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Books, places & people shape future leaders

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–What does Sea World’s Shamu, the cosmological argument for the existence of God and techniques for proper time management and goal-setting have in common? Each are featured during “SLU 101,” the entry-level student leadership program developed by Orlando-based Southern Baptist evangelist Jay Strack.

Student Leadership University 101 is the first stage of a four-part developmental program that uses the sights and sounds of the world’s capitals as its “edutainment” classrooms to increase the “leadership capacity” of young people.

Part apologetics boot camp, part motivational pep rally, part blow-out fun at some of Florida’s most popular theme parks, Student Leadership University’s “Orlando Experience: SLU 101” is a weeklong adventure tailored for the “best of the best” middle and high school Christian kids who aren’t willing to settle for second-best, organizers say.

“Student Leadership University is a four-year program based on the belief that the books you read, the places you go and the people you meet will change your life,” Strack said in July at Sea World in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness.

Following 101 in Orlando, students may advance through SLU’s three other weeklong youth leadership-training excursions in Washington, D.C. (201); London-Paris-Normandy (301); and Rome (401). Each week, designed to be taken in four successive years before youth enter college, focuses on three major objectives, according to SLU literature:

— Time and life management, people skills, future-tense thinking, motivation and goal-planning.

— The ability to discern between the agenda of tolerance and the absolute truths found in the Word of God.

— Concise information to defend the faith with certainty and grace through the understanding of a Christian worldview.

Strack began SLU after more than 20 years of youth ministry experience in which he and other leaders found that their best students were “just Sunday morning Christians” who sometimes were losing their faith after leaving home to go to college or join the workforce.

Strack asked himself, “Where are our leaders? Where are our impact players? Where are those really making a dent in the universe?” Finding few such students, Strack began SLU nearly 10 years ago to redress this weakness and since then has trained about 12,000 youth of at least 26 evangelical denominations. Southern Baptist churches that have participated include South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port and First Baptist Church of Woodstock, Ga.

The program — what organizers like to call “edutainment” — is not designed for just any student, said Tim Grosshans, SLU’s director of training and development. Grosshans told the Witness that students must be recommended by their youth pastor and must be leaders or have the potential for leadership.

The blend of Christian worldview apologetics training with personal development geared toward young people, along with the four-staged progression in the world’s capitals, makes SLU different from other youth-oriented training, Grosshans said.

When SLU graduates are confronted by a college professor who mocks their faith, “Jay wants that kid to think back to SLU and remember some of the most brilliant minds that he or she has ever been around know Jesus is Lord,” Grosshans said.

Some of those minds include Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Danny Akin, vice president of academic administration of Southern Seminary; Mark Brister, president of Oklahoma Baptist University; Hank Hannegraaff, president of Christian Research Institute; and Robert E. Reccord, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board. Other SLU sponsors include Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, and Pat Williams, senior vice president of the National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic.

Among other sessions of SLU 101 — including “How to make a splash” overlooking Shamu Stadium at Sea World and “How to swim with the sharks” at the theme park’s shark tank — organizers say the students consistently name as their favorite Strack’s challenge to dream about God’s future for them. Strack asks students to write down goals they wish to accomplish for the Kingdom of God, defining a goal as, “A detailed dream with direction and a deadline.”

One young woman who “biggie-sized” her goals, according to Strack, was Nikki Finch who attended SLU 101 in 1996. In Finch’s testimony, provided to the Witness by SLU, she explained she wanted to “meet and witness to the president of the United States,” work undercover for the Central Intelligence Agency and become a national leader of Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). Within one year of setting the goals, Finch had become National SADD Student of the Year, resulting in a meeting with President Clinton where she lobbied for a lower blood alcohol content standard.

“While I didn’t get a chance to share the Gospel with the president during our meeting, the fact is that at [the age of] 18 I sat down face to face with the president of the United States to talk to him about an issue that was important to me and millions of other young people across the country,” Finch recounted. “Who, but the Lord, would have thought that was possible!”

Finch’s involvement in fighting the alcohol industry led her to involvement in efforts to ban the purchase of alcohol by teens via the Internet and to challenge the “party” atmosphere at Florida State University while she studied in Tallahassee — a journey which is “far from finished,” she noted.

Finch now is the coordinator for the 201 program in Washington, while pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at George Washington University — with the CIA still on her mind.

Using Finch’s story with current students, Strack noted: “I don’t have any trouble getting anybody in that room motivated about the power of the written goal and the power of believing in your dreams.”

Heath Thomas and Michael Law are two other SLU success stories.

Thomas is leaving for England in September to study for a doctor of philosophy degree in Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. The three-time SLU graduate and former SLU staffer told the Witness that the program did not merely influence his life, “SLU changed my life.” The son of Claude Thomas, pastor of First Baptist Church in Euless, Texas, added, “SLU showed me what it means to fully commit to an ardent, focused and passionate relationship with the Lord.”

Thomas added that he learned “that God has no limits for our lives, so we should not set limits on our lives.”

Law, who is currently research assistant to the president of Southern Seminary and one day hopes to train indigenous pastors on the mission field, cites his three years with SLU as “crucial to my formation as a man heading into the ministry. I learned to take my calling seriously, that guys who waste time playing video games all day never make an impact for God’s glory, that there was a huge task ahead that I must join if I wanted to see the Great Commission completed.”

Strack hopes to replicate these successes in the field of creative ministries and the scientific community. This summer, SLU held its first Creative Outbreak Workshop, a new program designed to reach students gifted in the arts, and in the next 18 months Strack hopes to launch a program to train students who are gifted in science to contend for the faith in fields that are largely hostile to Christianity.

“We’re radically convinced that anyone can increase their leadership capacity,” Strack told the Witness, which “makes a huge difference in somebody’s life, not only their livelihood, but their service to the Lord and their relationships with other people.”

“We’re constantly trying to say to these students, ‘If God be for you, who can be against you?’ and ‘Build a solid foundation under your life and remember what you do today determines your tomorrow.’ I’m trying to give them the rules and tools of leadership,” he said.

“That’s really what we’re trying to do — give students a quantum leap of about 20 to 25 years so that they can make an impact for the glory of God.”
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: A WORLD OF LEARNING.

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  • James A. Smith Sr.