Discipleship 101

When Maren Jorgensen gave her life to Christ during her senior year in high school in Davenport, Iowa, she was excited about growing in faith and being part of the community of believers. But her Young Life leader moved away, and she went off to college still needing a strong theological foundation, as well as the fellowship of other Christians.

Tom Pruden was a student at Augusta College in Augusta, Ga. — a believer walking with the Lord and volunteering as a student Young Life leader. But the year before, Pruden had been diagnosed with an incurable arthritic disease that affected his ankles. A former athlete, he found himself in pain and needing crutches to walk. “I found myself asking, ‘God, what are you doing?’” he said.

A critical time

Many Christian leaders believe the first few years after high school are a critical period for Christian students, when they face serious stresses or challenges to their faith, needing a solid theology, spiritual mentoring and the support of other believers.

Following the recommendations of Young Life staff, Jorgensen and Pruden entered Discipleship Focus: Partnering with Young Life in Discipleship, a summer work/study program that offers Christian college students summer jobs at Herschend Family Entertainment (HFE) theme parks, along with housing, leadership and a 10-week Bible study and discipleship program. The students live together in cabins, work together, have Bible studies, small group fellowship, leadership and mentoring and evening activities, all coordinated by committed leadership staff.

The real strength of the program is the discipling, said program founder and director Will Wyatt. “Evangelism is primarily proclamation; discipleship involves more modeling, and we’re the most privileged people in Young Life to have 10 weeks to dialogue and fellowship with the students,” he said.

Foundation for faith

Pruden entered the program in the summer of 1988 at HFE’s Silver Dollar City theme park in Branson, Mo. “That summer really laid the foundation for my faith, and I experienced a deepening of God’s faithfulness,” he said. Previously, he had been irritated with those who quoted Romans 8:28 to him about his illness. That summer, in the study of Romans led by Wyatt, he also found Romans 8:29a, which says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”

“God was allowing this to happen so that He could make me more like Christ, so that I could trust Him in ways like putting one foot in front of the other,” Pruden said.

On Young Life staff now for 17 years and currently serving as regional director of Missouri, Pruden said his Discipleship Focus experience affirmed his call to Young Life staff. His disease went into remission not long afterward.

Maren Jorgensen, now on Young Life staff in Denver, found the foundational truths and Christian community she needed, and even returned for a second summer in the program. “It was incredible to have people there to disciple me and mentor me,” she said. “There’s no other place where you experience that amazing community of brothers and sisters in Christ, with such depth in the Word and in each other’s lives. Other than when I gave my life to the Lord, it has been the single most significant experience in my life. It changed my life.”

A Silver Dollar dream

The program has been changing lives for 30 years, with 1,200 alumni since the pilot project launched.

Discipleship Focus began with an idea from former Young Life staffers Will and Betty Wyatt who, while on a ski trip, were struck by the bored, indifferent attitudes of the young people working at the lodges and restaurants. They theorized how different the experience could be at a ski resort staffed with cheerful, friendly, Christian youth serving the guests.

Having been involved in the establishment of Young Life’s Wilderness Ranch backpacking program, the Wyatts sensed God leading them to establish a discipleship program for college students. They felt such a program would involve not only serious study and community, but also a work experience in the real world where the students could live out what God was teaching them.

The Wyatts approached Bob Mitchell, then president of Young Life, with the idea of developing such a program at a ski resort. Plans were developed and a financial backer was found, but funding fell through and the project was dropped. A year and a half later, Mitchell received a call from Jack Herschend in Branson, Mo. The two men did not know each other, but Herschend and his brother were Christians and supporters of youth ministries, including Young Life. The brothers were also owners of a theme park called Silver Dollar City in the southwest Missouri town. Herschend wanted to know if Young Life would be interested in sending some Christian college students to work during the summer at Silver Dollar City to add to the Christian witness and environment at the park. Mitchell, remembering the Wyatts’ idea, proposed adding the leadership and biblical studies component. He then called the Wyatts and asked them to head up the program. The partnership with Silver Dollar City launched in 1977 with 35 Young Lifers housed along with the staff at a nearby resort.

Early impact

Herschend said he sought the partnership because of a problem he saw among the hundreds of college students who flocked to the Ozarks for summer jobs each year: many of them spent all their free time on the lakeshores drinking beer. “Young Life changed all that,” he said. “Young people inside and outside the program flocked to Young Life’s evening activities.”

Additionally, the Young Life philosophy of earning the right to share Christ was a perfect fit with the Silver Dollar City culture. “We watched Young Lifers reaching out in friendship and genuine concern, often for months, before sharing their faith. And we saw lives touched,” Herschend said.

Three decades later, the program has expanded as the HFE company (now 17 properties in seven states) has expanded, with Discipleship Focus offered at the HFE properties Silver Dollar City and White Water in Branson, and Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. It continues the mission of discipling college-age Christians from Young Life, as well as the Navigators and other campus ministries and churches.

Challenging college students

The Wyatts, who leave their home and business in southern California each summer to come to Branson, have been a key part of the ministry, Herschend said. “They both have a gentle spirit and lead, as Jesus did, through serving everyone around them. I know of no couple who has touched more lives in such enduring ways.”

The Discipleship Focus programs use the Bible study, Discovery: God’s Answers to Our Deepest Questions, written by Will Wyatt and published by Navigators Dawson Media. “It’s about learning to give control to God,” Wyatt said. The Wyatts still lead the Branson study, with small groups led by additional staffers.

The students are encouraged to ask hard questions of the Wyatts, said Janie Derks, who went through Discipleship Focus in 2001, the summer before her senior year in college. “Their wisdom is the strength of the program,” she said. “In talking with Will, I got the idea that you’re not only called to do ministry, but that you get to do ministry, which was a huge paradigm shift for me.” Now on Young Life staff in Holland, Mich., Derks said her summer in the program led to the decision to go on Young Life staff, and she still uses the principles she learned — and even Wyatt’s illustrations — in her ministry today.

The work component of Discipleship Focus meets the students’ need for summer income, and the HFE Human Resources department works with the students so that they can take time away from the jobs to take the high schoolers they work with at home to camp. The summer jobs, which range from ride operations to food service, also play a role in their spiritual growth. “We pray that God puts them in the jobs where they need to be to learn what God wants to teach them,” Wyatt said.

Workers for God’s harvest

In 2005, the Wyatts conducted a survey of the alumni of the Discipleship Focus program, to evaluate the long-term effect of the ministry. Of more than 200 who responded, at least 30 are pastors, 40 are on the staff of other ministries, 60 are or have been on Young Life staff and nearly all ranked their summer with Discipleship Focus as a significant part of their spiritual growth.

Thirty years after that initial call, Jack Herschend is pleased with the program that has influenced so many young lives. “As a company, we have been blessed in many ways, and the opportunity to partner in this program that supports the spiritual growth and development of young Christian leaders is one of those blessings,” he said. Tom Pruden said he encourages all student leaders to consider the Discipleship Focus program. “I’ve always said it’s one of the best kept secrets in Young Life.”

Application forms for the 2007 program along with more information about Discipleship Focus are available at dfocus.org or by calling (417) 338-8804.