Why I Am Still Not Rah-Rah Over the Campus Missionary Movement (At Least Not as We Know It Still in 2007)

Originally published September 2007.

Back in 2001 I wrote a Pair of Cleats that had been stirring in me for quite some time. I labored, studied, and prayed over what was stirring in me and the fruit was the most negatively received Pair of Cleats ever entitled, “Why I’m Not Rah-Rah Over the Campus Missionary Movement.” Not that this bothered me. I felt peace after the sweat labor from working through all of my supposed-to thoughts mixed with what I was seeing and learning. As Wild Frontier and out-there those thought were, I was confident of what I wrote. Even if others weren’t.

Six years later I still am. So I bring my thoughts to you again with an added six-more-years perspective. I am now starting my 27th year of youth ministry and I’m in my 15th year as a substitute teacher in the public school system. I still believe strongly in the Wild Frontier lifestyle which is to live your life beyond human limits.

I choose to spend part of my daily schedule on the school campus because it is a place where our teens spend so much of their time. It is a place I believe teens can live their faith beyond human limits yet too often they choose to just get by. This is what I see on a regular basis which does influence me. It is from this “two world” perspective that I observe and write again.

 And I have no doubt that the school campus is a massive mission field. In one day at my school in the one class I was in charge of three students tried to use the user name of “pimpalicious” in the computer lab; one particularly thuggish student acted out again but this student is actually the son of two loving parents, one who is a great teacher at the school who doesn’t understand why he acts the way he does; a boy who was supposed to be suspended but because his mom appealed the suspension he was in class and grateful to be in class; and the self-induced pressure of perfectionism from more than one of the gifted students. These are the teens I get to talk to on a regular basis. These are teens I have a relationship with. It is our approach to this mission field that I question and I ask you to question.

I am going to be speaking in generalities. I can not emphasize that enough. I know there are individual effective Bible clubs, influential students, and unique school systems. I admit I have a one school system perspective. But it is a perspective most youth workers don’t have. I invite you who are reading this into my perspective.

Few Minutes Available

While in general there is a lot of wasted time in school, it is hard to plan around it. In our school system, we get seven minutes between every class. That seems like a “break” but in that seven minutes you need to get to your next class. That means squeezing through overcrowded hallways with bookbags that extend your width an extra foot. You may need to get across the building and/or up or down stairs. You might have to stop at your locker, which are not near classrooms, to pick up a couple of 25-pound books. You can’t carry all the books you need for one day because they are now the size of college textbooks. And you may have to go to the bathroom. If you are lucky and your next classroom is close, you may have a minute or two to socialize. These precious minutes tend to be spent with friends just to catch up unless you have a question to ask the teacher. This time crunch makes it difficult to chat up friends and get into faith conversations.

We get the seven minutes between every class because we have just four 90 minutes classes a day. This is supposed to be their break. Schools which run seven classes a day, and some up to ten, have maybe four minutes between bells.

Lunch is 25 minutes. Unless you rush to get in line first, you need to wait up to15 minutes just to get your food. Of course, there is time in line for witnessing opportunities. Those who bring a bag lunch can be first to their “spot” to wait for everyone else. There are opportunities in that precious time but that is up to the student. A student with the missionary attitude will see the opportunity. An average Christian student will see a small break for downtime that is cherished. According to another one of the favorite quotes: “Our lunch is our most valuable time, and now we have to eat fingers.” This is from a student at Cape Cod’s Barnstable High School, after a fellow student found a piece of human finger in his turkey sandwich. A lunch worker had apparently sliced it off the day before. (Newsweek, February 12, 2001) A rare event, a hysterical event, but the message is clear. The reprieve at lunch is important.

Then there is class time. Most often talking during class time is not allowed so any talking comes from stolen moments (like when the teacher is passing back papers). Other talk opportunities during class come from the writing of notes or even text messaging during the instruction time. Is that ethical? Is that what Jesus would do? Is that something you want to encourage for the sake of the Gospel?

At the end of class time, there may be a few free moments before the bell. That is a good chance to start faith conversations.

Tip #1: Talk to your students about doing homework at home instead of in class. It is very common to do math in English, etc., when teachers allow class time for work. This is done to avoid having to bring it home. Encourage your students to use that time instead to talk or pray.

Tip #2: Some teachers allow talking in class. Now here is opportunity. If a Christian student would have the know how to take a conversation about biology and turn it into a conversation about faith, you have wide opportunity. We need to be teaching our youth how to do that.

There are also pass opportunities for students. These are when a student is granted a hallway pass for one of a zillion reasons. There is opportunity to extend minutes on that pass. But is that ethical? I know campus missionaries who do it though. Or they could take an extra lunch (called skipping) for more time. I know campus missionaries who do that also.

After school clubs and teams are completely different. Those are genuine and great opportunities. I cannot stress those opportunities enough. There is the possibility of so much influence during those team-building times. However, to have Christian students do that most often takes them out of the Bible club, at least for that sport or club season.

Three Types of Students Who Get Involved

In generalities, there are basically three types of students who get involved in campus Bible clubs.

  • Comers-and-Goers – These are the target students but you can’t build a club around them. They are the mission of the club but they don’t create stability.
  • Leaders and Achievers – These are your Christian leaders and naturals to spread the vision and build a club around. However they are most-likely already overcommitted in many areas and club just becomes another area of commitment on an already too long list. I also know of exceptions.
  • Quiet and Secure Christian Students – Club tends to be a social circle for them, particularly because most of their friends are Christian. Clubs becomes meeting up with them on friendly ground where they spend most of their time (the school campus).

All three types present obstacles for growth and sustaining a club. The same three groups are also a part of our youth groups. But our youth groups have the opportunity to be adult-led which lends to the stability. Bible clubs are legally-required to be student led.

However, in my area I know too many of the clubs are adult-led. This puts me in a precarious situation as a youth pastor and as a school system employee. It is tricky to support these “illegal” clubs. I also know my school system won’t say anything about them because they don’t want to give the appearance of being anti-Christian. Hopefully this truly is only my one school system perspective on this one.

Last Tribal Experience?

Mark Senter, author of The Coming Revolution in Youth Ministry, wrote an article for National Network back during my searching time. To quote that article again, “The assumption is that high school represents the last tribal experience in American society and as such is the best place to evangelize the whole tribe. Supposedly the only roadblocks to success have been discovering a biblical strategy and the total commitment of the people trying to take a high school for Christ.” (Mark Senter, “View to the Future,” www.youthworkers.net). While this quote is from 2000, it still rings true. Seven years later I’m not hearing or experiencing that biblical strategy that is successfully taking high schools for Christ. Whether our schools are better or worse in 2007-2008 doesn’t change the fact that a biblical strategy has yet to affect the school campus.

Students Who Really Make a Difference

From my perspective, the students who really “change their schools” are those who are good students. Not only with grades, but their very presence can influence the atmosphere of the classroom, lunchroom, and team or club. I’ve experienced these types of students for fifteen years now. One of my boys from God’s Family was that before his early death. These are the students who are “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” 1 Peter 3:15.

These are the students who make a difference in the classroom, in the hallways, in the lunch room, in the afterschool club or team. Maybe even in the Bible club. Their impact is felt school-wide.

The truth of these students is that this gentleness and respectful behavior makes the largest difference. When students make such a responsible impression, privileges are given. They really are, whether it is fair or not. It is with those privileges that real opportunities for faith discussions are available.

During all of my years of subbing I have seen this to be true again and again and again. I can see numerous faces of these students who have affected other students and teachers with their faith. Of these faces, many of them weren’t natural leaders or considered “popular” but they left an impact. I know not every teen is a good student. Some (too many actually) don’t fit into the rote teaching system of public education no matter how hard they try. These influential teens do not necessarily have to be A-students. It is their behavior which leads to privilege and influence. Honestly if there is respect and any effort, most teachers will go out of their way to help these kinds of students. That often strikes within them why they got into teaching in the first place. (There are also some teachers who won’t do a thing to help students. Sadly they exist also.) That student can turn out to be the biggest blessing, even with his/her D.

One more thought, what good is a campus missionary who has low grades, tardies and/or bad classroom behavior? My school system is more concerned over tardies than cussing. Campus missionaries generally don’t have a problem with cussing, but they may with tardies.

As youth leaders, we have the opportunity to mold our teens to be “influential Christian students” which is more than being a Christian teen or a campus missionary.

No Agenda to Help the School

Six years later this is still my greatest frustration. In our vision-driven, God-desire and all-out love for teenagers we ignore what is the true agenda of the school. Yes, our motives are righteous and pure but is this really what God wants? Is a Bible club the best use of our time? Of our money? Tough questions I beg you to ask yourself.

The agenda of the school is to not provide a holding place of teens so you can reach them with the Gospel of Good News. The school’s agenda is to educate students and they need all the help possible to achieve that. We see the “tribe” gathered in one location which gives us easier opportunities. The school sees the “tribe” gathered as their responsibility and they are already fighting losing battles with attitudes, violence, and apathy. Six years later has brought cellphones which can’t be banned but are used for phone calls, text messaging and now viewing films, even porn, despite all these uses of a cellphone being banned. Six years later has also brought internet assignments which lead to MySpace, Facebook, BET, Music.com, etc., distractions, even on school computers during class time. Six years later has also brought a higher prevalence of drugs in nearly every high school and gangs are increasingly infiltrating the schools. More and more school life is becoming a warehousing of teens with education being squeezed out for the sake of survival. Some schools want help from the church, but it is not in the form of a Bible club.

As Steven McFarland, former executive director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom said, “I’ve had a lot of calls about how to get by the schoolhouse gate in order to share their faith, or get kids to come to a Friday night concert, or have an assembly where we sneak the gospel in at the end. But in nine years I have never had a single call from a pastor, a youth minister or a parachurch ministry asking me what the First Amendment will allow them to do to help their local public school.” (Citizen, April 2000).

I wrote the following for Group’s cover article “Five Unforgivable Mistakes.” To quote: “Mistake #5 – Stop Visiting Your Youth During School Lunches and Think You Are Doing a Great Youth Ministry Thing

“I still read in too many resources that youth workers are encouraged to visit their youth during lunchtimes at public schools. This has been encouraged for over 20 years (I was there) but a lot has changed for schools, especially since Columbine, 9/11 and Virginia Tech. Security is just another problem the school system has to worry about while trying to educate. Your presence may come from pure motives but it may not be perceived that way by administration, even if you have asked for permission. Lunch is the most chaotic time during the school day with too many uncontrolled factors. Administration and security is greatly on edge as they are looking for every possible situation that may erupt. Your presence is just another disruption during this uncontrolled time. Your benefit of encouraging your youth to be Christian and connecting with them in school is greatly outweighed by your disturbance to what is trying to be normal. Especially if you bring in food or your visit causes students to be tardy.

“Do the school a favor. Use that same amount of time to volunteer to serve the school. Your youth may still see you on campus, you will get a better understanding of their lives as students (and their number one stressor), and the school could really benefit from your expertise.”

Please, ask yourself how you can help your local school that has nothing to do with your personal agenda. Particularly remember step #3 from the Experiencing God study (which was all the rage in the late ‘90s and is still a good study). “When God reveals to you what He is doing around you, that is your invitation to join Him.”

What’s Being Done to Help the Number One Issue

In The Barna Group’s 1999 report, Third Millennium Teens, the top-rated issue for teens was educational achievement. This stressor has not changed over the years. Study after study repeats these findings.

In our youth groups, we have teenagers who are students first, missionaries second. If you are doing some sort of campus ministry, the teens who are coming are students first, missionaries second or future Christians second. We can focus on switching that around or we can somehow support their number one issue better so they become the better students who gain the true influence. Or so they can find relief from the school stress in the answer of Jesus.

I know I have actively increased treating my teens as students first in my church’s youth ministry. I like the fruit I’m seeing. After bringing so much attention to this over the previous 6 years, hopefully other churches are also.

May Become Obsolete

Mark Senter also said in that 2000 article, “The concept of campus ministry may become obsolete.” This thought was prefaced with the changes happening in education. Even-though education is a dinosaur in many similarities, technology and the school voucher issue are causing changes. This statement from Mark Senter should not be dismissed (still) but pondered.

In conclusion, since 2001, See You At the Pole has gone from one of the “it” youth ministry things to do to the practice of it being challenged or at least re-considered. Prior to the 2007 SYATP, some bloggers pondered the effectiveness:

“Once every year, students from around the world get up early in the morning to stand around the flag pole of their schools to pray. It’s an amazing symbolic event. It encourages and binds together the Christians. It leaves to revival. I wish. I’m going to go ahead and say it. I think that See You at the Pole is really STUPID! I’m sorry, call me the youth ministry cynic, but I’ve never really seen the point of this event. I’m glad students can nominally stand for their faith once a year for ten minutes. It shows nothing. It proves nothing. It just makes us feel warm and fuzzy as Christians.” Source
· “So I have come up with a challenge for youth pastors (including myself), youth workers and volunteers, parents, and students especially. The challenge is this (in the spirit of Matthew 6) to ask students NOT to attend SYATP this year. But rather get up early and find a closet to go into and pray specifically for your school, your communities, teachers, friends, national leaders, world leaders, nations, world peace, etc. They can go by themselves or they can ask one or two friends to pray with them. No more than three though. They can meet at someone’s house or in a room at school, or a quiet remote place with no one else around. They are to tell nobody what they are doing or where they are at. Then they continue to meet and pray in the same place once a week for a month or more. Source

From my two-world perspective, I am also challenging youth workers to challenge or at least re-consider what you are doing on your local school campus. During these times, there have got to be fresh ideas, maybe Wild Frontier ideas, out there that can match where our students are at and where our schools are at.