Eric RuckerWhat is the Simpson Youth Academy?
The Simpson Youth Academy is a youth theology program housed at Simpson College, just outside of Des Moines, Iowa. At the Academy, we are convinced that young people have gifts and power that are essential for the healing of our communities now, and not just in the distant future. We are a community of high school students and adult mentors who are exploring deep faith-based questions and taking action together. And we do all this to help youth discern their vocations as agents of peace and justice in the church and world. Research shows that even though youth are very involved in church in high school, when they enter college or a career, many encounter complex problems that they don’t believe Christianity can handle. They think that they have to choose between being Christian or being an intellectually honest, creative, socially-engaged person.

Our goal at the Academy is to show students that their hunger for depth and authenticity isn’t a sign of a lack of faith, but a sign of maturing faith. We create a safe space for youth to ask prophetic questions that will push the church toward deeper faithfulness to following Jesus. In this process we emphasize what Methodists call “social holiness” – we believe that faith is not a privatized commodity. Rather, we want to spark in youth a passion for faith that overflows into every part of their lives, transforming how they engage in community through mercy and justice-seeking. This year-long process begins with a ten-day residency, where students live together in intentional Christian community, take theology classes, lead worship, and visit other religious communities. After the summer, the students each choose a local adult mentor who will walk beside them in vocational discernment for the following year. Lastly, each student plans and implements a project in their church or community, applying their specific gifts and vocational interest to an issue about which they are passionate. In essence, the Academy partners with local churches to raise up courageous, compassionate faith leaders, who not only have academic intelligence, but also the emotional maturity to collaborate with those different from themselves to heal the world.

What made you want to direct this program?
First, I know how pivotal it was for me to have adult faith-mentors when I was in high school. I remember talking to my pastor and being scared that I was “losing my faith” because of all of the questions I had. Instead of shaming me, my pastor welcomed me and nurtured my hunger for God. This pastoral responseSimpson Youth Academy literally changed my life, setting me on a course to go to seminary and eventually become a minister myself. We adults have a choice to make – either we ignore youth and relegate them to minimal participation and responsibility in the church, leading them to leave church; or we take them seriously as responsible, creative members of the Body of Christ, encouraging them to grow into faithful partners in ministry. The Simpson Youth Academy attempts the latter – welcoming youth as prophetic participants in God’s work. Second, I am building this program because I know of no more urgent time than now to develop young faith leaders. We are facing unprecedented threats to civilization through environmental issues, war, hate crimes, and violence. Our ability to have mature conversation about these issues is also eroding due to fear and ignorance of one another. The Simpson Youth Academy is doing crucial work in response to these challenges: teaching students about the Christian tradition’s mandate to act in the public sphere for mercy and justice, giving them tools to discern what their gifts are and how to use them, and teaching them how to do the difficult work of remaining in relationship with those different from themselves in order to creatively explore solutions to societal problems.

Eric RuckerWhat from your YTI experience do you take with you in implementing this kind of program?
I am so grateful for YTI, and many of the insights I have named above came from working on staff at YTI. I have seen the lives of youth and adult staff members transformed through the YTI program, and the reality of this transformation gives me courage and perseverance as I work to provide similar opportunities to young people in Iowa through the Simpson Youth Academy. This might sound overly-simplified, but YTI broke through my cynicism and pastoral fatigue and showed me that the gospel is real and that God’s love and action are still operative in community, changing lives and society. YTI showed me that we should honor Jesus’ mandate to listen to “the least of these” – the youth who are so often ignored in our culture. And if we do listen, if we do share power, if we question and debate and worship and break breadEric Rucker together, God will work powerfully through young people to renew the church and the world.

Eric Rucker is the Director of the Simpson Youth Academy high school theology program in Indianola, Iowa. Eric worked at YTI for three summers as a Mentor. If you know of churches or youth in the Midwest who could benefit from the Academy, email him at eric.rucker@simpson.edu.