The Missionary Imposition in Our Public Schools

They’re out there. In spite of decades of talk about “Godless” public schools, there are plenty of Christian teachers who see their work as a missionary endeavor. That ain’t right, but conservative Christians aren’t the only ones to use public schools to spread religious ideas.

As a new cartoon from young-earth creationism ministry Answers In Genesis makes clear, lots of conservative Christians like the idea that public-school teachers will do their best to preach the Gospel as part of their jobs.

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

Heroic missionaries in our public schools?

The creationists at AIG are certainly not alone in their celebration of public-school missionary work. At the conservative Christian Pacific Justice Institute, for example, Brad and Susanne Dacus encourage teachers to evangelize on the job. As Marc Fey of Focus on the Family writes about their work, it will help teachers spread the Gospel in “one of the greatest mission fields in our country today, our public schools.”

This sort of missionary vision for America’s public schools has a long history. Going back to the 1940s, groups such as Youth For Christ worked to get old-time religion into modern public schools. Beginning in 1945, as the idea of the “teenager” took on new cultural clout, YFC founder Torrey Johnson hoped to make YFC a group that would speak in the language of the new teen culture. As he explained to YFC missionaries, young people in the 1940s were

sick and tired of all this ‘boogie-woogie’ that has been going on, and all this ‘jitterbugging’—they want something that is REAL!

As early as 1949, YFC leaders such as Bob Cook argued that “high school Bible club work [was] the next great gospel frontier.” As he put it, YFC must aggressively evangelize among secular public high school students, since “atomic warfare will most certainly finish off millions of these youngsters before routine evangelism gets around to them.” By 1960, YFC claimed to have formed 3,600 school-based Bible clubs in the United States and Canada.

By 1962, these ad-hoc Bible clubs had been organized into a YFC program known as “Campus Life.” Campus Life included two main components, outreach to non-evangelical students and ministry to evangelical students.

In order to engage in this public school evangelism, national YFC leaders told local activists they must “invade the world where non-Christian kids are.” As an operations manual for Campus Life leaders warned its readers, their first entry into that hostile territory could be frightening. It described common feelings among YFC evangelists on their first approach to a public high school:

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.

This missionary attitude about public schools has also had a long and checkered history among creationists. Writing in 1991, for example, Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research called public schools “the most strategically important mission field in the world.”

As have other conservative Christians and creationists, the ICR repeatedly described public schools as unfairly biased against Christianity. As Henry Morris’s son and intellectual heir John D. Morris put it, “today’s public high schools and state universities are confrontational to the creationist student.” Aggressively secular teachers, John Morris warned, “take it upon themselves to ridicule Christianity and belittle and intimidate creationist students.”

Throughout the 1980s, ICR writers described the double impact of their missionary work in public schools. First, it would protect creationist kids from secularist hostility. Second, it could bring the Gospel message of creationism to students who would not hear it elsewhere. Missionary teachers had a unique opportunity. In 1989, one ICR writer explained it this way: “As a teacher,” he wrote, “you are a unique minister of ‘light.’ Your work will ‘salt’ the education process.” Similarly, in 1990 John Morris argued that the greatest hope for a decrepit and dangerous public school system lay with “Christian teachers who consider their jobs a mission field and a Christian calling.”

Every once in a while, you’ll hear young-earth creationist activists insist that they do not want to push creationism into public schools. But they certainly do want to make room for creationism. They hope to use public schools as a “mission field” to spread their Gospel.

They shouldn’t. But before we get too angry about it, we need to reflect on what this really means for our creation/evolution debates.

To folks like me, the most important value of public education is that it is welcoming to all students and families. It should not push religious values upon its students. It should not even imply that one sort of belief is proper and others are not.

As my co-author Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book (available in February!), the goal of science education must not be to indoctrinate children into any sort of belief about human origins.

Modern evolutionary science is currently our best scientific explanation of the history of human life. Therefore, we need to teach it in science class, unadulterated with creationist notions of design or supernatural intervention.

But too often, the implied goal is to free students from the shackles of their outdated religious ideas. Too often, the goal of evolution education is to change student belief about natural and supernatural phenomena. Progressive teachers like me sometimes slide into an aggressive ambition to help students see the world as it really is.

We shouldn’t. Not if students have religious reasons for believing otherwise. As I’ve argued at more length in the pages of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, too often evolution educators make the same mistaken “Missionary Supposition” that has tarnished conservative Christianity.

Are creationists in the wrong when they use public schools as a “mission field?” Definitely.

But they are not wrong because their religion is wrong.

They are wrong because public schools by definition must remain aggressively pluralist. They must welcome people of all religious faiths, and of none. In order for evolution education to move forward, we must all remember that public schools can’t promote any particular idea about religion, even the religious idea that young-earth creationism is silly.

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,; <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.