Christian Faith | Response Magazine

New discipleship experience empowers young church leaders

High school students gathered on SPU’s campus and at Camp Casey this summer and again in October for Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy.

When her daughter Jessica returned from the School of Theology’s inaugural Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy in July, Joycelin Vester noticed an immediate change.

Jessica, usually quiet and reserved, started singing as she played piano on her church’s worship team, studied Bible passages on her own, and talked about her faith with greater boldness.

“Jessica already loved God and people, but now she pursues God and leads in church with new passion,” says Vester.

High school students pray together in the 2017 Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy.

Jessica traveled from Oak Harbor, Washington, one of 37 high school students who came from California, Kansas, Hawaii, and across the Pacific Northwest to attend Immerse from July 9 to 15. The students spent half the week on SPU’s campus and then journeyed to SPU’s Camp Casey Conference Center on Whidbey Island. They took part in community activities, from soccer and scavenger hunts to hikes and worship services, and forged friendships that have continued into the autumn. But while some aspects of the program resembled a typical summer camp, Immerse’s curriculum goes deeper.

Funded by a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., Immerse inspires students to grow in their Christian identity as they explore theology, Bible, vocation, and ministry. Intensive, interactive classes are taught by theology faculty and small groups are led by SPU undergraduate and seminary students.

A typical day at Immerse this summer began with prayer and breakfast before students headed to the classroom, where they heard professors outline the narrative of the Bible in two hours, dove into church history, created skits acting out the first chapters of the Gospels, and more.

The day ended with free time, small-group meetings, and an ecumenical worship service. One afternoon, students worked at Union Gospel Mission’s urban discipleship program, Serve Seattle, to apply the lessons.

“Immerse equips youth who are already leaders in their churches and peer groups to think about their calling and take the next step in serving God,” says Program Manager John Harrell, MDiv ’12.

Associate Professor of Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry Michael Langford designed Immerse in response to the increasing number of Christians who leave their faith after high school and the lack of basic theological training available to high schoolers. “We lose many potential church leaders during this time,” says Langford. “A lot of students know about God, but haven’t developed an understanding of God’s redemptive plan and their calling to be part of his Kingdom.”

The Immerse experience doesn’t end with summer. Most of this year’s students returned to Camp Casey in the fall to share how they were applying the summer’s lessons in their lives. For high schooler Sheila Agonoy-Pascua, the Immerse summer session made such an impact, she traveled more than 2,500 miles on an overnight flight from her Hawaii home for the session in early October. Students bundled up in sweatshirts for the rainy weekend as they walked between buildings for classes, small group meetings, and meals in Casey’s mess hall.

High school students play in Tiffany Loop during the 2017 Immerse Youth Discipleship Academy.

Agonoy-Pascua had already started a small Bible study at her public school, but the Immerse summer session inspired her to share her faith more boldly and invite more of her classmates. Several months later, the Bible study is still growing. “Immerse taught me to not be afraid of opening doors, because God will do the work through you,” she says.

Immerse has funding for two more years, and there are plans to continue it beyond that timeframe. “This has been an awesome experience for these students,” says Langford. “It’s easy to reach a spiritual high at summer camp that fades with normal life. But at Immerse, we emphasize that faith goes beyond the program — it’s part of the rest of our lives.”

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