News Articles

10/20/97 ‘Released time’ outreach grows toward nation’s public schools

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (BP)–When 22 eighth-graders signed up for a “released time” class this fall, none knew the Lord’s Prayer, only three knew the Ten Commandments and only two could explain a very basic plan of salvation.
Volunteer teacher Ann Bennett said this lack of biblical knowledge is common among public school students, with 60 percent of “released time” enrollees nationwide coming from unchurched backgrounds.
The program of biblical and morals instruction represents a major missions opportunity for Southern Baptists, said Bennett, a member of Indian Springs Baptist Church, Kingsport, Tenn.
“I see this as the greatest home missions opportunity Southern Baptists have,” she said. “This is springtime for planting the seed. “Across the nation — look at how many churches are next to schools,” she noted. “There does seem to be a wall between the two, and I think the wall will grow higher as more kids go to private schools and home schooling. ‘Released time’ breaks down those walls but helps keep (school and church) separate.”
“Released time” refers to students being released from classes to attend religious instruction of their choosing, usually for an hour or two a week. In 1952 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was legal if done off-campus.
Bennett is part of a 12-week pilot project involving Lynn View Middle School near Kingsport. The eighth-graders are studying Josh McDowell’s curriculum, “Right From Wrong.”
Though the Sullivan County, Tenn., school board only approved it as an experiment, the director of a thriving South Carolina statewide effort foresees rapid growth of the released time concept.
“When people hear about it, they’re amazed,” said Janet Yusi of School Ministries, which has its headquarters at Augusta Heights Baptist Church, Greenville, S.C. “They say, ‘It’s legal? Let’s do it.’
“I believe it’s one of God’s key vehicles for reaching public schools in our country’s history. That’s why people jump on it, because they see it as an open door.”
For example, 22 communities in South Carolina have classes or are planning them. That compares to three a year ago, Yusi said. They expect to have 700 students enrolled by Nov. 1, she added.
Scripture Union, a Philadelphia-based ministry that oversees School Ministries and several other programs, estimates 250,000 students are enrolled in 32 states.
National schools coordinator Grayson Hartgrove cautioned that despite the positive results in South Carolina, setting up these classes is hard work.
“There’s a tremendous amount of ‘spade work’ and foundation building that has to be done,” he said. “It’s on the upswing in South Carolina because we’ve been out holding conferences and telling people the good news.”
Yusi said traditionally many classes fizzle because of a lack of leadership training. Her organization sponsored a recent seminar for that purpose, with 75 persons attending from a four-state region.
Citizens need to plan a broad-based effort in five areas, she said, citing finances, curriculum, human resources, community relations and administration.
“The challenge is to keep all the balls in the air and not let anything drop,” she said. “Often a person with the vision has a heart for teaching, but a lot more is needed to keep a program going.”
She said other demands include student recruitment, complying with federal tax guidelines, educating the public about its legality and convincing school boards to allow it.
Churches must also support an interdenominational effort, said Bennett. Her co-teacher, Sherrena Arrington, is a member of Lynn Garden Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which hosts the class.
Having laypersons as teachers also increases the chance of success because it avoids questions outsiders may raise involving pastoral jealousies, Bennett said.
Kingsport’s program draws support from 11 area churches from a variety of denominations. The three Southern Baptist co-sponsors are Lynn Garden, Higher Ground and Gravely Baptist churches.
When he attended an informational meeting in July 1996, the pastor of Lynn Garden Baptist Church never dreamed “released time” would catch on so strongly and quickly.
Pastor Carl Strickler said his church voted to remain active in the area’s effort after the city school board rejected a proposal for Kingsport schools last year. Members have supplied funding for instructional materials and refreshments for some of the classes, he said.
“I have seen our church participate in an enthusiastic way,” he said. “This gets us in doors we wouldn’t otherwise for Bible teaching. Since it’s outside school property, you can teach the Bible for more than literature or history. You can teach it for its message and salvation.”
However, Bennett warned that supporters must be prepared for intense opposition. Among those taking potshots at the local released time program have been the two major newspapers in Tennessee’s fifth- largest county.
Calling “released time” a mistake, Stan Whitlock of the Kingsport Times-News said Christianity’s virtue is as a religion, not a moral system. He noted people don’t confess Christ because they think he will help them with math but because they believe he brings everlasting life.
“The Bible is not a source, or even a preamble, to … practical knowledge,” wrote the newspaper’s assistant managing editor recently as part of a stinging attack.
A belief that Scripture is the revealed Word of God “doesn’t make you wise, relieve indigestion or illuminate the debate over Most Favored Nation Status with China,” Whitlock wrote.
Meanwhile, the Bristol Herald Courier editorialized that approval of the experiment made losers of everyone who believes in good government, democracy and quality education.
Bennett finds the critiques “ludicrous.”
“Children are spiritual beings,” she said. “When they’re prevented by the Supreme Court from having that aspect of their life addressed, they’re not being educated.
“So, we are educating the students.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker