Aug. 22--It's not the usual summer fare for teens, but hundreds of high school youths are venturing into the world of theology, and many are finding it "awesome." In a bid to attract talented young people into the ministry, seminaries and divinity schools across the country are hosting summer residential camps of two to six weeks. Youths are invited to deepen their faith through theological reflection and community service, and to ponder their own vocation - what God wants them to do with their life.

For many, it's the first taste of wrestling with "the big questions." A few have already had inklings that they want to minister to others - and the church may be the place to do it. Kevin Dirksen, a senior from Gresham, Ore., spent two weeks in July at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina. An avid water polo player and a writer for his school newspaper, Kevin is also active in the Methodist church and says he has sometimes felt a call to the ministry. But life is so busy those thoughts get shoved to the back burner.

After his immersion experience at Duke with 69 other teens and the "best theologians," they came to the forefront. "I'm not 100 percent sure I will end up being a minister," he says, "but this was very important."

Melissa Hund and Nicole Alton, juniors at their Catholic high school in Fargo, N.D., had a similar "amazing" experience at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. This was their second summer there, and they say they've loved the in-depth discussions and opportunity to develop leadership skills. In the intervening year, they designed a service project that engaged their parish in helping young refugees from Sudan - the "lost boys" - adjust to life in blustery North Dakota. "Before, church was just something I had to do every Sunday," says Nicole. "Now, my religion has so much more meaning to me."

Such enthusiasm for a life engaged in church ministry is exactly what the seminaries are aiming for. They recognize that not all who participate will become full-time pastors, and encouraging youth leadership in their congregations is also a goal. Still, "it's definitely hoped they will have a hunger awakened in them to pursue the study of theology and perhaps hear a call to full-time ministry," says Carol Lytch of Louisville Seminary, who coordinates the national effort.

Since 1999, Lilly Endowment has given $57.3 million in grants to 49 seminaries - Catholic and Protestant (mainline and evangelical) - to design programs for high school youth. Participating schools consider the first three years of the program a tremendous success, says Ms. Lytch.

While it's too soon to see any effect on seminary enrollments, surveys have shown that the teenagers are overwhelmingly positive about the experience and its continuing impact on their lives. Melissa Hund, for example, says that at St. John's last summer, they learned a different form of Christian prayer each evening. "It has had a real impact on my daily life."

And the seminaries have been vitalized, with large numbers of faculty eager to participate in the initiative. Seminary students get involved on a 24/7 basis as resident counselors and mentors.

In most Christian denominations, the proportion of young people entering the ministry has dropped dramatically in recent decades. Studies have shown that in 2000, clergy 35 and under represented only 4 to 11 percent of total clergy in the various denominations. With large numbers of pastors nearing retirement, the situation looks bleak unless congregations and seminaries can fan the embers of interest among youth. "Many do get a sense of calling in high school, but that calling sometimes wanes during college years," says David DeBoer, head of recruitment at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich., which has ties to the evangelical Christian Reformed Church. "So the idea is to explore the fullness of ministry with them."

Calvin Seminary's month-long program for 35 students from the US and Canada includes an overseas excursion. The students come to the campus for 20 days of learning activities - discussions applying Christian thought to contemporary issues, and service projects in the city - and then head off to Turkey for 10 days to explore the early Christian church.

According to one participant, the 1,900 miles covered in Turkey "made me realize the passion and dedication that Paul must have had to have traveled all those miles ... and that I need to have a similar passion and be willing to go wherever God leads."

Most teens selected for the programs are clearly achievers, but they are also diverse. "For some, their congregations have been the center of their lives," says Fred Edie, director of the Duke Youth Academy. "But others are edgier students who have very serious theological issues, such as whether the Scriptures are historically true." Most programs weigh in on the creationism-evolution debate, and teens often want to discuss questions relating to non-Christian faiths, given the diversity in their high schools.