High School Students Explore Intersection of Science and Faith

The grant-funded Living the Questions Youth Theology Institute brings young leaders together on campus for service-learning and deep discussion.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

August 10, 2018 | 3 p.m.

Students at Living the Questions remove buckthorn on campus.

Students clear invasive buckthorn—to be distilled into biofuel—on the second day of the on-campus residential institute.

High school students, wearing active wear and dripping with sweat, crowded the lakeside path between the Lundquist Community Life Center and Bethel Seminary on July 9. They looked like they could have been taking part in one of Bethel’s frequent summer athletic camps.

But instead of dribbling soccer balls or running agility drills, they clutched saws and red Felco No. 2 pruners, pulling invasive plants on day two of Bethel’s second Living the Questions residential youth theology institute. Twenty-two students, up from 14 last year, represented urban, suburban, and rural churches, most of which are not affiliated with Bethel’s denomination, Converge.

They spent seven days living on Bethel’s campus, eating in the Dining Center and living in dorms while completing service projects, learning from Bethel faculty, and considering how their faith plays into their understanding of science—and vice versa. The invasive buckthorn—a plant originally brought to the area as an ornamental shrub but that eventually choked out native varieties—provided a tangible illustration of humans’ impact on the environment and case for Christians’ responsibility to preserve it. Later in the week, they distilled the plant material into biofuel, providing more opportunities to consider different perspectives on the ethics surrounding scientific developments.

Two-time Living the Questions alumna Courtney Johnston of Rogers, Minnesota, says that the program solidified her choice to enroll at Bethel and play hockey beginning this fall. As a social work major, she’ll dive deeper into the questions she began asking at the 2017 camp, which focused on justice and faith.

Junior Nathan Gale is homeschooled but attends Mounds View High School part-time. In college, he wants to major in the humanities on his way to pastoral ministry, so he loved the chance to discuss heady theological topics with peers, even—or especially—when they didn’t agree.

“Last night we were having some great conversation about sovereignty and free will,” Gale says, holding grey work gloves and adding that he’d describe himself as a young earth creationist while many in his dorm would identify as theistic evolutionists.

“I just love it! We still agree we came from God; and honestly, we might never know until we meet Jesus face-to-face,” Gale adds. “It might just be one of those things that’s beyond our conception. But ‘as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’ This camp reminds me of that so much; it’s a good sharpening.”

“Through this program, Bethel becomes a resource to the local church, and really adds to the conversation about what it means to consider science from a faith perspective,” says Program Director Katie Friesen Smith S’95, S’08. “These young people are so thirsty for difficult conversations and asking things like ‘how can we agree to disagree?’”

She adds that the grant-funded pilot program has already become a pipeline for standout, theology-minded students to attend Bethel. One alumnus of the program enrolled in Bethel’s College of Arts & Sciences in fall 2017, using a $1,000 scholarship available exclusively to program alumni. Johnston and one other student will begin this fall. While building Bethel’s enrollment is one tangential benefit of having these students on campus, “we really have a goal to reach students who might not otherwise get this opportunity,” Friesen Smith says.  

Students at Living the Questions remove buckthorn on campus.

Living the Questions

The Living the Questions Youth Theology Institute is a 10-month leadership experience for high school students, including a residential summer experience, two retreats during the academic year, mentoring, and a community engagement project. Funded for three years through a grant from the Lilly Endowment, the first session began in summer 2017, centered on justice and faith. Applications for next year’s Living the Questions institute, “Media and Faith,” will be accepted beginning January 1, 2019.

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