Should students go straight to college after high school? Tommy Nelson, senior pastor of Denton Bible Church, would argue no. “If they are Christian kids [in college], they are ganged up upon by their seniors and they’re now in a survival mode. I mean, you lose your faith, you lose your virginity, you lose your liver in time, and then you can lose your life,” Nelson says. To combat this problem, the Texas pastor created the GAP Program, a nine-month leadership course where high school graduates can learn theology, life skills, job skills, and more before attending a university.
On today’s podcast, Nelson discusses why he started the leadership program, how it operates, and how we can prepare young people to stand against the rise of secularism on college campuses. Read the lightly edited transcript below or listen to the podcast:
Virginia Allen: I am joined by Tommy Nelson, senior pastor of Denton Bible Church in Denton, Texas, just about 40 miles north of Dallas. Tommy, thank you so much for joining me.
Tommy Nelson: Thank you. Delighted to be with you.
Allen: All right. So, Tommy, you are telling young people not to go to college—or at least not right away.
In fact, your church has created a program called GAP that is specifically for young men who have just graduated from high school. And the GAP Program, as I’ve seen kind of described on your website, is essentially a nine-month leadership training program to teach theology, life skills, job skills, and so forth.
So why do you think that it’s so important for young people to not go straight to college after high school and maybe to consider a program like GAP?
Nelson: Well, I’m now 69 years old and when I was young, college was the ticket. You had to go to college. That was how you were going to rise. Well, college is a lot different now than what it was then. I can never recall in college, I went to North Texas State University, and I can never recall God, my faith, the Bible being attacked. It was considered rude. Maybe they did it at [University of California,] Berkeley, but nobody did it there.
And yet, I have worked with college students for almost 50 years now, and now when a kid goes to college, you have the secular worldview that has set up shop, and secularism says there is no final truth. It is found subjectively within you and how you feel to make you happy and no one can judge you. That’s secularism.
And so, when somebody comes with an uplifted Bible, the response is like Nebuchadnezzar to people who will not bow to his image. And so scientifically, psychologically, morally, that faith is attacked and you just see kids, Virginia, that go to college and if they’re not set up yet, which a lot of 18 [year olds] aren’t, they are swept away.
If they are Christian kids, they are ganged up upon by their seniors and they’re now in a survival mode. I mean, you lose your faith, you lose your virginity, you lose your liver in time, and then you can lose your life.
Colleges now are not simply trying to make you a living but not a life, they’re trying to get you a living and destroy what you thought was life, and the fear of God, the image of God and man, the absoluteness of moral absolutes that they’re out for you.
We don’t try to keep kids out of college, but we say, “Before you go to college, let us take you in a GAP, God’s Alternative Plan, and let’s take you and we’ll teach you Bible. We’ll teach you apologetics. We’ll teach you about where secularism came from.”
America’s gone from Calvinism to Arminianism to liberalism to secularism. Secularism was where nobody cares if there’s a God. Agnosticism doesn’t believe that you can know. Secularism just doesn’t care. And man is now exalted in humanistic secularism.
We just take you and we train you in life skills. We show kids how to dress, how to have etiquette. We show them how to work on their car, how to do blacksmithing. We show you how to do carpentry, we show you how to garden. And you take a college nine months and we bring in people, excellent men from all over, and we just teach it. We’re doing it with men now.
In a couple of years we hope to go to women. We’re kind of building the airplane as we fly it. You know what I’m saying? No one’s ever really done this that I know of, and so we’re kind of building it as we go.
Allen: Oh, it’s so practical to take both that theology side and then just those life skills, those jobs skills.
Nelson: Right, yeah. And a kid today, Virginia, can live in a room with a smartphone and never get out of it. I mean, he’s got access to the Library of Congress. And so a lot of life skills, a lot of people skills, social skills, moral skills, domestic skills, workplace skills. Kids have just so much today that have them removed.
There’s a verse in Proverbs, it says, “An inheritance gained hurriedly at the beginning will not be blessed in the end.” Meaning, when you give a kid too much too quick, it’ll ruin him. It’s not giving him a chance to struggle.
So we’ll take boys, Virginia, we want them to be able to do 50 push-ups, 10 pull-ups, and be able to run a 10K. My son who is in a home, what do they call it? Secret Service, home—
Allen: Homeland Security.
Nelson: Homeland Security. He told me that they’re getting guys now that their femurs give way, their hips give way. Their bones just are not hard because they hadn’t been stressed, they’ve sat around so long.
It’s been found that kids, something like 70% of the kids in the United States, couldn’t get into the military because of their lack of physical fitness. And so, we make them physically fit, socially adept.
… [It’s] like in the South. They would take a kid and put him down, make him eat in the basement until he was instructed by a servant on how to conduct himself and how to be apropos in public. Then they’d let him come up to the adults.
And kids now just don’t have any life skills. As I talk with a lot of them, young guys now, they’re not really interested that much in college, but they are just about learning how to live, how to [develop] life skills.
I think men in our country have been so condescended upon that a man is just afraid to assert himself in a home. They’re all desperately looking for a male figure with authority and love to set up shop and say, “This is the way it is.” It’s kind of like in the Bible when you read the Book of Proverbs.
Solomon will say, “My son,” and he’ll say, “Don’t do that. Be aware of this, do this.” And he’ll give you little two-line sermons over and over and over just to help you make it through life. That’s what we try to do in the GAP Program.
I had more response to it than anything we’ve ever had in 40-some odd years, 47 years of Denton Bible Church. More response by the adults saying, “We want to get behind this and do whatever we can.” I’ve never seen that big a response from kids and from adults saying, “Yes, that’s what we’ve got to have.”
Nelson: We’re going with six [boys], as kind of a trial run. Then next year, we’re going to go to 20. Then we’re going to open it up to girls and go 40. I would like some day, Virginia, to see churches, everywhere there’s an evangelical church, to have part of their staff … do the GAP Program.
I mean, it’s a blinding flash of the obvious. I mean, you, Virginia Allen, you could do it. You could take a bunch of girls that are 18 years old, and you take them and start talking to them about morality, about God, about how to be a daughter, about parents, about authority, about being skilled, and the person you select to look at for your life partner. You can make a whole lot of difference in a young girl’s life.
Well, you just have to get a guy that knows his Bible and that knows how we got from the Puritans to same-sex gender assignment, and how we got from inalienable truths that are self-evident through nature’s God to where a judge can be censored by the ACLU for handing a Bible to a convicted murderer and show him John 3:16, which is what we had just recently in Texas.
How did we get here?
So somebody has to be able to show him [the] Bible, and history, and the devolution of Western philosophy, and get the kid ready for the chipper that he’s about to back into. You know what I mean?
Allen: Yeah, absolutely.
Nelson: When he graduates, he’s backing into a chipper and it’s going to grind him up if he’s not ready.
Allen: And you say that you roughly modeled the program after the L’Abri Fellowship, which was started by Francis and Edith Schaeffer.
Nelson: Yeah, there’s been a lot of places that did this. Princeton University was begun by what was called the Log College of a fellow named William Tennent and it became Princeton, where he took about 18 young guys and just tutored them as young men because he didn’t want to send them to Harvard or Yale that had gone liberal, and so he trained them.
L’Abri means “the shelter” in French, and Francis Schaeffer would take young men and women from Europe that had been devastated through secular humanism that reached Europe ahead of us. He would take them and walk them through it.
In Colorado Springs, the Summit Ministry by David Noble, the same thing. He looked up in ’62 and he says, “We’re sending kids to college to get threshed.” He would take them and train them. So there has been things like this all around the country starting to pop up.
It’s kind of like whenever America pressed to the West in the late 1800s, mid- to late 1800s, and gosh, I guess before because it was realized that we were going to the West, but we had no churches. So we would try to have a courthouse, a school, but there weren’t any churches.
We started what was called the Sunday School Alliance, to where the men and women would go out and on Sunday they would take the children in an hour and they would begin to train them in the Bible because they recognized that there was such a big gap, a big dearth of knowledge.
It got so well-known that pretty soon the Sunday School Association disappeared and local churches took it upon themselves to say, “We can do this.” … All of us grew up in Sunday school to some degree. That’s where it started, was just a bunch of adults said, “We got a problem here. We got kids growing up with no moral guidance.”
And when America was urbanized and industrialized, you had all kids. Daddy would now go to the factory and kids were loose, and you had gangs beginning. And out of that came YMCA, Boys Club, Boy Scouts, things like this, sports, baseball, football, to try to get kids under coaches to try to give them some guidance before the system ground them up.
And so this is an old, old idea. For that matter, heck, Virginia, the synagogue in Israel, when they were surrounded by the pagans, when they were dispersed, they would come together in a common place of instruction, [the] synagogue. They would instruct the kids on how to be Jews in the midst of Rome, and in midst of Greece, in the midst of Persia.
So that’s kind of what this is, it’s an old, old idea that kind of needs to be reborn. Every church can take some guys, some girls, some couple, and take kids and parent them, and get them ready to step into the chipper that has become the American worldview now.
Allen: And you started with six young men in September, correct?
Allen: How’s it going?
Nelson: Like I say, we’re building the plane as we fly.
Allen: OK, great. [Do] those young men seem to be enjoying the program so far?
Nelson: They have said, “I am changed,” and we’ve only been doing it now for two months.
Nelson: They are saying, “My life has changed,” because they were taken from a theological, philosophical, intellectual, physical two and confronted with an eight. …
The guy that I have is called Drew Anderson. He’s a former Midland, Texas, all-state Linebacker and 185 pounds, so you better be tough. A Texas A&M Aggie, a guy who did the stock market and real estate before he went into the ministry. He’s just a man’s man. He loves his wife. He loves his daughters. And he takes these young men four hours a day and he orchestrates people coming in and him instructing them.
So they’re at school, there four hours a day in our own life college. And they’re absolutely loving it because we’re exposing them to financial planners, to bankers, to master gardeners, to military men, to surgeons who are Christians that are showing them the way the big boys do it.
Nelson: And their lives are being changed.
Allen: Have you received any pushback from parents saying, “No, my child needs to go straight to college after they graduate high school”? And if you do have parents saying that to you, what are you saying to them?
Nelson: I say there’s maybe a few kids that could go straight to college today. There’s maybe a few. I’ve seen a couple that are so grounded by their parents, Bible theology, life, and social skills that they can do it, but very few. And so we have had zero pushback from parents.
We had one kid come in the program because his mother filled out the entrance form unknown to him just to get him in.
All that we ask from a kid, a young man, and [in] two years from a young woman, is that they have a motor, they have to be self-motivated. It’s not a recovery program. We’re not taking drug addicts and trying to rehab them. We’re taking kids. If you’ve been a drug addict, that’s OK, but we’re taking kids that want desperately to be successful in life and are not quite sure how to do it.
We can’t spend our time trying to parent a disobedient child, and so we’ll send them home. If they don’t show up to class, if they can’t show up on time, if they can’t get along with people in it, we’ll have to send them home. It costs like $2,500 a year to do it, which would be the lowest junior college education you could get, and so it’s not a great fee, but we want them to make a commitment and to stay with us.
We have had no pushback. What we have had is we’ll have up to 150 parents come together in a meeting with their particular life skill to say, “I want to be able to be used. If you can use me in any way, use me.”
We’ve had guys that are recovering drug addicts that came to us and said, “Can you can use me?” We said, “Yes we can,” and we get you in there.
We have people that will come and teach them about STDs and say, “This is what you’re looking at if you become immoral, this is going to happen.”
So we have had huge response from the parents.
Allen: And is the program at Denton Bible Church, is it only for your students in your congregation? Or could a young person in Florida apply, for example?
Nelson: Anybody, anybody. Now, if you’re in there, you got to go to Denton Bible Church.
Nelson: You go to the first service and you don’t just get to sit, you become a greeter, or you become a usher, or you become someone that serves communion, or you become someone that sits in and helps with the infants and plays with the squalling kids.
We’re not going to let you just sit. You’re going to be in the commons group at our church, and you’re going to be a servant in that group. So it’s not a time that you’re going to sit and vegetate for a year. You’re going to be busy and you’re going to serve within the church.
Allen: Now, if churches want to find out more about duplicating your model, or if students want to apply, how can they find out more?
Nelson: I’m not an expert on a computer machine, but they can just go to Denton Bible on the computer and then look at Denton Bible, and then look for the GAP. … We’ve made a video because we would get a huge number of calls saying, “What are you doing?” And so, we’re having people call and we show them.
And, Virginia, in time, if it works, we got to wait and see if it works—it’s great on paper and it looks great after two months, but we’re waiting to see—we would like in time to write on it and to say, “Here’s how you do it.” Because any church can do this and it’s a blinding flash of the obvious. It’s falling off a log. Young guys are all looking for old guys. Old guys are longing to invest in the next generation.
Psalm 71, “Do not forsake me, O God, until I make thy name known to the generation to come.” All you got to have is an intelligent, loving, communicable person that can be funded by a church to say this is your position, is to develop the GAP Program.
We would like to have, in time, I’d like to have 500 kids a year coming and going in this, to where it becomes something that every evangelical church in our country does—taking the kids in the church and around the church because they’re not just kids in our church. We got a kid from Chicago, we got kids from all over that have come to do this, so we’re thinking any church can do it and every church ought to do it.
Allen: Well, Tommy, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it and learning more about the GAP Program. So exciting to hear.
Nelson: Thank you, Virginia.