I may be a glutton for punishment, but I love the Israeli wilderness. It’s one of my favorite places to take people during study tours in the Holy Land. It’s barren, hot, and rocky. It’s what I imagine being on Mars must feel like. Needless to say, it’s certainly not a walk in the park. However, there’s an unseen beauty in the wilderness.
I think of the wilderness as one of God’s favorite classrooms to teach His People. It’s a place He takes them to learn who He is, who they are, and how they should live.
When I’m in the Israeli wilderness, I feel as though I’m taking a tour through the Bible’s Hall of Fame. Think of these names: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, David, John the Baptist, Paul, and even Jesus. All of these people spent considerable amounts of time out in the wilderness – in the heat, in the barrenness, with little water. In that “wilderness classroom,” their faith and dependence on God was tested and tried. The desert was an ideal environment for God to teach His people genuine dependence on Him, who He had uniquely made them to be, and His desire to mold their character more into His likeness.
The same could be said of a Christian gap year program (albeit less dust-caked feet and more water on hand). There are a variety of gap year programs with different purposes and focuses. Overall though, they provide an intentional time, environment, and opportunity for students to be challenged and grow in their relationship with God, as well as their own identity, and character. A concentrated experience like a gap year program can be an opportune environment for growth and transformation to occur in student’s lives.
Attendance of gap year programs is on the rise. The American Gap Association (AGA) found that at least 30,000 to 40,000 of American high school graduates are now attending a gap year, a 23% increase from previous years. This accounts for only 2% of graduates in the US. Several other countries have seen a far greater attendance of gap year programs. Psychology Today reported 15% of Australian students and over 50% of students from Norway, Denmark, and Turkey enrolled in gap year programs in 2015.
Recent studies have shown that even from a secular perspective, gap year programs are proving to be incredibly beneficial for high school graduates.
Gap Year Benefits
Some of the benefits highlighted by the AGA found that gap year students:
- Are more likely to graduate college on time
- Have a higher-grade point average in college
- Have improved overall academic involvement on their college campus
Within the same AGA study, the top three benefits reported by students after attending a gap year program included:
- “it helped me develop as a person” (98%)
- “it allowed time for personal reflection” (98%)
- “it increased my maturity.” (97%)
The Value of Discipleship
Christian gap year programs can provide an ideal environment for personal development; but more importantly, they can create an ideal environment for transformation and discipleship. Most Christian gap year programs operate with the understanding that discipleship thrives best in an authentic community.
After serving in church and non-profits ministries in the past, one of the consistent issues I found with discipling students was the lack of consistent, ongoing opportunity to observe, interact, and invest with them in the mundane, normal experiences of life. Commitments, obligations, distractions, and excuses; they all prove to be common factors that inhibit discipleship-type relationships to develop. Life gets full. It’s not impossible, but it is often difficult building relational capital when it’s a struggle just finding time to get together. Fragmented time spent together can definitely carry benefits, but consistent and frequent interaction can foster unique opportunities for depth in discipleship relationships.
Christian gap year programs are often designed in a manner to eliminate the struggle for interaction and availability. Most programs have one schedule for their students and staff specifically in place, to walk alongside students throughout the year. This creates the opportunity for individuals and the student body to grow in authentic community – with Christian brothers and sisters to walk alongside them – on both the good and bad days.
One Example of a Christian Gap Year Program
In the last ten years I have had the opportunity to be a part of three Christian gap year programs across the country, one of them being my current place of employment, called Impact 360 Institute. In 2017, Impact 360 Institute partnered with Barna Resources to survey students in Gen Z (born between 1999 and 2015). Part of the research included creating a profile of a person with a “biblical worldview.” The report found that out of 69 million youth, only 4 percent of Gen Z students were reported to have a biblical worldview. In additional, this percentage only continues to decline with each successive generation: 10 percent of Boomers, 7 percent of Gen X, and 6 percent of Millennials.
The hope of Impact 360 is to address that declining percentage. Our goal is to disciple students to become followers, or apprentices, of Jesus. Through an intensive nine-month program of being discipled and living in close community, we desire to see students come to grow in their knowledge and understanding of who God is, who He has made them to be, and what purpose He may have for their lives. We desire far more than providing students with unique experiential learning experiences and information on theology, leadership, and apologetics. We desire to see them live out what they learn, to be the leaders of the next generation, disciples of Jesus with a passion to make disciples.
At Impact 360, we consistently survey our own alumni. Our surveys show that 90 percent of our graduates believe moral truth is unchanging. This number is in stark contrast to the 47 percent of the general population of 18 to 23-year-olds who believe moral truth is relative (Lost in Translation by Christian Smith). The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reported the national average of students takes 6 years to finish college, while alumni of our gap year program have reported finishing college in an average 3.2 years. Pew Research found that 18 percent of millennials regularly attend church, while 86 percent of graduates enrolled in our gap year program, reported regularly attending church. These are merely statistics and numbers. Quantifying spiritual transformation is difficult, but we have heard student after student report their gap year experience was exceedingly valuable for their faith.
Regardless of whether you, your child, or someone you know decides to do a gap year, may we all learn to be teachable disciples of Jesus. May we know God, become like Him, and make Him known in the world in which we live.