When it comes to keeping the faith, the odds are increasingly against Gen Z, those born between 1995 and 2015. According to the evangelical Christian polling firm Barna Group’s recent study, the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian has been on a downward trend since the generation before baby boomers, which Barna calls “elders.” And the percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population (13% vs. 6%). 37% of Gen Z believe it is impossible to know for certain if God is real, compared to 32% of all adults. Not only that, Gen Z is uncertain about many other issues pertaining to morality and religion, with an increasingly relativistic worldview.
A Crisis of Knowledge
Jonathan Morrow of the Impact 360 Institute explains why he believes Gen Z can’t seem to commit to a Christian worldview. He lists two main reasons: the fear of being seen as judgmental and all that it encompasses, and what he calls the “crisis of knowledge.” The crisis of knowledge is the belief that we can only glean knowledge from the hard sciences. Both factors contribute to moral ambiguity; both are the product of this “unique cultural moment.”
This is what today’s Christian youth are up against. The answer, Morrow says, is not just sound apologetics. “True information is essential, but by itself it is not enough. It’s just as essential that students have space, relationships, and practices to take ownership of their faith.”
In partial response to this, HoneyRock, the Outdoor Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College, launched a faith-based gap year called Vanguard. This program invites students into a year of Christ-centered community, outdoor adventure, and the space to explore life’s big questions. While some secular organizations promote gap years primarily because they may help a student stand out in the college application process or provide time to determine what it is they truly want to study, HoneyRock and other organizations like it are more concerned with nurturing a deep personal faith and a grounded strength of character in a confused and uncertain world. To this end, the Vanguard Gap Year of Wheaton College at HoneyRock explores six of life’s “biggest questions” including – What is Truth? What does it mean to be made in God’s image? As Christians, how do we respond to pain and suffering in the world? Conversations about these questions are facilitated by teams of Wheaton faculty who address the questions from the vantage point of their respective disciplines.
The issue is not just grounding one’s faith; some of those who are believers aren’t ready for college developmentally or spiritually, says Derek Melleby of the College Transition Initiative in “God in the Gap Year.” It’s almost a cliché that Christian youth go off to college and walk away from their faith and the church. How can we better prepare them for the challenges of our pluralized, non-believing world?
Helping Our Students Keep the Faith
There are five main ways that faith-based gap year programs can help bolster the faith of graduating high school students and help mature them to live faith-centered lives:
1 - Students can explore questions of faith away from family and their home churches in a space where it’s safe to wrestle.
For students who have grown up in the faith, family and the home church can act as a crutch. Children lean on their parents’ reasons for keeping the faith instead of forming their own. It can be a transformational experience for high school graduates to see their faith in a different, larger context – one where they don’t have to have it all together and where they realize others have doubts too. Students may love the opportunity to sit in the unknown for a bit and take a break from years of being graded on their thoughts and arguments.
2 – Gap years help students to take the time and space they need to connect with God and build healthy rhythms before college starts.
Gap years can set up students to succeed in college by providing them with an opportunity to build healthy rhythms and learn to deal with stress outside of the familiar home environment. Burnout in high school is more common than you might think – students may not have adequate energy, focus, or maturity to transition well into college right away, let alone to thrive. In many faith-based gap year programs, students are given space to dig into important faith questions, to engage in corporate and personal prayer and devotions, and to explore the spiritual disciplines.
3 – During a gap year program, students get to meet people from different generations with different beliefs.
Most gap year programs are smaller, more intense communities where students get to know everyone and can’t splinter off easily into like-minded groups as they may have in high school. Additionally, today’s youth have been raised in a world in which their relationships were mediated through technology and social media. The skill of learning how to connect, converse, and build authentic face-to-face relationships is more important than ever. The best gap year programs include sharing life in multi-generational communities.
4 – In gap year programs, students experience the power of Christian community, doing life together through thick and thin.
Gappers are offered the opportunity to build life skills like conflict resolution, confrontation, setting healthy expectations, and being present despite digital distractions. In the best programs, this learning is facilitated through experiential education processes like service-learning, outdoor adventure, vocational exploration in real work settings, and cross-cultural immersion.
5 – Gap years provide students with an intentional time to build a holistic vision for the future.
We all know what it’s like to finish out another year and realize all the things we never got to. With the pressure to strategically achieve in high school in order to get into the best college, and the distractions of social media and technology that eat up any remaining scraps of free time, students often don’t have the space and time that they need for this kind of intentionality. Gap years can uniquely position students to succeed in college by giving them a compelling vision that will enable them to stay motivated and focused in college.
Stronger faith is the best reason for a gap year in its own right. But beyond that, it will provide a firm, holistic foundation for students once they make the transition into college — one of the most significant steps of their lives. At its best, a gap year helps students become spiritually and developmentally ready to take on life’s challenges, walking every step of the way in the light of the whole gospel.
Know a high schooler who could benefit from a gap year? Download a free eBook by Wheaton College: 10 Reasons for a Gap Year.
Dr. Rob Ribbe is the Director of HoneyRock, the Outdoor Center for Leadership Development of Wheaton College and an Assistant Professor in the Christian Formation and Ministry Department at Wheaton.