Can Public Schools Be a “Mission Field” without the “Mission?”

Can Christian evangelicals do their thing in public schools?  Does the Constitution allow public schools to be used as a “mission field” for Christian service work?

Religion writer Tom Krattenmaker offered some thoughts yesterday about Christian missionaries offering service to local public schools.  But can their best intentions get past the fraught relationship between conservative evangelicals and the wall of separation between church and state?

Krattenmaker describes the work of Nicole Baker Fulgham, former Teach for America leader and author of Educating All God’s Children.

Fulgham and other young evangelicals hope to improve public education.  They argue that Christians can serve the poor and needy in their communities by making public schools better.  Such mission work, Fulgham argues, can leave out the proselytization and stick to the nuts-and-bolts issues of keeping the lights on and the hallways clean.

As Krattenmaker describes,

Fulgham and her work exemplify a new kind of evangelical engagement with public schools that is dedicated solely to helping kids rather than arguing over school prayer, evangelism, and other culture war flash points.

Krattenmaker thinks the approach has promise.  He describes efforts in which evangelical congregations “adopt” local public schools, cleaning up the grounds, providing free clothing to students, and generally making the school a better place without preaching or Bible thumping.

Krattenmaker admits that these are small, isolated efforts, but he has hopes this kind of thing can turn the culture-war tide.  As he argues, “These [evangelical volunteers] are people with whom nonreligious progressives and liberal people of faith can form partnerships and coalitions for the common good.”

Can it work?  Can Fulgham’s vision of servant leadership really thrive in public schools?

Logically, perhaps.  But given the history of conservative evangelical Christians and America’s public schools, my hunch is that suspicion will trump hope.

One problem is that Krattenmaker misunderstands or misrepresents the relationship between conservative evangelical Protestants and public schools.  Krattenmaker argues that evangelicals have abandoned public schools due to worries about secularism, sex ed, and evolution.

Some evangelicals have, but as a group evangelicals have never given up on reaching students for Christ in public schools.  And most “nonreligious progressives and liberal people of faith,” I’m guessing, will have longer memories than Krattenmaker recognizes.

In this century, to cite just one example, Marc Fey of the conservative Focus on the Family declared that public schools represent “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today.”[1]

Fey wanted to get Christians into public schools, too, but with the explicit intention of reaching students for Jesus.

This evangelical attitude toward public education has a long and powerful tradition.  Consider these words from a 1980s school-evangelism training manual from the evangelical group Youth For Christ:

There it looms—a huge, humming, hostile high school.  Hundreds, thousands of students, a professional corps of teachers and administrators, all busily turning the wheels of secular education.

To you, it’s a mission field.  It has masses of kids who need spiritual help, even though most of them don’t know it.  You and the Lord have decided to invade that field through the strategy called Campus Life.[2]

Youth For Christ’s public-school evangelism targeted public schools since the 1950s. As one participant remembered from an outreach project in suburban Chicago in the late 1960s,

There were 55 kids jammed into the classroom. We divided up into six groups.  They were desperately asking God, ‘Please use our lives.  Please, God, give me guts enough to talk to kids in the hall.’

They went out with this enthusiasm.  I can remember in speech class kids standing up and saying, ‘The greatest thrill in my life was when I accepted Jesus Christ as my own personal Saviour.’  I can remember Bruce’s brother standing up (his knees were beating a bass drum solo) and saying, ‘You know I have a pretty good police record with some of you kids in this room, but I want you to know that Christ has changed my life and it’s different now.’[3]

For teen evangelists like this, public schools represented an opportunity for service, as well. But that service was tied to the traditional evangelical goal of, well, evangelism.  And such explicitly evangelistic efforts will run into furious opposition in many American public schools.

Does this history mean that Fulgham’s service approach won’t work?  Not necessarily.  What it does mean, however, is that Christian evangelists who hope to get into public schools to help students will face hostility and skepticism from those outside the evangelical community.

Krattenmaker assumes too glibly that non-evangelicals will happily let bygones be bygones. I’m not so sure. 

There are few creatures more averse to controversy than public-school administrators.  Some may be willing to open their school doors to willing servants of any background.  But I imagine the history of public-school evangelism will prove a poison pill to outreach programs like the ones Krattenmaker describes. 


 


[1] Marc Fey, review of Reclaim Your School, Pacific Justice Institute website, http://www.pacificjustice.org/reclaim-your-school.html; <accessed 11 June 2013>.

[2] Campus Life Operations Manual, Third Edition (Wheaton, IL: Youth for Christ USA, 1988), 19.77.

[3] Quoted in James Hefley, God Goes to High School (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1970), 125.

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