, not "how-to’s"

“Have you heard the Bible so much that you have stained glass in your ears?” The Rev. Canon Bill Cliff, tall and broad-shouldered, addresses a room of youth leaders. He wears a purple polo shirt with “CHAPLAIN” on the back and slips off his shoes occasionally to pace barefoot. “The gospel is always astonishing,” he continues. “If it’s not, then you’re probably not reading it right.”

Alex Starr (right) from the Diocese of New Westminster learns new ways of engaging with scripture at Ask & Imagine.
Alex Starr (right) from the Diocese of New Westminster learns new ways of engaging with scripture at Ask & Imagine.

This lecture on “Engaging youth with Scripture” started off a sunny May day at Ask & Imagine (A&I), the Anglican-Lutheran leadership program that has equipped hundreds of youth with hands-on experiences since 1999.

In this animated lecture, Canon Cliff and A&I folk practised how to guide “astonishing” discussions on familiar parables. Flip-flops slapped and chairs squeaked as people jumped in to ask and answer questions.

Eleven  years of “thinking leaders”

Based at Huron University College in London, Ont., A&I started small, targeting only Ontario Anglicans aged 16 to 19.

Now A&I runs ten-day programs in May and August for Anglican and Lutheran youth from across Canada. Community is key. Participants cook, live, study theology, and ask tough questions—all together.

Director Judy Steers said that through all these changes, A&I’s goal has been to develop “thinking leaders with skills in discernment and theological reflection.”

“So much of what we do in youth ministry formation is program anticipation—how-to stuff,'” she explained. “I think we need to take a step back from that and ground people in church history and make them acquainted with how we think about decisions and explore scripture.”

Learning by doing (and eating)

Theological formation is certainly important at A&I—Huron staff offer classes on ethics and church history—but all this is supplemented by time for percolation. A personal retreat is built into the agenda, as is an active day of “high ropes.” When participants do learn new spiritual exercises for youth (like “Godly Play” or “Blob Spirituality”) they are invited to first experience it themselves.

“This program develops one’s own faith,” said Tara Anderson, a youth leader from Ottawa. “I came to develop myself.” Ms. Anderson, who leads a new youth group of mid-teens, said she liked that the program was more than just a one-off workshop. Because she is in community, she enjoys processing new ideas with the woman who lives next to her in the A&I residence—a large cottage in a leafy corner of campus.

Not surprisingly, food is a key hub point at A&I. Every day a team prepares soup in a sunny kitchen, where discussions often spring up over peeling carrots and stirring pots. At lunchtime the whole A&I group gathers at a huge oval table to pray and partake of the soup together.

Part of A&I’s philosophy, explained Ms. Steers, is that the whole day is an integrated learning experience. Cooking teaches practical skills but it also packs a theological punch: “You can talk about Eucharist,” she said, “but when we gather around a meal and pray together, that’s when it becomes real.”

Ways to grow

Cooperative cooking has only been a part of A&I since 2007. It’s one of the many tweaks leadership has made over the years to deepen the learn-by-doing ethos.

The May 2010 session marks another A&I first: including youth ministers of all ages. The Rev. David Burrows of Mount Pearl, Nfld. has sent nine youth from his parish and was excited to experience A&I himself.

“The young people always come back enthused and willing to take on larger leadership roles,” he said, noting that eight of the nine A&I alumni are now active church leaders.

As a participant, Mr. Burrows has seen the value in A&I’s diversity. “It’s a really good perspective for me to see how other people are engaged as youth leaders…there’s a broad spectrum of people learning here.”

A&I continues to broaden its diversity by increasing connections with ecumenical partners. A&I is now a joint program with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, a full communion partner of the Anglican Church of Canada. The August A&I session (half Anglicans and half Lutherans) will help provide programming for the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering.

Farther ahead, A&I will also be involved with Common Ground 2011, a joint venture with the Presbyterian, United, and Lutheran churches.

What else is on the horizon? A&I has a history of engaging the church’s hot topics (including residential schools and sexuality), so Ms. Steers said A&I is exploring how they can connect with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools. One possibility is to organize a canoe trip with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth.

Taking it home

After 11 years of A&I work, Ms. Steers said she still gets excited about each unique session. “It’s not like it’s a formula that works,” she explained. “[People] learn, grow, then translate these experiences back into the local community.”

Judi Colp, a youth leader from Nineveh, N.S., plans to do just that. At the end of a full A&I day, she curled up on a couch and reflected on how healing the Godly Play session had been for her. She and several others had listened quietly as a leader used simple toys to guide them through a thoughtful retelling of the lost sheep parable.

“I was feeling burnt out,” said Ms. Colp, “but now I’m excited to go back and try new things.”

Ask & Imagine is funded by Huron University College, Lilly Endowment Inc. and other organizations. For more information, visit their website.

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