Back to School and the Rest of the School Year

All across our nation, the last few weeks have been abuzz with excitement. Our televisions have been filled with ads and the source of this excitement has found its way into our living rooms and around our dinner tables. I bet that you have been a part of this excitement too. I’m not talking about a Presidential election; I’m talking about the start of a new school year. Every year, our youth face a wave of excitement and apprehension as they prepare for a new year that carries every bit as much meaning as January 1.

I can relate to their feelings because I experience this excitement and apprehension every year too as I prepare for and wonder about the students that God will put into my life through the desks of the public high school where I teach.  I am blessed with the double life of a youth minister and high school teacher and so I feel some degree of empathy with what our students go through on a yearly basis and I’ve tried to take the lessons that I’ve learned in the classroom into our youth group at church.

I see schools as the proverbial “playing field” on which our youth live out their faith. Year in and year out I have the opportunity to not only “coach,” but also watch with tears and joy as they perform. My wish for all youth ministries would be that a major focus of their efforts center on teaching students how to “run the race” in their daily lives at school. I am able to see first hand the fruits of not only my ministry, but that of many other youth ministries in our area. I have learned much from watching our Christian students live out (or failing to live out) their faith day by day. I find that the one’s who are most successful at this tend to come from youth programs that teach students why they should express their faith at school, what they are allowed to express at school, and how to express their faith at school.

Why Students Should Express Their Faith at School

First, all students should understand Jesus’ words regarding “salt and light” and how it relates to their presence in the school setting. In days of old, it was salt that preserved meat. Without salting, the meat would spoil, rot, and stink. Left long enough, it would eventually present a health hazard to all around it. This frames our understanding of Christians in public schools rather well. If we refuse to be salt in our schools, we end up with a system that begins to spoil, rot and stink. Eventually, it may even become a hazardous environment. Likewise, as the “light of the world” our Christian students go forth into darkness, but they need not become blind. Darkness cannot overcome light. Darkness does not exist except in its relationship to light. Think about turning on a flashlight in the night, it cannot be shut down by the darkness no matter how black and vast it may be. Our students (and even teachers) should be this light in our schools. Many people complain “they have taken God out of our public schools.” But until they take Christians out of public schools, there is no way that God can be removed.

Students should be taught that they enter their educational world, just as adults enter their workplace, marketplace, or recreation space. They enter with the responsibility of a Christian to be salt and light to this world. This ideal does not set them above the world they inhabit as much as it gives them a place in it–a place of humility and compassion, and above all, a servant’s heart for God’s people in the situation in which God has placed them. After all, our students spend most of their time in their schools. Much of their identity is rapped up in their social life primarily governed by school. It is greatly important that we focus on how those students function within this setting more than we focus on how to get them out of it.

What Students are Allowed to Express at School

We should all, as youth ministry leaders, understand what our students may and may not do in the school setting in regards to expression of faith. Our Constitution, and the years of decisions handed down from the Supreme Court guarantee numerous rights of expression for students in public schools. Youth ministries would do well to encourage students to pursue and exercise the rights they are entitled to more than bemoaning the lack of rights that exist. The website First Amendment Schools maintained by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development is a good resource for educating yourself and students.

In my government class which I teach high schoolers, I typically give the following example to explain a student’s religious rights in the school. If a Muslim student devotedly follows the command to pray five times daily to Allah, I would not have the right to hold that student in class at the prescribed time of prayer thus forcing him or her to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. However, if this student insisted upon laying a prayer rug in the aisle of the classroom in order to kneel for the time of prayer, I could most certainly insist that he or she refrain as they are interfering with the legitimate purpose of our institution.

As a rule of thumb, any activity that is student initiated, student led, and does not interfere with the legitimate function of education in a school, should be allowed. This means that students may gather for prayer during times of the day when regular activities are not planned. This means that students may read their Bibles or religious materials at times when the free choice to read is given. This means that students should have the ability to excuse themselves from school when religious observances such as Good Friday occur.

Students do not have the freedom to express themselves in ways that interfere with the legitimate educational process. Students cannot always object to class material and curriculum that is taught based on a religious belief. Likewise, students may not be allowed free expression on all assignments or other school related works. This becomes an issue of speech more so than the free exercise of religion. But students must not be led to feel that schools are trampling their rights if they are forced to understand the principles behind a theory of evolution or to articulate both sides of an argument regarding abortion or to extend rights of common courtesy and decency to individuals with a differing sexual orientation. Again, darkness does not extinguish light. If students continue to shine in the ways that they are allowed, God will work.

How Students Can Express Their Faith in Schools

A simple answer to this question is “follow the rules.” I can’t think of a more appropriate expression of Christian faith than this. In Virginia to follow the rules means that you will remain silent for one minute at the beginning of each school day. To follow the rules at my school means that every other day you must read silently for at least fifteen minutes during a designated period in the school day. Following the rules means that you respect your teachers and other students, and sometimes you may even be “submissive” to them. (Ephesians 5:21) A student who walks within the rules with respect and civility provides the best witness for Christ to adults and students alike.

But we can do better than just that. Students can be encouraged to share their faith at school by joining with like-minded individuals in a variety of ways–whether it is in a formal way as in a non-curricular club or in a less formal way. Since I’ve begun teaching, students have informally organized gatherings for prayer (sometimes even during instructional time) in the wake of nearly all student deaths that I remember.

Students may even find a way to express their faith within the curriculum of the school if students have a clear understanding of the purpose and goals of their assignments and school-related activities. I have experienced joy at seeing students from my ministry and others sharing their faith in God through expressive school activities. During the Spring Choral Concert at our high school, in addition to performances by various choirs, individuals are allowed to choose their own songs and audition to perform at the show. This link is a great example of a student being salt and bringing light into the world. The young lady not only performed this song in the concert, but she also co-wrote it with an adult member of our church.

All of this information has become a second nature for me as I live and work in both youth ministry and education, but for those who are not so involved in an educational setting, I would strongly recommend becoming involved. While many ministers like to have a free pass to enter the school campus to visit with members of the youth ministry, the best way to really interact with the environment that our students are so immersed in is to find a place of service—either paid or volunteer—in a school setting. As a visitor, one may get a chance to interact with church kids on their own turf, but as a servant, our lives truly begin to intersect with the world that our students know best. For ideas on how to do this read “Youthworker on Campus.”

I had an experience with a student several years ago that embodies all of these elements mentioned. I was attending a two-day leadership retreat for our school. Student government and club leaders worked together to set an agenda for the school and their respective clubs. At the end of this retreat, leaders shared with the larger group their goals for the year.

The first student to speak was the president of the GSA—Gay Straight Alliance. I listened to the young lady articulate her plans for the club and couldn’t help but wonder what my fellow youth workers and others associated with the church would think about this scenario. I thought of all the criticisms that could be leveled at the school for the existence of such a club and the arguments of many for pulling their children out of the public school system.

After several other students began to present, my thoughts turned as I listened to the president of the CFC—Christian Fellowship Club, just as clearly articulating her goals for the year. I began to realize that much like our society, public schools are a pluralistic mix of people from different backgrounds and philosophies and the same rights that allow others to practice their beliefs are the ones that allow us to practice ours. This young lady from the CFC was making the most of the rights that she possessed to make a positive statement of faith rather than withdrawing and bemoaning the rights afforded to others. She was being salt and light by confidently and proudly sharing her faith with a world that was willing to listen because she first listened to them. At the close of this session, I watched the two girls representing groups that in many circles are as far from each other as left from right reach out to each other and walk from the conference hall arm in arm. I did not see this as an act of a Christian compromising her values for the world. I saw this as a Christian who knew how to spread the gospel to the world.

As a student myself at the University of Virginia, I encountered a quote from Thomas Jefferson etched on an entry to Cabell Hall which stated, “For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” Too many efforts on the part of well-meaning Christians are geared toward repression of messages and values that contradict those of the traditional Christian mainstream. I think the measures are well-directed if they focus on the institutional side of educational systems, but when they are pointed toward student-led initiatives or attempts on the part of schools systems to include and balance various points of view, they are misdirected. Our schools and our society should reflect the above mentioned quote by Thomas Jefferson. We should not be afraid of opinions and values that contradict our own nor should we teach our youth to be. Our youth ministries should be a place where students can work out their faith and where we can lead them to discover truth. Furthermore, our teens should be equipped to carry that truth into the diverse society that is their school so that it may stand up along side the competing voices of reality and be given a chance to shine into the darkness.

As for another role for the Church, I also believe that every niche of society and government has a purpose, and so long as that purpose is legitimate it should be respected. That includes between the school and the Church. Our community is beginning to build a relationship between churches and schools in order to use the community influence to bridge the achievement gap and I think that it is an excellent way that schools and Church can partner. We can’t as leaders, think that schools will or should open their doors to us to come in and evangelize when there primary purpose is education. We can however find ways to support their worthy mission of education and do God’s work. Our mere presence in this supportive way is bound to strengthen efforts to evangelize even if it is not the primary goal.

Steven Turner teaches high school near Charlottesville, Virginia. He and his wife also share the responsibilities of Youth Ministers at Chestnut Grove church. Contact information for Steven is available at www.chestnutgrovebaptist.org.