Two weeks into a rigorous Christian youth program in Chester County, the first-year students are getting accustomed to a philosophy that serving God comes with few coffee breaks.

They must memorize eight verses from the Bible weekly, study the book daily, learn ministry, and volunteer regularly throughout the community.

They must not work at an outside job, date for the first year, participate in social media (for four months), or use a cellphone during the day.

"There are a lot of challenges, but I'm learning to work through them," said Jasmine Shawell, 20, of Pottstown. "I want to get more into God."

She is one of 28 people taking part in the Ground Zero Master's Commission program, a live-in Christian youth discipleship program that aims to help people 18 to 25 develop self-discipline and independence, learn ministry, and "grow and mature in their faith," said Pastor Mike Atkins, director of the program based at the Christian Life Center, formerly the New London Presbyterian Church, in Chester County.

The program offers three years of training. It is affiliated with the Chesapeake Bible College and Seminary in Ridgely, Md., and students can earn a certificate, associates degree, or bachelor's degree through their training in Chester County.

The local program is a branch of the Master's Commission International Network, a Christian youth program that has 51 branches at churches throughout the United States, and one in Belgium. Other area branches are in West Chester, Bensalem, and Vineland.

Students spend September to May in Bible and ministry classes, leading worship services, volunteering with community organizations, performing Christian-oriented dramas, and traveling on foreign missions.

"I believe that there are more young people who are called into ministry than actually go into it," Atkins said. "The general mentality is that people view church work as secondary. We want to give young people the chance to explore the option and equip them if they feel called."

Atkins started Ground Zero as a youth ministry in 2000 at what was then New London Presbyterian Church. The program, and its Project R.A.K.E. home-repair ministry, joined forces with the Master's Commission in 2005, becoming a full-time, live-in program.

Some of Ground Zero's students live with families from the church; the rest live in dorm settings.

The annual $6,200 tuition includes room, board, books, classes, and mission trips. This year, Ground Zero students will go to Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Christina Trager, 20, of Bethany Beach, Del., came to the program because she felt called to ministry but wasn't sure how to begin. When she saw a drama presentation by the Master's Commission, she decided to join the program.

"They showed that even if you don't have it all together, God can transform you," said Trager, a second-year student.

Not all experiences with the Master's Commission program have been good.

Lisa Kerr, 30, of Los Angeles, was involved with the program for seven years as a student and staff member at churches in Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana. She writes about it on a blog.

Kerr describes her experiences as similar to those in a military boot camp, with very limited freedom and leaders who used students as cheap labor and inflicted "spiritual abuse" upon them.

Students were humiliated in front of their peers as a form of discipline for perceived failings, such as dressing in a form-fitting T-shift or not keeping their rooms neat, Kerr said. She also described an activity in which students burned and buried personal items interpreted by staff as coming between the students and God.

"I consider all those experiences to be emotionally troubling," said Kerr, who now describes herself as somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist.

Lance Vistine, director of the Brandywine Master's Commission at Trinity Assembly of God in West Chester, said he knows there are some "very stringent and strict" programs.

"There are some that are phenomenal and there are some that could stand some adjustment," Vistine said. He advises families to research programs and interview directors.

The Master's Commission International Network has a system for handling complaints, Atkins said.

Atkins has read blog accounts of unhappy experiences with the program and he advises parents to meet and talk with directors as well as students. All of the programs and directors are different and have leeway in fashioning their programs, Atkins said.

At Ground Zero, new students say they are adjusting to rules that Atkins and co-director Christine O'Connor say are intended to keep them focused on ministry and becoming independent.

Shawell says she loves the program.

Lauren Cavanaugh, 18, a first-year student from Quarryville, Lancaster County, says she's not sure she understands the dating restriction but has decided to trust and follow it.

Matt Reoli, 20, of Lincoln University, credits the program with helping him "to mature and grow spiritually." He said it had forced him to stretch beyond his comfort zone and evolve as a person.

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or