Half of all Christian students will walk away from their faith in college. How can your church confront that statistic and help teens establish a deep faith before stepping on campus?
As young people from your church graduate high school, how they develop in the years that follow will determine not only their destiny, but also the destiny of the American church. Pastors enjoy a certain delight and privilege in helping to guide the lives of the families that look to their wisdom and spiritual leadership for navigating the tumultuous waters of life.
This is especially true as many parents enter the minefield of determining a course of direction for their recent high school graduates. Since these early years are so important, we must be very careful to help parents set up their young adults for success, no matter how unconventional the approach may be.
Instead of simply “shipping them off to college” and thrusting them into the throes of spiritual carnage, let’s consider another option for that first year to prepare them for life and success. There is an alternative to immediately plunging our kids into the often-hazardous waters of college life that have shipwrecked many youths’ faith: a gap year.
The “gap” referred to here is the space of time that exists immediately after high school and before college. Though the concept may be unfamiliar to you, it’s a long-established practice in many other places around the world.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, approximately 11 percent of the 300,000 seniors headed to college embark upon a gap year before enrolling. Countries such as Norway, Denmark and Turkey see more than 50 percent of their students taking a year off before embarking on college, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education in Oslo.
In a USA Today article published earlier this year on the topic of the gap year, writer Jens Manuel Krogstad found that guidance counselors and college admissions officers in America say they’re seeing a surge of interest in this. Though the percentage of U.S. students who wait a year to attend college remains relatively small—ranging from less than 2 percent to more than 10 percent, according to Nina Hoe, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral student who is studying the effect of gap years—the numbers are growing.
“This has the potential to be a very, very important part of our understanding of college readiness and success,” Hoe said in the USA Today story.
Although few American colleges formally encourage teens to defer going to college for a year, more are beginning to not only acknowledge but even endorse the concept. According to Krogstad, Princeton University is offering full scholarships this year for up to 35 students embarking on a gap-year program, while the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill is giving out $7,500 scholarships to seven students following the same path.
The Gap Between Misconception and Truth
Not everyone is as sold on the gap-year idea, however. According to Abby Falik, founder of Global Citizen Year, a nonprofit-based organization in Oakland, Calif., that supports gap-year choices, the uncertainty is because of many common misconceptions regarding gap-year programs.
Primary among those is that only students from affluent families can afford to take a year off before beginning college. Another common misconception is that a gap year will derail the completion or even the start of higher education. In reality, 90 percent of students who take a gap year return to college within a year.
It’s data like this, from studies such as Karl Haigler and Rae Nelson’s The Gap-Year Advantage—a book based on their independent study of 280 gap-year students—that confirm the advantages of students taking a year off. Students in the study believed the gap year benefitted them in three distinct ways:
1) They gained a better sense of their identity and what is important to them.
2) They gained a better understanding of other countries, people, cultures and ways of living.
3) They gained additional skills and knowledge that will directly contribute to their careers or academic majors.
The bottom line is that more colleges and universities are beginning to understanding that students who have completed a gap year will be more invested, better community members and have better employability partially as a result of their gap year.
The Spiritual Advantage
As pastors and spiritual leaders, great concern grips our hearts as we survey the landscape of the institutions of higher learning. We are no doubt confronted with the reality that the families we lovingly shepherd will be responsible to navigate a veritable minefield of anti-Christian rhetoric and professors. Most of these schools will openly promote a worldview that at best marginalizes their sons’ and daughters’ faith, if not completely mocks their teens to tears.
As many as 50 percent of Christian students walk away from their faith by the time they graduate from a secular or liberal Christian colleges, according to research done by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA. Did you catch that? Even so-called “Christian schools” can lead teens and young adults to the dismantling and eventual destruction of their faith.
The youth in your church will be met with a never-ending opportunity to join the party scene—and with it, the unending pressures of sex and alcohol, which flows freely on the college campus. The tragic and staggering statistics reported by the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services regarding drinking and sex on college campuses need little commentary:
- 80 percent of students drink
- 90 percent of students feel that they do not know how to drink responsibly
- 80-90 percent of college students have had sexual intercourse
- Almost 50 percent of unplanned sexual encounters are under the influence of alcohol
- 80 percent of first sexual experiences occur under the influence of alcohol
- By their senior year, 81 percent of students have had sex because they were drunk
I have wondered how many parents have gone through the exact same thing year after year, thinking that this is how it’s done—this is how we prepare our kids to become productive functioning adults. How many of those kids fresh from the halls of high school were really ready for the all-out onslaught that was about to be unleashed upon them? Is there another way to more adequately prepare our youth in this transition in order to get the most out of college?
I remember the CEO of a Fortune 100 company who sent his daughter to Teen Mania’s Honor Academy for a year right after high school. After she experienced an incredible year getting established as a young adult in her faith, I asked him, “You could afford to send your daughter to any school in the country and you have the pull to get her admitted. Why did you send her to the Honor Academy?”
His response shocked me as he replied with more passion that anything I’d ever heard anyone express about this topic: “Are you kidding? Do you know what happens the first year of college? I tell all my friends don’t ever send your kids straight to college. Get them in a year program to prepare them for life, to make wise decisions!”
There Is Another Option
Would it be possible for the teens in your church, or even your own children, to take a season of time to purposefully ready themselves with a stronger understanding of their Christian worldview in preparation for the antagonistic halls of academia?
Many churches have started such a program to prepare their graduates. A gap-year program can give the needed time and focus that prepares your young people to not only survive these turbulent waters but also to thrive in them—unshaken and victorious.
Perhaps if we changed our approach from the current paradigm of college preparation to actually equipping our youth to change the world, then the scope of learning would not only be broadened, but magnified as well. Simply put, the church must adequately prepare our youth for a college environment that deliberately targets their faith and makes them feel that they are a conscience minority surrounded by an arrogant militant paganism. I believe this preparation can happen through a gap-year program that empowers teens with the development and cultivation of their Christian faith.
For the past 24 years, Teen Mania Ministries has hosted such a gap-year internship called the Honor Academy. The Honor Academy is a university-accredited internship that combines unconventional learning experiences that fuel passion for God and develop young people to make maximum impact for God, while orchestrating the largest teen conference in America. This year-long internship affords young people the unique opportunity of independence in a controlled environment while receiving direct guidance and direction from caring staff.
One way that our sons and daughters must be prepared is with a foundational understanding of what makes up a Christian worldview. The world is changing all around us and has been for a long time. The average Christian young person has embraced Christianity but has not necessarily developed a strong Christian worldview. It is imperative that youth in your church be able to effectively identify the main questions all worldviews attempt to answer—and then understand how Christianity completely answers these. In addition, it’s essential that they examine other major worldviews and be equipped to give practical ways to interact with others while remaining grounded from an understanding of their Christian worldview.
I recall driving my son to college and, specifically, the moment he stepped out of my car and apprehensively walked away onto the hallowed ground of higher education. I knew that the battle for his heart, mind, soul and body was underway.
The classroom isn’t the only place where our young students can be devastated. When a young person is left standing alone on a college campus, his or her first inclination is to fit in.
A well-structured gap-year program can be part of the lifelong education process and profoundly contribute to a student’s personal and spiritual development. Many gap-year programs don’t just employ the intellectual skills of observing, applying, analyzing and evaluating, they also involve studying various world religions, customs, beliefs and concepts, as well as identifying the impact of world religions in our modern-day culture. They also expose the false views and values of modern culture by living a more fulfilling and satisfying life aligned with the way God created us to live.
In the immutable words of our Lord Jesus, loving God involves both heart and head (Mark 12:29-30). The apostle Paul echoed this later as he insisted that serving God involves both presenting our bodies as “a living sacrifice” and being transformed by “the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:1-2).
The responsibility that falls to pastors in providing sound guidance to parents in your congregation is at times staggering. Indeed, the future of the American church rests on whether the baton of the gospel is firmly planted in the hands of the next generation.
In this context, the concept of a gap-year program is one that offers a viable solution and provides a new approach to developing not only cognitive skills, but also non-cognitive skills that current researchers are showing predict success better than IQ. This is the kind of innovation on which a gap-year internship is focused. Students will focus on deepening their walk with the Lord and laying an unshakable foundation in Christ that will launch them into not only a successful college career, but also lifelong success.
The director of Honor Academy Internship, Jeff Pruett has been in full-time ministry for 26 years. He was mentored by revivalist Leonard Ravenhill and has served in both senior pastor and youth pastor capacities. He served under Keith Green as a staff member in Last Days Ministries and has always been passionate about preaching the gospel and reaching the lost for Jesus Christ.