By Siana Emery for AMBS
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — This summer, nine teenagers from across the U.S. participated in !Explore: A Theological Program for High School Youth, eager to strengthen their leadership skills and further develop their personal faith. Since 2004, the annual summer program hosted by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, has provided a context for nearly 170 high school students to explore theology, ministry, spiritual practices, service, and relationship-building.
“!Explore has given me a whole new lens to see the world and to view God, ” said Linda Moyo of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas, a participant in this summer’s program who is now a freshman at Bethel College in North Newton. “A quote on my mind the whole time was, ‘We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.’ I feel like being in !Explore allowed me to step out of seeing things as I am. This will allow me to grow as a person in whatever God’s calling for me is.”
!Explore features two main components: a Congregational Experience and a Group Experience. During the Congregational Experience, which consists of a 100-hour internship at the youth’s home church, participants work with a pastoral mentor on three practical ministry skills of their choice, such as preaching, leading worship, teaching Sunday school or offering pastoral care. They also choose a spiritual discipline to practice for the duration of the program, such as journaling, Lectio Divina or fasting. Moyo, for example, focused on helping plan Sunday school for intergenerational groups, and her chosen spiritual practices consisted of five days of fasting on water and also from social media.
The Group Experience, which took place July 3-18 at AMBS, brings the students together for two weeks of theological exploration, community building and personal growth. While living at AMBS, the students discuss and research theological questions they posed when applying for the program; learn from AMBS faculty members about worship leading, preaching and pastoral care; and participate in local service and outreach projects. The youth also pray together daily and prepare a chapel service for the seminary community. The Group Experience includes time for discussions with AMBS faculty and event pastors.
“!Explore helped broaden my perspective and helped teach me new skills on how to deal with different situations. It also helped lay a foundation of different ways to look at theological questions or issues,” said Miguel Santiago of Souderton, Pennsylvania, a high school junior from Blooming Glen (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church. “It gives you an opening to see different aspects of church leadership and to be involved in that more.”
During his Congregational Experience, Santiago led youth worship times and provided leadership in communicating with youth and adults.
Mike Ford, associate pastor of youth at Blooming Glen and Santiago’s pastoral mentor, said he appreciates that the program is “Anabaptist-based, but allows a generous orthodoxy and expression of faith, and encourages questions and leadership development.” Ford also affirms the program’s goal of inspiring and igniting theological exploration in young people while also promoting fellowship and social growth.
During the Group Experience, participants build connections within the larger community. This year, the group served people who are homeless in two South Bend, Indiana, churches; spent time at Hungry World Farm in Tiskilwa, Illinois; visited with residents at Greencroft, a continuing care living community in Goshen, Indiana; and served at Lacasa, a nonprofit housing agency in Goshen/Elkhart.
Outreach is an integral part of church leadership, and these opportunities pushed !Explore participants out of their comfort zones, said Scott Litwiller, an AMBS Master of Divinity student from Delavan, Illinois, and one of three !Explore event pastors. He pointed to the group’s experience at Our Lady of the Road, a soup kitchen and ministry of the Saint Peter Claver Catholic Worker community in South Bend.
“We put them in a space where they had to be vulnerable,” said Litwiller. “They asked the participants to hang out with the folks coming for food, and they had some really intense conversations. It broadened their horizons.”
Santiago also referenced the soup kitchen visit when explaining how !Explore allows participants to experience different cultures. He valued the opportunity to have discussions with a variety of people and cited this as a chance to see what ministry is about. He named a highlight from the Group Experience as the group sessions led by each of the !Explore event pastors.
This year’s participants, ranging in age from 16 to 18, found that the Group Experience portion of !Explore not only enhanced the skills they acquired during the Congregational Experience, but also allowed them to forge strong bonds with like-minded peers.
Thalia Neufeld, a high school senior from Seattle Mennonite Church, affirmed the close-knit community that was established during the Group Experience, describing it as “priceless.” One of the highlights for her was a circle talk in which participants discussed what they wanted to do in the future and what their fears were.
“We’d share these things and say, ‘I support you in your endeavors.’ There was an amazing atmosphere of support,” she reflected.
Moyo said that upon arriving in Elkhart and gathering with the group in the AMBS chapel, she allowed herself to dive into the Group Experience head first and found that she could be fully herself.
“We were so comfortable with each other from day one,” said Moyo. “We grew together and supported each other within our different opinions and faith, and it made the experience that much greater.”
Santiago noted that the quick bond between participants allowed them to experience activities as a whole rather than simply as individuals, creating a more powerful overall program. Moyo, Neufeld and Santiago all emphasized the importance of having an open mind, explaining that going beyond their comfort zones allowed them to develop their faith in unexpected ways.
“I didn’t expect that we’d form such a strong bond,” said Neufeld of her fellow participants. “We met lots of different people, and that gave me more perspective for my life going forward. The research was also helpful for me in developing my faith and becoming more of a leader in my congregation.”
Looking forward, Moyo said, “For any future participant, don’t just put one foot in. Dive in and get the full experience; you will not regret it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Go in faith and enjoy the ride.”
This year’s !Explore participants and their pastoral mentors included Sasha Dyck and mentor Mandy Yoder (MDiv 2003) of Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart; Elizabeth Eby and mentor Jane Stoltzfus Buller (MATS 1994) of Walnut Hill Mennonite Church in Goshen; Jonathan Lopez and mentor Pedro Castillo of El Shaddai in Elkhart; Linda Moyo — daughter of Ronald L. Moyo (MDiv 2018) — and mentor Rachel Siemens (MDiv 2007) of Faith Mennonite Church in Newton; Peace Muhagachi — daughter of current AMBS students Amos and Esther Muhagachi — and mentor Tyler Hartford of Pleasant View Mennonite Church in Goshen; Thalia Neufeld — daughter of Jonathan (MDiv 2005) and Melanie Neufeld (MDiv 2005) — and mentor Amy Marie Epp (MDiv 2005) of Seattle Mennonite Church; Julien Ricou and mentor Nelson Yoder of Frazer (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church; Miguel Santiago and mentor Mike Ford of Blooming Glen Mennonite Church; and Elaina Youngberg and mentor Brenda Hostetler Meyer (MDiv 2006) of Benton Mennonite Church in Goshen.
Event pastors included Naun Cerrato, Master of Arts: Peace Studies student from Goshen; Scott Litwiller, Master of Divinity student from Delavan, Illinois; and Cathy Stoner, Master of Arts in Christian Formation student from South Bend. !Explore staff members are Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., director of the Center for Faith Formation and Culture at AMBS, and Krysta Hartman, administrative assistant for !Explore.
The 2018 !Explore participants will be eligible to receive a $1,000 scholarship to AMBS in the future.
To learn more about !Explore or to apply for the 2019 program, see ambs.edu/explore.
As part of their Group Experience, !Explore participants use resources from the AMBS Library to research a theological question they have chosen to focus on during the summer program. Pictured are Linda Moyo (at left) and Sasha Dyck. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
The 2018 !Explore group participated in group team-building activities led by Cheryl Mast, outdoor education director at Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Michigan. Here, Thalia Neufeld prepares to catch Miguel Santiago in a trust fall. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
During their Group Experience on the AMBS campus, !Explore participants learn from seminary faculty about practical ministry skills. Here, participants pray with Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min. (center, in blue), associate professor of congregational formation. (Credit: Jason Bryant)