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‘Gap year’ preps students for impact

PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (BP)–Most new high school graduates don’t struggle with how to explain their faith to someone immersed in New Age philosophy, existentialism, or nihilism. The fact is, many of them have never heard the terms, and they certainly aren’t prepared for the challenges they will face in college from people who hold views hostile to Christian faith.

But students enrolled in IMPACT 360, a “gap year” program in Pine Mountain, Ga., are not your typical new high school graduates.

Kurtis Fitz-Ritson of Stone Mountain, Ga., is immersed in the book “The Universe Next Door.” George Argyris of Murrieta, Calif., is studying “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Brad McDonald of Phoenix, Ariz., is reading “Knowing God.”

In May, when they complete their time at IMPACT 360, they will be far ahead of their peers who went right into the college and university setting — many of them ill-prepared for the assault they would encounter just for being Christians.

“IMPACT 360 is designed to offset those assaults on faith and prepare students to have a solid Christian worldview when they step on campuses, whether secular or Christian,” explains John Basie, the program’s associate director.

A year of intense study and mentoring by some of the nation’s most successful Christian businessmen and thinkers provides those students with role models who prove that Christianity and intellect are not mutually exclusive ideas.

More students nationwide are looking into “gap year” programs, where they take a year off between high school graduation and rushing right into their college studies. Some are traveling, others are entering the marketplace as interns to explore career options, and some are enrolling in cutting-edge academic programs where knowledge gained, rather than grades earned, are the focus.

At IMPACT 360, students are mentored in developing a Christian worldview — exploring what they believe and why they believe it and developing a personal way to communicate it to others.

The program was founded in 2006 by John and Trudy White, members of Dogwood Baptist Church in Peachtree City, who were convinced that too many high school students were not adequately prepared to defend their faith as they entered college. IMPACT 360 offers that instruction in a nine-month curriculum that provides 15 hours of credit at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.

Basie explains the goal “is to develop critical thinkers and to prepare them for college, whether that is a Christian or secular university. We believe that putting on the full armor of God includes equipping them with a foundational worldview for the sake of defending their faith and proclaiming it winsomely.”

That does not come easy. While the setting is casual, the program is intense; structured, but not regimented. Argyris says the approach has created “an even greater thirst to learn.”

Students average reading a book a week on topics such as faith and culture, God’s design for the social order, the authority and reliability of the Bible, and spiritual formation. The first three days are spent in the classroom and by Thursday, students discuss a four-page paper they wrote evaluating what they learned that week.

“The first page is a reflection of class time and summarizing whether we agreed or disagreed with the professor, and why. The second page is a book review, the third is a discussion where we relate what we learned to the Christian worldview, and the fourth addresses how we exhibit the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves to the 360 community or the community of Pine Mountain.

“That’s basically where we put our faith to the test, a real-life application,” Argyris explains.

IMPACT 360 is not just focused on book learning, however. Its simple motto — “Know. Be. Live.” — serves as the foundation for a holistic approach to faith.

The “know” element stresses the biblical knowledge that is important to life; the “be” focuses on developing character; and the “live” provides an emphasis on service to others.

The “live” is the crucible where the previous two elements are put into play; it’s where faith is put into action through ministry and community service. For example, students are involved in projects in Pine Mountain, participate in ministry opportunities in Atlanta, and spend a month on an international mission trip to eastern Europe where they serve alongside International Mission Board personnel.

An important part of the program is developing leadership skills. Students attend Chick-fil-A University, an in-house training program where managers nationwide learn the servant mentality that founder Truett Cathy used to fuel the company’s growth.

In addition to receiving a behind-the-scenes look at how the company operates, students also have the opportunity to develop personal relationships with members of the company’s top leadership. For example, Argyris was invited to fly on Chick-fil-A’s corporate jet for a rigorous three-day schedule of grand openings with Dan Cathy.

“That tour was so important because I was able to observe Dan living out the philosophy that we learned in the university. I helped open two stores in Texas, one in Arizona, and two in California; it was amazing to watch Dan because he was never too busy to bus tables or pick up trash that had fallen on the floor. He was demonstrating the ‘second mile, second nature’ attitude in ways I’ll never forget.”

Basie says that is exactly what the program is designed to do.

“In a nutshell, everything we are doing is equipping students to be servants in whatever walk of life where God calls them. We believe that they will lead in a fundamentally different way, a better way, if their motivation is to serve others rather than promoting themselves,” he explains.

Larry Cox, program director for IMPACT 360, says the motto defines the school’s curriculum.

“We teach our students that there is no difference between secular and sacred. We teach them that it is all sacred.

“We are not here to teach them how to go into full-time Christian service. We are not here to teach them how to get a job at a Christian agency or denomination or on a church staff. We want them to know that wherever they work vocationally, it will be full-time Christian service.

“IMPACT 360 is not about segregating yourself from the world; rather, it is about integrating yourself fully into that society we want to claim for Christ. It’s about nurturing change throughout society in order to advance the Kingdom of God.”
Joe Westbury is managing editor of the Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. More information about IMPACT 360 is available at www.impact360.net.

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  • Joe Westbury