YTI reunionIn the two decades since its launch, more than 1,000 high schoolers have attended Candler’s groundbreaking Youth Theological Initiative (YTI), exploring the faith and values questions that shape their young minds. They may be a little older now, but those minds are still active. Exactly how active is something many of them will discover soon enough as they return to Candler July 12-14 to celebrate YTI’s 20th anniversary with a weekend’s worth of activities, reflection and reconnection.

The festivities begin on Friday morning, July 12, with the panel discussion Entering the Waters: Faith, Culture and 21st Century Youth Ministry, followed by a picnic at McDonough Field and worship that evening. Saturday, July 13, features workshop sessions and an evening banquet. Sunday is unstructured, but some predict that the impromptu reconnections could end up among the weekend’s highlights. Click here for the full schedule of YTI at 20: Questioning/Shaping/Engaging.

“For 20 years, YTI has been a great place to meet other people who believe that their work life should be driven by their values,” says Ben Brazil 05T 14G, YTI’s assistant director and the anniversary planning lead. “It’s a good networking opportunity for idealists.”

As far as reunion attendance goes, those idealists aren’t limited to alumni. Staff from across the years are returning by the dozen. Co-founders Craig Dykstra and Chuck Foster will be back, too, keynoting the July 13 reunion banquet.

“Some of the best friends I have to this day are people I met while working together at YTI,” says Beth Corrie 96T 02G, YTI’s director since 2007. Corrie’s engagement with YTI began in 1996 when the newly minted MDiv graduate was hired as a part-time YTI staff member, responsible for helping with worship. Since then, she has held most every job YTI has to offer—head of logistics, exploratory leader, interim director—strengthening her connection to the program, its participants and its mission along the way.

While the many facets of youth ministry and youth outreach serve as prime focuses of YTI—channeling its attendees to seminary is not. Although many do, not all YTIers eventually attend Candler or go to any theology school at all. That diversity of interests is what makes YTI such an intriguing blend of experiences.

“YTI is about teaching a process of thinking and of engaging the world,” says Corrie, assistant professor in the practice of youth education at Candler. “Sure, it would be great if you became a minister in the church, but that’s only one way you can live out your Christian vocation. You can be a doctor who is compassionate and understands medical ethics, or you can be a businessperson who understands how to manage people with compassion and who pays attention to issues of diversity and structural oppression,” she explains.

“Attending YTI was the beginning of a period of self-discovery and introspection for myself,” says reunion attendee Delisle Warden 01C, who graduated from YTI in 1996. “It would eventually bring me back to Atlanta to attend Emory College on a scholarship and ultimately find me in a much deeper relation with Christ and a stronger understanding of the faith of my forefathers.” Warden did not attend seminary, choosing law school instead and is now an attorney advisor with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

YTI was designed as a forum where youth could address theological questions and issues that weren’t discussed in their local faith communities. It gave the young scholars opportunities to volunteer with nonprofits and explore without judgment subjects they may have been afraid to bring up at home and begin a search for understanding.

The subject matter of those discussions may have changed over the years—scholars now are much more open to addressing issues of sexuality and theology, for instance, than their forebears—but the earnestness with which they are debated hasn’t.

Candler’s YTI was the first of its kind, and to call it a trendsetter is a bit of an understatement. Now, more than 50 summer youth ministry programs are scattered around the country. With that expansion comes change. Candler’s YTI classes are now smaller and more regional than they once were—a positive development in terms of the ease of connection. Also, in 2010, YTI’s bread-and-butter Summer Academy went from an annual endeavor to a biennial schedule followed by a class reunion the next year.

The silver lining is that one year of separation greatly encourages a type of reflection that’s impossible when the students are packed together in dorms for a month straight. The 2012 YTI class reunion is being held in tandem with the anniversary celebration, so many of the weekend’s returnees will be YTI’s youngest alumni.

According to Corrie, learning isn’t limited to YTI scholars, either. Many Candler faculty members have taught at YTI and the ready-for-anything minds and attitudes of the students make them a perfect audience for experimenting with new teaching techniques.

“We’re lab testing innovative pedagogy and ministry,” Corrie said. “I learned how to do ministry in new ways, and if other faculty have hobbies or new research, they get to work out their ideas here.”

For more information about the YTI 20th Anniversary Celebration, visit the YTI page on the Candler website or read the YTI blog.